I kept my head down and got on with my day. In the evening we would be heading down to Phillip Island for me to see the penguins for the first time. Of course, I was looking forward to that, although for everything to go right, I would need to leave right on time. I still didn’t have a lift to get back to where I was staying with the Roberts. It would have been nice to have a car. I should have driven up to Devonport and taken the ship across so I wouldn’t have to be so reliant. Nonetheless, I’d scored a lift from Nikki and ran out to her car.
“Thank you so much for driving me,” I gushed as I got into the passenger seat.
“Not a problem, Jumilah, you’re on my way.”
We arrived at the sanctuary before too long. Our first destination, as usual, was the wildlife hospital, where everything seemed pretty calm. Nikki checked over the patients who had stayed the night.
“Well, I don’t have anything for you to do at the moment. I’m sorry about that, Jumilah. If you want to go for a stroll, I can call you if we get some action later on today, if that suits.”
“Alright, that would be great, thanks.”
Nikki got back to work. As I stepped out of the wildlife hospital, I could hear a motorbike. Thankfully, it didn’t backfire, although I found myself on edge, constantly wondering what might be about to happen. I walked through the sanctuary, finding somewhere I could spend the day. Koalas ended up being just the balm. The koala complex at Healesville is massive. It houses some animals rescued from the wild and being rehabilitated, plus the non-display breeding animals in a separate section. I tried to be as quiet as possible as I wandered around, sweeping up the yards underneath the trees.
“Oh, thank you.”
I looked up, a little startled.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you. Did Nikki ask you to clean up?”
“No,” I told Margie. “She didn’t have anything for me to do. I just thought that it might be useful.”
“Well, thank you,” she responded. “Just make sure that you log it on the whiteboard, what you’ve done.”
Margie carried on with her day. I eventually returned to the wildlife hospital. It wasn’t that I felt unwanted, but I did wonder why Nikki hadn’t gotten in touch with me.
“Oh, hello, Jumilah,” Nikki greeted me. “Sorry that I haven’t called.”
“It’s just been a fairly routine morning.”
“That’s fair enough.”
“I’m about to head out into the sanctuary, though. You can come with me if you’d like.”
“Thanks, that’d be great.”
Our first stop was the tree kangaroo exhibit. Ori’s right hand joined her face out of the pouch, but the rest of her body remained snugly inside. Just as well, considering the weather. It had come over cloudy and bitterly cold, so I buried my hands into the pockets of my jacket, grateful for the dark green Zoos Victoria polar fleece.
“When do you think she’ll be able to come out of the pouch?”
“Hopefully within the next few weeks.” Nikki beamed. “I’m pretty sure it’ll be within your time. They’re absolutely gorgeous, and especially once they’re out of the pouch.”
We continued around the loop of the sanctuary.
“Jo, it’s so good to see you. It’s good to see you for a happy occasion, at least, I hope.”
The woman, wearing a baby in a carrier on her chest, beamed.
“Jumilah, Jo is currently on maternity leave. This is Jumilah Fioray, she’s here on work experience.”
“Good to meet you, Jumilah.”
“Nikki to echidnas, at the rush.”
“I’ve got to go,” she told us.
“Jumilah can stay with me if that’s helpful,” Jo offered.
Nikki rushed off before I really had the chance to choose.
“I can’t get my hands too dirty with this little one, but I’m a bird keeper. If I’m going around to the aviaries, does that fit with your day?”
“Sure. You’ve probably got a better sense of where everything is than I do.”
Jo, therefore, led me through the sanctuary.
“Oh, this is baby Grace, by the way,” she introduced.
She responded with adorable baby noises. I pondered asking Patrick for another photo of Joanna. Was that really a good idea? I couldn’t be sure.
“Are you a local?”
“No, I’m from Tasmania, actually. My parents and I are in the process of constructing a small zoo on our property, on the outskirts of Hobart.”
“Oh, that’s who you are.” Jo blushed. “I’m so sorry, I’ve been in the baby bubble. I have heard about you. I’ve heard that your grandparents are wildlife warriors, they ran a sanctuary, your grandfather died. Still, I’d like to hear it, in your own words, if you would like to tell me, of course. What’s brought you to Healesville, ultimately?”
This felt a little like a therapy session, but I didn’t mind.
“A bit happened back home.” I felt safe in Jo’s presence, allowing me to open up. “I’m not running, if that’s what you’re wondering. My parents went to uni with Reuben Hendricks and the work experience is a wonderful opportunity.”
“My mother-in-law passed away recently from motor neuron disease,” Jo explained. “That’s what Nikki was talking about before, the funeral was a couple of weeks ago.”
“I’m really sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you.” Jo looked away. “I want to show you something.”
We stood and she led me over to the honeyeater aviary, where the three of us went back-of-house. Kakek would have loved a place like this, I figured. It would have been beautiful to be able to ask him, just to check. Whilst I feared my eyes would mist up, I listened to Jo, explaining her work. She’s dedicated to her birds, and I felt inspired to have met her and worked with her briefly.
“That’s what they don’t tell you about working with critically endangered animals,” Jo outlined. “It’s lifegiving, but it’s terrifying. You feel like you’re holding the world in your hands.”
She looked down at the baby. Grace curled her tiny hand around her mother’s finger.
“It’s quite like being a parent, actually. All the love in the world still isn’t enough.”
I couldn’t help but think of my own mother.
“This little girl has been the light of our lives. Her name is Grace Deborah Moretti.”
Jo looked at me.
“We named her after Chris’ mother, Deborah.”
Jo glanced towards her watch, while Grace started to grizzle.
“I think that we might have to head for home soon, I’m sorry,” she acknowledged. “It was great to meet you, Jumilah.”
“Yeah, good to meet you too.”
Jo left with baby Grace. I entered the aviary and fed the birds. The helmeted honeyeaters dipped their beaks into the bright blue container of nectar. I thought that I could hear rain faintly against the roof, but it was sunny again by the time I departed. Nikki had agreed to give me a lift back to the Roberts’ family farm. She even drove around to the sheds so that I could just get into the passenger seat and we would be on our way.
“Thank you so much for this,” I gushed.
“It’s not a worry, I’m happy to help.”
After the relatively short trip, we pulled down the Roberts’ road.
“Why do you think the New Guinea programs failed the first time?”
“Mostly, the animals got old and they died,” Nikki answered, as I noticed a swirl of smoke in the distance, “but it was a little more complicated than that.”
“The reptile park shifted their focus. They went through a few problems which meant they didn’t have the resources to maintain so many non-reptile programs.”
I noticed grey plumes on the horizon.
“What do you think that smoke is, out there?”
“I’m not sure. Sometimes people burn off at this time of year.”
“Yeah, of course,” I replied, although I was still a little concerned.
Nikki dropped me off to the Roberts’ farm, allowing us to get ready to go to Phillip Island. When we got into the car, I noticed a missed call from Reuben.
“Do you mind if I make a phone call?” I asked.
“Of course, you can,” Mrs Roberts assured me.
I called Reuben.
“What have you been up to?” I enquired.
“I’ve been doing some strategic planning for the zoo, working with the others and the various heads of departments across Melbourne Zoo.”
“Oh, I wish I was there.”
“Don’t,” Reuben promised. “I haven’t exactly been swanning around the zoo. I’ve been dealing with the elephant TAG, too. We’ve bumped up to weekly meetings while we deal with the Monarto thing.”
“Is it a thing now?”
“Everything’s a thing if I have to deal with it.”
I didn’t really want to speak to Reuben in a huff, but he took a breath and calmed down.
“They’ve identified four elephants from Kruger National Park. Blessing’s given them names and everything. Monarto Safari Park will import from Africa.”
“Right. It seems like it’s full-steam ahead.”
Reuben made a huff-like sound, which I interpreted as agreement. He must have been involved in so many events and meetings which I wasn’t privy to, as well as those I was told about.
“Anything else of interest?”
“Oh, we’ve had protestors at the zoo today.”
“Seems like I’ve missed out on all the fun.”
“Don’t be too jealous, it’s not like it’s all fun and games having people hate you.”
“Tell me about it. Was there a particular reason why they were protesting?”
“Just the usual. They don’t like animals in captivity. It’s sort of a crucial difference of viewpoints.”
“Tell me about it.”
“Oh, I’ve been meaning to ask you. There’s a place in Richmond, isn’t there, which has ex-circus lions?”
“Yeah, I know.”
“Have you been in touch with them at all?”
“Yes, I’ve spoken with Steve. He’s been really lovely, which is great, because he could have seen what we’re trying to do as a threat, but he’s been generous, which I appreciate.”
“Oh, good, that’s good that you’re working together.”
We ended the call.
“Sorry about that.”
“No problem at all,” Mrs Roberts assured.
I tucked my phone back into my bag. As we drove over the bridge to Phillip Island, the wide expanse of water beneath us reminded me of home. A smile came onto my lips, the Go-Betweens blaring from the car stereo.
Abbey Sim is the founder of Huldah Media. She is a creative writing, law and theology student who lives on the lands of the Dharug people in Sydney, Australia. Abbey has long had a passion for the weird and the wonderful of stories, sport and zoo animals. 'From the Wild' is her first anthology.