Updated: Nov 12, 2022
There were labourers coming in to help with the reconstruction of the boardwalk which had been damaged by the fire.
“That seems like a little of a novel concept to me,” I admitted, while Reuben and I were preparing breakfast this morning. “We’ve built everything ourselves.”
Reuben sipped from his coffee.
“What is your plan for this morning?” he wanted to know.
“Well, you tell me.”
“You could always go to Treetop Monkeys and Apes and help out, considering you’re a master builder.”
Despite his deadpan tone, Reuben soon smiled to confirm he was kidding.
“Well, you’ve been in primates already--.”
“But I love primates.”
“I’m sure that Vel would take you in the reptile house for the day.”
“Is now a bad time to tell you I’m afraid of snakes?”
Reuben looked at me, a little uncertain. I wondered if he was waiting for the penny to drop, for me to say that I was only kidding, and I considered doing so just to keep him comfortable.
“It’s alright. Go to primates. I’m sure Ella and Lina could use the hand.”
We left the house. Reuben and I walked off in separate directions. Only after I was out in the zoo, I thought that I would have liked to call Mum and Dad. That could wait until the evening. Eventually, I tracked down Lina.
“Hello,” I greeted her. “I’m with you for today.”
“Good, I can put you to work.”
We started off at the gorillas, cleaning the rainforest exhibit while the females were still in their night dens.
“How have the females been coping since the males went to Werribee?”
“Oh, they’ve been fine,” Lina assured with a smile. “They’ve been just fine.”
“Sorry I’m late.”
“Did Werribee’s newest primate keeper not let you get out of bed this morning?”
I kept my head down, not wanting to say anything.
“No, uh--,” Ella stammered.
We exited the exhibit, ensuring the doors were locked behind us.
“I’m worried about Nyani.” Ella made a note on the whiteboard, then glanced over her shoulder at us. “She seems to have been unwell for a little while, don’t you reckon?”
“Yes.” Lina sounded a little distracted, as she checked the records. “She’s been off her food on occasion, I can see here.”
“What do you think about pregnancy?”
“She isn’t pregnant.”
“Maybe she could be.”
“We haven’t observed a mating, and it would have to be an immaculate conception now.”
Ella tried not to glare; I tried not to look.
“I think that we can rule out the immaculate conception,” I eventually remarked.
Now both Lina and Ella could shoot their gaze towards me.
“I do know that it’s not just pregnancy we have to be worried about,” Ella eventually pointed out.
“Look, we’ll make sure that we keep observing her. If you’re really worried, organise a blood test with Meredith.”
Lina made haste, so that she could get to a meeting with the other senior keepers. I waited until she was gone. Last thing I wanted to do was seem like I was taking sides between the boss and another keeper, closer in age to me.
“What would you do if Nyani is pregnant?” I wanted to know. “She would have had to have mated with her father.”
“It wouldn’t be ideal, but we’d make it work.”
“Is there a plan to replace Alex on the primate team?”
“Yeah, we’ll have to, but that’s not my call,” Ella explained. “It’s nice to have you around for the meantime, you are a big help.”
We left the gorilla back-of-house area, then slipped out onto the Main Drive. There we encountered Reuben, although he seemed to be too busy to stop for a chat.
“Going alright, Jumilah?” he checked, in transit.
“Yes, I’m fine. What are you up to?”
“I’ve got to meet one of our ex-ungulate keepers. He’s seeing Twiga.”
“Right, I hope that goes alright.”
A short, blonde female zookeeper came walking in the other direction.
“What’s that about ungulates?”
“Oh, Brett’s coming in, to see Twiga,” Reuben explained. “I’ll keep you updated, don’t worry.”
“Do you mind if I come over, in about fifteen minutes?”
“Yeah, sure,” Reuben agreed, after a bit.
“I hope it goes alright,” I told them.
Once Ella and I continued on our way, we soon reached the baboon exhibit. A female, with a baby on her back, came down close to the front of the enclosure.
“This is our most recent baby, he wasn’t exactly planned.”
“Right,” I responded. “Does that happen often?”
“With baboons, it does,” she answered, “but I don’t actually think Nyani’s pregnant. It’s just one of the possibilities.”
“You’re worried about her, aren’t you?”
“Well, yeah, of course I am. Nyani was the last gorilla birth here. Growing up in Melbourne, gorilla births are an institution.”
I nodded my head, thinking of Nanek and Kakek’s animals, and how I feel about Medan, Georgia and baby Jelita.
“But, we’ve got work to do.”
Therefore, I followed Ella back-of-house at the baboon exhibit. We checked the whiteboards and collected a bucket of food for a scatter feed, as morning enrichment for the troop within their exhibit. As we stepped back out, I felt the sunshine against my face.
“I was just wondering--,” Ella trailed off.
“Were you wondering about what Lina said about Alex and I this morning?”
“Well, that wasn’t what I was going to say, but--.”
“I don’t know if there’s something going on. Well, there is something, but with him going to Werribee--.”
“You’re just not quite sure.”
Ella nodded her head firmly.
“That’s exactly right, I’m just now quite sure.”
Reuben had the ungulate TAG meeting, and I would have loved to pop back to the cottage and join in. I hadn’t been invited, though, and I had other work to do. Once we were finished with the baboons, Ella and I cut back through the zoo. We arrived at the orangutan sanctuary, housing both the three orangutans and the family of siamangs.
“Siamangs are an omnivorous species, as you’d know, even though they mostly eat plants.”
“My grandparents would mostly feed them fruit and leaves.”
Ella nodded her head. A smile came onto my lips. From somewhere else in the zoo, I could hear an alarm, but thankfully it didn’t last long. We walked along the wooden boardwalk; ropes strung across the meshed enclosure. I noticed a male siamang in the hammock. The breeding pair are housed alongside the orangutans, with their four-year-old female offspring, while the two older males are by the Japanese gardens.
“Can I ask you something?”
“Why are the young males separated from the family group? Is it to prevent inbreeding?”
“No, not specifically,” Ella answered. “They make too much trouble, especially with the orangutans. That’s why Lina made the decision to give them their own exhibit space.”
“Are you back with us tomorrow?”
“No, I’m at the vet hospital.”
“Ah, right. You’ll learn a lot there.”
We fed the siamangs and the orangutans, then Ella and I cut through Trail of the Elephants. The zoo’s other Asian primates, the white-cheeked gibbons, are over at Treetop Monkeys and Apes.
“You know, I had a boyfriend, back in Tasmania,” I divulged.
A shadow seemed to come over Ella’s expression, a cloud shifting in front of the sun.
“Yeah,” I confirmed. “I broke up with him. That was just before I came here.”
Telling Ella this didn’t seem to make her feel any better, and soon after it was time for our break. I decided to head back to Reuben’s cottage for lunch, soaking up the atmosphere of the zoo. There were indeed labourers hard at work when I passed Treetop Monkeys and Apes. I approached them with a sunny smile.
“Good morning,” I replied. “Is there anything I can do to help you out?”
“Thanks, but we’re paid to be here. I’m sure that you’ve got your own work to do.”
“Are there monkeys here?”
I spun around at the sound of a little boy’s voice behind me.
“They’re here, but they’re not out on display today.”
He looked disappointed.
“I’ll tell you, though, if you head back around there, you might be able to see a gorilla.”
The little boy’s eyes bulged. His family seemed satisfied with that outcome. They walked away towards the gorilla exhibit.
“Come with me.”
All of a sudden, Reuben was there. I followed him. We ended up at the orangutan exhibit, where Reuben let us through behind the scenes. We moved down to a mesh window. I would have asked questions, but my tight chest prevented me.
“Oh, they’re clever cookies.” Reuben peered up into the day room, which had been pulled apart again. “So clever cookies.”
Luna came over to us, albeit moving gingerly.
“It’s alright,” Ella assured.
Luna had been trained for hand injection, I was informed.
“Reuben, what are we going to do with the other orang-utans?”
“Jumilah, we’ll lure them away with food.”
Ella and I moved back out to the boardwalk. We tossed food over the moat. Luckily, I’d perfected my throwing arm, even though I felt a little shaky with nerves, uncertain if the plan would work. Finally, Indah and Menyaru moved away. Ella performed the hand injection.
“Good girl,” she praised, albeit without feeling, then we waited.
Once Luna was unconscious, we were able to enter. Meredith intubated her, to allow a steadier dose of anaesthetic. I watched the orangutan’s chest rise and fall, her breathing monitored on the machines. The other orangutans, Indah and Menyaru, were watching through the mesh, concern on their faces. I wished that they didn’t have to watch this.
“You’re not squeamish at the sight of blood, are you?”
Meredith drew out a sample from a needle pressed into the vein.
“Really? That’s all it was?”
“Yes,” Reuben confirmed.
“I’ll give her a blood test. Now, we’ll conduct an ultrasound.”
Meredith squirted gel onto Luna’s abdomen.
As she moved the probe around, the sound of the heartbeat echoed through the dayroom.
Reuben raised a gloved hand to his mask. Nobody wanted to catch each other’s eye. I didn’t dare say a word, even though questions throbbed within my mind – the sight of the foetus unmistakable.
“Alright, that’s all we need to see,” Reuben declared. “Let’s bring her around.”
Meredith wiped the gel off Luna’s belly. She applied the reversal drugs. Reuben and I slipped out of the dayroom, followed by Lina and Ella. Meredith was the last to come, locking the door behind her. Thankfully, we didn’t have to observe for long before the anaesthetic wore off.
“What do we do now?”
I stalked after Reuben. He was heading home, the gate banging shut behind us.
“What do we do now?”
“You keep saying that.”
I followed Reuben into the house.
“Jumilah, if they start asking questions--.”
“They’re not going to start asking questions. This is going to be handle with utmost discretion. You stay here, answer the phone if it rings--.”
“You can’t expect me to handle this.”
“So when you’ve got your menagerie down in Tassie, and you’ve got to make a tough call--.”
I gasped, and Reuben stopped. The faltering of his expression indicated he’d realised he’d crossed a line.
“Look, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have put it that way.”
My phone rang, which put any further opportunities for Reuben and I to argue on pause.
“Hello, Jumilah Fioray speaking.”
I opened the screen door and stepped out onto the veranda, so that I could get a bit of fresh air while on the phone.
“Hey, Isobel,” I greeted her.
Reuben stormed past me, down the path and out the gate.
“I’m sorry, I’ve had quite the day, with the orangutans--.”
“Because Luna’s pregnant?”
“Yeah,” I agreed, sounding in over my head. “That’s been a shock and a half.”
“So, it’s true?”
I suspected from her tone of voice that Isobel had thought she’d only heard a rumour.
“Yes, indeed,” I confirmed. “Unfortunately.”
“What are they going to do?”
“I don’t think that anyone has made that decision yet. Wait, how do you know already?”
“I’m a primate keeper, I know everything,” Isobel quipped. “Actually, Lina filled us all in.”
“I’m sure that Reuben loves that, if he knows.”
“Well, Reuben’s the TAG representative, but there are multiple studbook keepers,” she reminded. “Lina is a very experience primate keeper.”
“Of course, she is.”
I closed my eyes for a moment, then opened them again. Reuben returned, seemingly having calmed down a little bit. He walked past me without saying a word. Reuben entered the house again behind me.
“What do you think is going to happen?” Isobel wanted to know.
“Do you really think that they’d terminate the pregnancy?” I asked.
“I wouldn’t have thought so, but maybe.”
“It would be ages since the last hybrid orangutan was born in Australia--.”
“Luna was the last, actually.”
“Right, I did know that.”
“I can’t help but feel kind of jealous,” Isobel confessed, with an anxious laugh. “We tried so hard to even get Merah pregnant, and then when she did, the baby was stillborn. It doesn’t seem fair.”
“It’s so unfortunate.”
“I’d better let you go.”
We ended the call. I breathed out. When I came back inside, the rumbling thunder seemed to shake the house. I made sure to lock the door behind me, then headed to my bedroom. After chucking my phone onto the bed, I lay down.
“Would you like some dinner?” Reuben offered from the doorway.
“Yes, that would be lovely, thank you.”
I went to get up, but Reuben materialised two plates of food.
“It’s a dinner in bed sort of day.”
He walked into my room. Reuben sat down on the edge of the bed, near its foot, my legs comfortably out of the way under the covers. He handed me over my dinner, which I accepted with thanks, and for a few minutes we ate in silence, steam rising into our faces. I could hear the rain on the roof still, beating down.
“You know, today, is ten years since Tsavo escaped, since he died, since he was killed.”
Reuben stabbed the last of his food with his chopsticks and scooped the noodles up into his mouth.
“We don’t mention that bit when we display his skull at Werribee. I still remember where I was.”
“That was the second worst day of my life.”
I took Reuben’s hand and squeezed it, then let it go.
“Can I ask you, please, what was the worst?”
His shoulders shook and he through his head back.
“I don’t think that we need to talk about that.”
“OK, I’m sorry.”
“Look, no, it was when your mother--.”
Reuben sighed and ran his hand over his hair.
“No, we really don’t need to talk about that.”
“You need to get some sleep.”
He walked towards the door.
I sighed softly.
I lay down in bed, but felt uneasy. My body started to tremble. I snuggled under the covers, in the hope of respite. Eventually, I must have fallen asleep.
The younger sister of missing Sydney man Mitchell del Reyan, Nina del Reyan lives on Dharug land in western Sydney. She has recently commenced a teaching degree at Macquarie University. Nina loves her family and friends and is deeply committed to finding answers and justice for the families of missing people.
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 desires to explore themes of hope, love and longing through her storytelling. She is the author of 'Shadow' and 'From the Wild'.