I awoke early, to the slither of light coming in beside the curtain. Ever so softly I could hear animals outside. I prayed, not with words but through a sense of presence, the warmth around me. I got out of bed and showered, then dressed. Reuben drove me back into the countryside. Returning to the Roberts’ farm, we farewelled each other with a hug. Once Reuben left, I joined the family in their car, to head to the christening. We arrived at the church, parking in a nearby alleyway, under the shade of a jacaranda tree which seemed to be slowly starting to regain its leaves for spring. I thought back to the jacarandas at home. It would have been lovely to build an exhibit around one of them. When the service finished, I stepped out the front, to find Jamila standing leaning against a car, with a small soft toy lion hanging from the rear-vision mirror.
“I wasn’t avoiding church, I promise you.”
“Trust me, I hadn’t even been thinking that you might have been.”
Jamila unlocked her car. I got into the passenger seat, grateful to finally have somewhere to stash my bag.
“Would you like to go home first or to the zoo first?”
“Oh, to the zoo, if that’s alright.”
Jamila flashed me a gleeful grin.
“Of course, it is.”
As I fastened my seatbelt, Jamila pulled away from the kerb. I felt a little tired, even though I was keen for the new adventure.
“How was the christening this morning?”
“It was lovely, thank you.”
I needed a little bit of quiet time. Thankfully, Jamila didn’t pepper me with questions. I needed to save my energy for the rest of the day ahead. When we arrived at Werribee, Jamila drove into the staff carpark, dust swirling under the tyres of the car. She found a spot, then parked. I stepped out of the car, the wind blowing my hair into my face. Already I could smell grass and dung, intoxicated by the wide open spaces. I listened out for animal noises, but it seems much more quiet than I expected the zoo would be. After locking the car, Jamila and I walked to the staff entrance. She scanned both of us through the gate.
“We’ll make sure that you’ve got a card too.”
Inside, we happened upon a man in Werribee uniform, hair wavy and not coping with the wind.
“Jumilah Fioray, this is Whitlam Whittaker. Whitlam Whittaker, this is Jumilah Fioray.”
“Well, Jumilah Fioray, welcome to Werribee Open Range Zoo.”
“It’s a pleasure, thank you for having me.”
The wide open spaces already proved a balm.
“How do you feel about a spin on the savannah?”
“Oh, throwing her into the deep end, I see,” Jamila remarked with a laugh.
“They don’t call this place Werribee Open Range Zoo for nothing,” Whitlam reminded us.
“That sounds cool,” I agreed.
“I’ll leave you to it, I’ve got the serval preso this arvo,” Jamila mentioned.
“See you later,” I farewelled her.
Whitlam waved, then Jamila was off.
“The vehicle shed’s just through here.”
I followed him.
“You live at the house, right, where I’m staying.”
“Yep, that’s the one. I promise you that I don’t snore that loudly.”
“Right, there you go.”
Whitlam handed me the keys to a zebra-striped vehicle.
“You’ve got your licence, haven’t you?”
“Yes,” I confirmed.
“Then you’re driving.”
“Right,” I replied.
I got into the driver’s side.
“How many species do you think are on the Werribee savannah?”
“Well, I know that there are giraffes and zebras and rhinos at least.”
“And ostrich and eland and oryx,” Whitlam supplied.
“Is that six?”
Whitlam fastened his seatbelt.
“You can count. That’s better than a lot of work experience students we get.”
“Well, I’ve been well-trained, or at least I think I have. I’ve already been to Melbourne and Healesville.”
I glanced in the rear-vision mirror.
“You drive just like you drive a car. Put the keys into the ignition, turn them to start the engine.”
I followed Whitlam’s instructions. Of course, I know how to drive, even though I don’t that often. Once I started the ute, I drove towards the gate, where Whitlam hopped out, to let us onto the savannah. He unlocked the gate and opened it, so I drove through, very slowly. Once we were safely on the other side, and the gate locked again, a zebra approached us.
“This is Marnus, our breeding stallion,” Whitlam introduced. “Well, our soon-to-be former breeding stallion.”
He came close to the ute, so I made sure to pause.
“He’s actually having a hoof procedure tomorrow. As animals get older, they need more medical care.”
The giraffes, bachelor bulls, started to approach the ute with curiosity.
“Do you reckon that any of them will receiving breeding placements one day?”
“No, I don’t, personally,” Whitlam answered. “Some of these bulls have been castrated, so they wouldn’t be suitable.”
I pressed down hard on the brake.
“They’re just checking us out.”
Once the giraffe cleared from the road, I kept driving, noticing some of the rhinos up ahead.
“This is the calm before the storm,” Whitlam outlined, “before the Australian Rhino Program gets underway.”
“Are you going to be receiving any rhinos from that group?”
“Yes, we’re expecting to,” Whitlam confirmed. “All of the open-range zoos here will, once they’ve quarantined in New Zealand. It’s only been thirteen years in the making.”
I nodded my head and made my way around towards the exit at the end of the loop. After we emerged from the savannah, Whitlam assured the gate was locked behind us. I considered driving, not quickening even though I could have. Whitlam gestured towards a paddock on the right – nothing fancy, but still spacious enough. We could have been in Africa, if not for the classically Australian line of gumtrees at the rear.
“This is where Marnus will serve his retirement.”
I pressed down further on the brake.
“He’ll move across here with a ladyfriend and see out the rest of his days.”
“And then the new stallion will move into the group on the savannah.”
“That’s correct. He’s coming from France; it’s very exciting. We have made the decision to try to breed purebred Chapman’s Zebras, rather than sourcing an unrelated generic male from within the region. Our females are still pure Chapman’s.”
On the way back to the shed, Whitlam directed me the long way. I felt a little more at ease. Instead of driving through an exhibit, we were just slowly moving along a dirt track, past the animals in paddocks on the other side of the fence.
“Our bison are going to be moving pretty soon,” Whitlam explained. “We’ll go up there later.”
“That’s the first stage of our masterplan.”
I didn’t say I thought it sounded a little boring. That would have been rude of me.
“Where will the elephant complex be built?” I wanted to know.
“Oh, further on still,” Whitlam answered. “You’ll be able to see everything essentially, don’t worry.”
He pointed to the next enclosure.
“This is Primrose, our pregnant hippo,” Whitlam introduced. “She’s very precious, our bull died not long after the conception.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
Primrose came over close to the fence. We stopped the ute completely, albeit leaving the keys in the ignition. I appreciated the silence, without the hum of the engine.
“She’s friendly enough, for a hippo.”
Whitlam waved towards a keeper in the distance, a woman with long hair, probably in her late twenties.
“That’s Zola, she works with me in ungulates.”
“Zola’s absolutely lovely, you’ll get along really well with her.”
I hadn’t really fathomed that there would be a whole new set of faces and names to learn – and I’m not just talking about the animals.
“Alright, let’s go home now.”
Whitlam directed me back towards the shed.
“Well, that was an experience,” I remarked, once the ute was parked.
“You did well,” Whitlam praised.
He opened the door and emerged from the vehicle. I took an extra moment to breathe, then did the same.
“Are you feeling alright?”
“Yeah, I’m fine.”
Whitlam checked his watch.
“It’s getting pretty late. Do you mind just heading back to the house now?”
“Yeah, I’m happy with whatever.”
Therefore, we headed back to the entrance of the zoo, out the front of the gorilla enclosure. The lush grass seemed to gleam in the late afternoon sun, the exhibit reflected upon the surface of the moat.
“Three males were transferred from Melbourne Zoo, as you’d be aware,” a voice commented.
I looked to my right, where a man in Zoos Victoria uniform ambled into place.
“And this is our third resident, Hamish,” Whitlam introduced. “Hamish, this is Jumilah.”
“Pleased to meet you.”
We turned back to observe the gorillas in their exhibit.
“Motaba was the silverback within the Melbourne troop. Ebo and Nnamdi are his sons, and they were both born back in the city.”
“That would male Ebo Essie’s son and Nnamdi Naomi’s son?” I presumed.
“That’s correct, that’s absolutely correct. Nnamdi and Nyani are full siblings.”
From there, the four of us ambled back to the carpark. We left the zoo, in Jamila’s car. I sent quick texts to Reuben and Mum, to update them on my day so far. The sharehouse wouldn’t be far away from the zoo, the address saved in my phone even though it didn’t mean much, not being familiar with the area. I dropped my phone into my bag.
“Did you know that Kwabema is actually a spelling mistake?” Whitlam noted.
I bore a bemused expression, because nobody had mentioned that to me before.
“The actual Ghanian name is Kwabena with an N, which means ‘born on a Tuesday’, which he was. Clearly someone wrote it down wrong, and I don’t think they’re going to change it back now.”
“That’s, like, bad,” I commented. “I didn’t know that.”
We arrived at the house, brick-fronted and two storeys, with a grey wooden fence down the fence. Jamila parked in the driveway. We headed out of the car and inside the house. I followed Jamila, Whitlam and Hamish up the stairs. They led me through a doorway to the right.
“This will be your room.”
I left my suitcase at the foot of the double bed. The others gave me a bit of peace and quiet to get settled in. By the time I returned downstairs, I could smell a delicious hint of spices. We sat down for dinner at the table. I tucked into the food while the conversation quickly returned to matters of the zoo. A faint soundtrack played in the background. It was some sort of classic music, I thought, which Kakek would have loved.
“Monarto’s going to become a new holder of hippos. We desperately need new bloodlines. The population’s highly inbred. There’s only one bull left, at Dubbo. We’re at risk of losing the species within the region if things don’t go our way.”
“Are these the sorts of things you usually discuss over dinner?” I checked.
“Yes, of course they are.”
“Well, you’re my kind of people.”
Once we were finished our food, Whitlam started clearing the table.
“Jumilah, Jamila, we nearly have the same name,” she mentioned. “Am I pronouncing it right?”
“Yeah, yeah, you are,” I confirmed. “Jamila’s a beautiful name, too.”
“Thanks. Dad’s Pakistani,” she explained. “Jamila was also my great-grandmother’s name.”
“Right. My Mum’s from Sumatra, Indonesia, and my father is of Italian heritage, but he was born in Australia. Nonna and Nonno met on the ship, in their late teens.”
“Do you reckon we’ve got time for jigsaw?”
I gave a bemused expression as my answer to the question.
“We’ve just bought a new jigsaw. The last one’s in the garage.”
I was sure I’d get the chance to see it eventually. Hamish retrieved the box containing the jigsaw puzzle and placed it down on the table. Whitlam checked his watch, yawning. He seemed to be like a scruffy country boy, but with just an edge of Melbourne hipster. By contrast, Hamish was every bit the school prefect, the head boy with perfect hair. I made sure to take a deep breath. I surveyed the lid of the box, bearing the image of the puzzle. It seemed to be an assortment of native flowers, a little stylised, rather than a particular scene. At least it produced more vivid colours than an image of yachts bobbing in the water, which seemed to be common for that sort of image.
“What do you think about the idea that new species for Zoos Victoria should all be housed at Werribee, not Melbourne?”
“I think that’s a bit harsh.”
“The thing is, we still have the same pressures at Werribee,” Whitlam outlined, “even though some in the city act like we have infinite room.”
“Once the current masterplan is completely built, there isn’t going to be much space for expansion,” Hamish elaborated.
I felt a twinge in my stomach.
“Is Werribee planning to breed cheetah?”
“It’s not been for want of trying,” Jamila assured me. “Monarto and Dubbo have just pipped us.”
“Broadly, to finish answering your question, yes, Werribee wants to breed cheetah.”
“In the refurbished exhibit?”
Jamila brought up a picture on her phone. I bobbed my head.
“So, think of this vista, it’s just going to slightly pivot.”
Jamila shifted her outstretched hands to illustrate. I nodded. Jamila set down her phone again.
“Some of the cheetah in the region are wild-born rescues from South Africa.”
That reminded me of my grandparents’ sanctuary.
“I mean, personally, I think it’s very noble. It’s a way in which zoos can acquire new animals, as they otherwise would have died.”
In agreement, I told them the story, so that they would hear it from me.
“Anyway, I mean, it’s trauma, it impacts me. I see a psychologist and I take medication. Hopefully, there will be more days which honour my grandfather’s life, rather than focusing just on how he died.”
“Thank you for feeling like you could share that with us, Jumilah,” Whitlam responded, after a moment.
The unfinished jigsaw remained on the table. I headed up to my new bedroom. I flicked through photos on social media, the last remaining Instagram stories from Emmie and Vel’s wedding day. She looked completely beautiful, even in the images from late in the night. Jamila appeared in the doorway to my bedroom, knocking on the frame with one crooked finger.
“Would you like some advice?”
“Yes, I actually would, thanks.”
Jamila gave me instant big-sister energy.
“While you’re here, immerse yourself in this world, in your work.”
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.