First thing this morning on the primate rounds, Lina thrust buckets into my hands and sent me off to a list of exhibits. Heading towards the white-cheeked gibbons, I met Ella at Treetop Monkeys and Apes. Despite its age, the touchups following the recent fire left the exhibits looking a picture. The gibbons squawked until they were fed, then settled down. I briefly brushed the back of my finger against the mesh. The gibbon’s coat was soft against my skin. Eventually, we needed to move on.
“Where are you off to next?” I asked Ella.
“Oh, I’ve got the food for Kwabema.”
“How much can one gorilla eat?” I queried with a grin.
“Well, he’s a silverback, and a pretty mighty one at that. Have you taken a look at him?”
“Yes, I have,” I agreed.
I waddled along the path, bucket in hand.
“Where are you taking that?” Ella wanted to know.
“Lemurs. Lina told me, but I’m pretty sure it was on the board.”
“Would you like to swap?”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah, it’s fine.” Ella handed me her bucket. “I’ll get plenty of opportunities to work with him.”
I gave her back the food for the lemurs.
“Thank you,” I replied, grateful.
“Have you got the access code?”
“Yes, I do,” I agreed, nodding. “If I have any trouble, I’m sure I can bribe my way through with Meredith.”
I checked over my shoulder. The white-cheeked gibbons grooming each other, I could depart the trail, Ella and I heading off in two directions. I arrived at the wildlife hospital and glanced into the examination room. The vet dentist was in there with Meredith and one of the hyaenas, already performing a root canal, which would have been interesting to watch. As I didn’t have time, I continued to the quarantine area. I donned a gown, gloves and a mask, undeterred by the commotion I could hear elsewhere in the building. Overnight, Kwabema had been closed into one side of his area. Moving into the other side, the vet hospital beyond finally went quiet again, which I took to be a good sign. I placed down the bucket of food. Looking over my shoulder, the hyaena was escorted back out of the vet hospital. They were moving with too much haste for anything to be amiss. I hoisted up the food, to give Kwabema some enrichment. There isn’t much that he’s able to do in quarantine. Unfortunately, it’s still another three weeks before Kwabema will be able to be moved to the rainforest exhibit. From there, introductions to the girls will get underway, slow and steady to start off with, before he’ll be able to live with them full-time. I gave the basket a bit of a tug, albeit gingerly. It seemed to be held securely enough, to offer a bit of a challenge. With that, I exited the area. As I locked the door again behind me, Kwabema started beating at the wall.
“It’s alright, it’s alright.”
I raised the slide and Kwabema burst through. He plucked the food from where I’d strung it up, with ease. Taking his sweet potato, Kwabema sauntered off to sit underneath the platform. He seemed like a silverback assured of himself. The gorilla was fed and happy; that’s the main thing. Better a confident animal than a wimp discontent in his own surroundings, I figured. I smiled, grateful for a job well done. After feeding Kwabema, I walked over to Wild Sea. Ground wet underfoot, there was a smattering of white, fluffy cloud in the sky, but still plenty of patches of blue. I arrived at the mesh gate which normally I’d slip through to enter. As I punched in the access code on the panel, I hesitated.
“Isaac, we work together. You have to come into Wild Sea for the penguins, I’m here all day with marine mammals. The least that you could do is small talk.”
I recognised the voice as Beth’s. Isaac tried to speak up, but he couldn’t get a word in.
“Don’t even say anything. We’ll just work. That’s what you want, isn’t it, with me, anyway.”
Okie dokie, I’ll find somewhere else in the zoo – not getting into the middle of that one. Fists balled in the pockets of my jacket, I strode back out to the main drive. I came across Monica, on her way to the carnivore trail to feed the snow leopards and let them out into their exhibit for the morning.
“Come with me, I want to brief you about the hyaena this morning.”
“We did the root canal. There was a little bit of a drama with his heartrate towards the end, but that stabilised. If you notice any erratic or sluggish behaviour, just make sure you note it down.”
“Of course,” I agreed, clasping my hands behind my body as the snow leopards strode out.
“They’ve had an eventful time of things so far here, that’s for sure.” Monica turned to me. “How much longer will you be with us for?”
“Actually, just until Monday,” I answered. “Then, I’m going to Healesville.”
“Sounds like you’ve got everything all sorted out.”
“This is my version of backpacking, I suppose,” I remarked, with a shrug of my shoulders. “Do you reckon it beats Thailand or Italy?”
“On the good days it does, no doubt,” Monica assured, “but I worked over in the UK in zoos for my backpacking experience, so I couldn’t beat that.”
“Nice,” I praised.
“Have you thought of doing that?”
“Straight after high school, I went to Sumatra. I’d love to go back, at some stage.”
“Have you been before?”
“Mum grew up in Sumatra. My grandmother still lives there.”
Monica touched one hand to her mouth.
“Your grandfather was the one who was killed at the sanctuary.”
“Yeah, the one and only Michael Sitompul.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t, I hadn’t made the connection.”
“That does explain quite a lot about you, having that family connection to animal care.”
We exited the back-of-house area for the snow leopards, making sure to lock the gates again behind us. I followed Monica the rest of the way around the carnivore area. After that, we checked in on Indra in the Sumatran Tiger exhibit, feeding her and letting her out into the on-display enclosure for the day. Monica and I paused out the front, to watch her eat.
“She seems to have made a full recovery.”
Isaac passed by behind us, not stopping for a chat. I waved, although he was out of sight rather quickly, possibly heading up to GFA.
“He’s a nice guy,” Monica remarked. “There seems to be a bit of a barrier, though, between the bird team and the mammal teams.”
With Indra settled, we started walking off.
“There was one exception, though, Isaac and Ara, a few years ago, before a Canberra trip.”
“Oh, I’d heard Isaac and Beth,” I blurted out.
“I’m sorry, Jumilah, last thing I’d want to do is gossip.”
We crossed paths with Violet.
“Oh, Monica, Jumilah, what are you up to?”
“We’ve just finished our morning rounds.”
“Would it be alright if I borrowed Jumilah?”
“Of course, if you’d like to,” Monica permitted, glancing between the both of us.
“That’d be fine with me.”
Therefore, I walked off with Violet, Monica heading in the other direction.
“Melita’s our first stop, our female Malayan Tapir.”
“And the only tapir.”
Violet and I arrived at her exhibit. Melita had already been let out from her night dens. We let ourselves through into the yard. While Violet cleaned up, I gave Melita scratches, in her favourite spots.
“Jumilah will become your favourite girl, won’t she?”
Violet chuckled and rested the rake against the fence.
“Have you ever seen a Malayan Tapir in the wild?”
“No, I haven’t,” I answered. “Have you?”
Violet shook her head.
“I’d love to, though.”
I wondered if Nanek ever had. The wild range of the Malayan Tapir includes the south of Sumatra; I’m not sure if there are any in the forest near the sanctuary. I’ll have to ask next time. We departed the Malayan Tapir exhibit. Violet ensured that the gates were locked behind us. We walked back to the Main Drive.
“How many species are you in charge of?”
“Five species at the moment,” Violet answered. “Giraffe, zebra, tapir, hippo and peccary. Malayan Tapir’s the only one of those species that can be imported, and they’re being phased out because of the eye problems, as I’m sure you’re aware.”
“So, the rest are in real trouble.”
“We’re not as impacted as the open-range zoos when it comes to the ungulate bans. My personal opinion is that it would be great if we could breed Brazilian Tapir here again, because we can actually import them.”
“Can’t argue with you there.”
“And, we can import bongo again,” Violet outlined. “Once they first loosened the ban, they had to come via New Zealand, but now there’s a bovid IRA. They can come direct from select countries, but, of course, we’ve already given away their exhibit space.”
She went quiet for a moment, keeping her eyes on the path in front of us.
“You know, a quiet word to Reuben about this, it wouldn’t go astray.”
I nodded my head.
“I’ll see what I can do,” I vowed.
To be perfectly honest, I felt a little compromised. Violet and I veered to the right, towards the African rainforest area. Bongo would have fitted in perfectly. I knew that our destination must have been the pygmy hippo exhibit, the only one of the five within this quadrant of the zoo. Sure enough, Violet led me past the gorillas, as I’d expected.
“Taronga holds the pygmy hippo studbook, so they get the females and the breeding recommendations.”
I sensed from Violet’s tone of voice that she wasn’t particularly impressed by that, but I didn’t want to be making imputations of favouritism. Finally, we arrived at the pygmy hippo exhibit.
“So, now, we just have Washi.”
The two of us slipped back-of-house, in order to feed the pygmy hippo. Washington approached the grate, as Violet threw pellets through the bars. He ate quickly, then opened his mouth for more. Grinning, Violet obliged, until there was no food remaining.
“He’s always been a guts.”
“Was Washington bred at Melbourne Zoo?”
“No, he wasn’t born here.”
“Did he come from Washington?” I asked, with a smile even though I was genuinely curious.
“Yes, he did, as a matter of fact,” Violet answered, “but we didn’t import him. He was imported along with his brother, who is now at Taronga, to a place in Cairns, which isn’t open anymore.”
I nodded my head. While Washington ate, Violet switched on the hose. She cleaned the concrete with water which ran down the slope. Washington meandered over.
“Hey, there, Washi boy,” Violet greeted him with a grin.
I could feel my own feet, heavy against the concrete. Violet eventually switched off the hose.
“I wanted you to come with me today because I think it’s important that you get a well-rounded education.”
“I’d agree, thank you.”
I swallowed, observing what I could. Violet and I walked back out to the public viewing area, to watch Washington. Beside his area is an empty enclosure. Were Melbourne to receive that female pygmy hippo Violet desired, I gathered that she would be housed there – albeit that’s a big if. At the moment, it’s a little overgrown.
“I’m really going to miss this guy.”
“Oh, is he going to another zoo?”
Violet glanced at me, like I’d missed a joke, a hint of pinkness finally creeping into her cheeks.
“No, I’m the one who’s leaving. I’m going to Africa.”
“Oh, wow,” I gushed. “That’s so exciting. I’m sorry, I didn’t know.”
“That’s alright, I haven’t advertised it. I haven’t even given notice.”
Violet breathed out through her nose.
“I’m going over there to help out with an AI program for bongos, to boost the wild population’s genetics.”
“Is there anything else that you’d like me to do?” I offered.
“No, it’s fine,” Violet assured. “Maybe if you tracked down Ara, she might need something, but I don’t think so.”
I wandered off from Violet and went for a walk-through Treetop Monkeys and Apes, in order to clear my head for a little bit, settling the swirl of gossip. On the boardwalk, I paused outside the cotton-top tamarin exhibit, containing the group from Adelaide. It gnawed at me that I should have gone and tracked down Ara. At the very least, I could have radioed her. Instead, I rose one hand to my mouth as I shifted along the boardwalk, to the squirrel monkey exhibit. Jazz clung to the mesh at the front of the exhibit. I noticed a hint of blood between her thighs, so I anxiously contacted Meredith. She came down to the exhibit.
“I’d like to take her up to the vet hospital.”
Meredith called Ella and Lina over the radio. Once they arrived at the exhibit, to perform a hand injection, I departed with Meredith.
“This isn’t ideal, is it?”
“It’s not,” Meredith confirmed.
Arriving at the vet hospital, I assisted her in preparing for whatever procedure we would need to perform. Reuben turned up, which only made me bite harder on my lip. Ella and Lina brought Jazz in. Meredith got her hooked up to the gas without anything of a fight. I found myself chewing on the end of an empty syringe, which I then tossed out. Meredith applied gel to Jazz’s belly. She performed an ultrasound.
“I can see that the baby is already in the birth canal there.”
Meredith pointed towards the screen, where I could make out the shape of the skull. She handed over the ultrasound probe to one of the other vets.
“Could I please have the doppler?”
I handed it over. Meredith applied it to Jazz’s abdomen. I thought about the day that baby Joey was born, and fiddled with Kakek’s cross. It would have been nice to talk to Patrick. Finally, the baby’s heartbeat echoed through the room, albeit it was slow. I crossed myself with gratitude.
“The foetus is stuck in the birth canal.”
Meredith performed a C-section to deliver the baby. He seemed blue. Meredith wrapped him in a towel and performed massage on his chest.
“We’ve got breath. Yeah, there’s the heartbeat.”
I finally breathed out myself. Confirming the baby to be healthy, he was given his injections, all the while placed on his mother. Meredith sewed her back up swiftly, then applied the reversal drugs. Keeping mother and baby together, if possible, would be the best outcome. We could only watch, wait and pray. My skin felt clammy. Jazz and the baby were returned to their exhibit, although kept away from the other squirrel monkeys. I returned to the vet hospital with Meredith, where we cleaned up after the C-section. While I felt a little queasy, I was pleased that the baby had been born safely. After departing the hospital, I ran into Emmie. She carried buckets hanging off her arms, filled with food for the animals.
“Hi, Jumilah,” she greeted me. “I’m about to go on afternoon rounds, would you like to come with me?”
“Sure, that’d be great,” I agreed.
The sun came out as we reached the meerkats near the main entrance. Emmie and I entered their exhibit, rakes in hand in order to tidy it up a little bit for the end of the day. All of a sudden we had meerkats at our feet, scrambling all over our boots and our equipment. I giggled, standing still.
“You get used to it eventually,” Emmie assured me.
I went to continue working, but kept stopping.
“Would you like me to move them into the off-display area?” Emmie offered, twisting around to look at me.
“No, it’s fine,” I assured, and we eventually completed our tasks at the meerkat exhibit.
Our final stop was the red panda exhibit. It’s in a pretty secluded area of the zoo, near the Japanese garden. Emmie and I fed the pandas, putting them away for the night into their dens. With that achieved, we started walking back towards the Main Drive, pleased with a job well done. Melbourne Zoo holds two red pandas, a male and a female. I think Renu has bred in the past, but she’d be too old now.
“Have I mentioned my hens night to you tomorrow night?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
The information rang a bell. I found myself fiddling with my hair.
“You’re invited, of course. We’re meeting at the tram stop at six, after work, to head into the city. It’s just casual, nothing too out there.”
We happened upon Lina.
“Did you feed Kwabema by yourself this morning?”
“Yeah, I did, Ella and I swapped and she went to the lemurs with my bucket. Is that bad? Should I not have done that?”
“No, it’s fine, just don’t do it again. We’re meant to have two people with the silverbacks.”
“Alright, roger that, that’s fair enough.”
I didn’t say anything about the fact that Ella was probably going to do the same thing. When I returned home, Reuben had just finished in the elephant TAG meeting. He shut down his computer, then got up and wandered into the kitchen.
“Tonight, tonight is a night for drinking,” Reuben declared, opening the fridge.
“What, as opposed to every other night?” I quipped.
“If you misbehave, you don’t get any.”
“Alright, I’ll be on my best behaviour, then.”
Reuben fetched a four-pack of cider out of the fridge, ripping the cardboard open to hand me a bottle.
“It turns out that Monarto wants to import African Elephants from Africa.”
“That’s why there was so much urgency for the meeting, apparently.”
“Look, I’ve heard bits and pieces about overpopulation in Kruger National Park. Importing a bulk group, like Dubbo did with the rhinos, could sustain a population for generations.”
“They could,” Reuben conceded, “but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. “It’s not even currently approved. They would need to amend the Live Import List or have third-country quarantine.”
“Personally, I would back Blessing. If he thinks it’s a good idea, then I would trust him, but I wasn’t in the meeting, so I can’t tell you how to feel.”
“Anyway, tell me what you found out about today.”
“Well,” I said, “I took Monica’s advice.”
Reuben tilted his head to the side, listening.
“How did that go?”
“I tried to go to Wild Sea. Well, I mean, I tried to get to know the other keepers a bit more throughout the day.”
“What happened at Wild Sea?”
I didn’t really want to answer in the circumstances.
“Beth was preoccupied, having an argument with Isaac.”
“Right, there you go.”
“And then Violet, she’s one of the ungulate keepers, she’s happily married, well she was, until she read about this AI program for wild bongos.”
Something shifted within Reuben’s expression, as he titled his head a little, then placed his cider bottle down on the coffee table in front of us.
“Now, Violet’s decided that she’s going to move to Africa, but her husband’s a schoolteacher and he doesn’t want to go, he’s happy here with his class,” I explained, “but Violet’s out the door. She’s giving her notice tomorrow. They’ve decided to separate.”
“Tell me about this wild bongo AI program.”
“Reuben, did you hear what I said? They’re breaking up.”
“I know, and that’s sad for them, but it’s really none of my business. How did Violet find out about this program? I mean, she can do whatever she wants, but I would love to bring it up with the ungulate TAG.”
“I’m not sure, she didn’t mention that bit.”
I swallowed. The usefulness of my gossip left a lot to be desired.
“I could find that out, though,” I offered, “or at least I could try.”
“I’d really appreciate that.”
“And I’ve been invited to Emmie’s hens night tomorrow night,” I pointed out, “if you don’t mind if I go.”
“Of course, you can go, I’m not your father.”
Initially, I thought there was resentment in Reuben’s voice. Then, he smiled, and I felt so relieved.
“I hope you have a wonderful night.”
“Thank you,” I responded. “Are you going to Vel’s bucks night?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Probably not.”
I nodded my head, feeling a little bit embarrassed that I’d asked in the first place. Without saying anything, I got up from the lounge. As I passed Reuben’s laptop, it dinged.
“Can you check that, please?”
I looked at his emails, an unread message having popped up from Meredith.
“Meredith is off next Friday for a family wedding.”
I couldn’t help myself. Further down in Reuben’s inbox, I noticed the invitations for Emmie and Vel’s wedding events, and checked them accordingly.
“No, you are invited,” I confirmed. “It’s in the invitation suite.”
“I’ll take your word for it.”
“You should go,” I urged. “He wouldn’t have invited you if he didn’t want you to go. Isn’t it all in the name of team bonding, or something?”
“If I can give you some advice, Jumilah--.”
I spun around.
“Don’t try and outdrink the Irishwoman. You will never, ever win.”
“Roger,” I replied. “Goodnight.”
Getting into bed, I still felt a little bit cold. After shifting back and forth a few times, I finally was warm enough to sleep.
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.