The house was flooded with golden light in the morning, so I didn’t need an alarm. I managed to be up before the others, so I took my clothes to the bathroom for the first shower. Generally, I try to be as quick as possible, so that I don’t hold anyone else up. At the end of the day, I’m still adjusting to communal living – although almost two months away is getting me much more accustomed. Following my shower, I dried and dressed myself in my zoo uniform. I pushed open the bathroom door, to see Whitlam standing in the hallway, still in pyjamas, with fresh clothes bundled up in his hands.
“Sorry, I won’t keep you waiting,” I mentioned as I scampered into the hallway.
“No worries,” Whitlam assured, as he entered the bathroom. “I’d the one who’s running late.”
While he showered quickly, I headed downstairs. Jamila, standing in the kitchen, smeared a slice of toast with jam, then handed it to me on a plate.
I accepted it, then chowed it down quickly. Once the guys were ready, we left for the zoo.
“We have Lancelot the new zebra stallion arriving today from France,” Whitlam mentioned.
Jamila parked in the Werribee staff carpark and we emerged from the vehicle, already a day far too hot for still being early spring. As soon as the zoo opened, it was packed, being a sunny day in the school holidays and a public holiday no less, for the grand final. Little did the public know, but we had a mission. I was with the ungulate team, which gathered around to be briefed by Whitlam.
“Today, as you know, a zebra stallion will be coming into quarantine with us.”
The breeze ruffled the wispy bits of my hair, otherwise pulled back into a ponytail.
“Not that I need to request this, but just remember to be on your best behaviour. We hope that this won’t be the last transfer between ourselves and the French. Any questions?”
Nobody wanted to ask anything.
“Alright, Jumilah’s coming with me to the airport,” Whitlam announced, “and everyone else can meet us when we get back.”
A chorus of agreement circled around the group, then I followed Whitlam to the truck.
“Thank you for this,” I told him, as we climbed up into the cabin.
“It’s alright,” Whitlam assured me.
As we drove towards the airport, I glanced out the window at the fields of the Victorian countryside, interspersed with the outskirts of Melbourne.
“How long have you been at Werribee?” I asked Whitlam, when the question popped into my mind.
“Six years,” he answered.
“And you’ve been with ungulates the whole time?”
I nodded my head. That didn’t surprise me.
“We did used to have a lot more species than we do now, even when I started. There were a lot more ungulate species around back in the day, and a lot of those last survivors have died out by now, when we haven’t been able to import more.”
After a thirty-five minute drive, we arrived at Tullamarine Airport. I grinned as Whitlam turned in, through a gate opened for us by the airport staff. We emerged from the truck and walked across the tarmac. The wind generated by the planes swirled my hair, which thankfully had been pulled back into a ponytail. I thought back to my arrival in Sumatra, albeit in very different temperatures. From Whitlam’s conversation, and logic, I gathered that the large plane right in front of us, contained the new zebra stallion within its underbelly of a cargo hold. A woman with long blonde hair strode down from the plane.
“What a beautiful morning it is,” she greeted Whitlam, extending a hand for him to shake, “and all the better for landing and being able to see you.”
“Pleasure’s all mine.”
“Madeleine Garnier, Head of Ungulates at Parc Zoo Du Reynou.”
“Whitlam Whittaker, Head of Ungulates at Werribee Open Range Zoo.”
“That’s quite the name, Whitlam Whittaker.”
“I suppose that it is.”
“I’m Jumilah Fioray,” I introduced myself, sounding a little giddy.
“Fioray, is that French?”
“No,” I answered. “My father’s Italian.”
“And Jumilah, that must be Indonesian.”
“Yeah, Mum grew up near Binjai, her parents ran a wildlife sanctuary--.”
Madeleine looked over me, to an approaching airport worker.
“We’re in place ready for offloading.”
“Alright, let’s get him off, thank you.”
Approaching the underbelly, the three of us stared up into the cargo hold of the plane. I identified the crate, marked with the name of the zoo in France. With a large forklift, the airport staff removed it from the plane and slotted it into the back of the truck. The sounds of the airport must have been distressing for the zebra; it was full-on enough for me, and I understood what was happening. All I could do to was watch. I could hear the zebra stallion bucking around in the crate. Whitlam and Madeleine shared a look.
“Give him a minute,” she decided, “and then we’ll move.”
The airport staff appeared impatient by the plan. I consulted my watch, taking her instruction somewhat literally.
“We’ll have time,” Madeline stated. “Don’t you worry.”
Her French accent jarred with my concern, but I nodded. Sure enough, the stallion soon calmed. With that, we were able to make haste for Werribee Open Range Zoo.
“We have an orangutan called Jumilah back home,” Madeleine told me.
“She refuses to mate with our male. She’s escaped a number of times.”
“Bornean or Sumatran?” Whitlam enquired.
“There are Sumatran Orangutans at Melbourne Zoo, at our city campus,” Whitlam explained.
“Right, I see.”
We eventually arrived back at the zoo. The gates were opened for us so that the truck could be driven into the quarantine area. Indeed, there seemed to be quite the fanfare when we returned to the zoo. Whitlam seemed impressed, although Madeleine was bemused. It was all hands on deck to offload Lancelot. We needed to take precautions, but thankfully everything went according to plan. Most of the bodies involved peeled away. The quarantine workers were satisfied that all of the procedures had been followed. That left myself with Whitlam, and Madeleine from France, as well as Zola and Bailey, the vet. Therefore, the ungulate team were given the responsibilities of introductions, which had been delayed up until now.
“Madeleine Garnier, this is Dr Bailey Simmons, our head vet.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, ma’am,” Bailey greeted Madeleine, reaching out to shake her hand.
“Pleasure’s all mine,” she assured with a smile.
Both Madeleine and Bailey surveyed the stallion, Lancelot, in the quarantine paddock.
“We’re constructing a new elephant complex,” Whitlam explained. “The herd is moving across from Melbourne Zoo. Would you like to come and see the site?”
“I suppose that I shall,” Madeleine accepted.
I tagged along, travelling to the construction site for the new elephant complex.
“Well, building sites look the same everywhere in the world.” Madeleine didn’t sound particularly impressed. “I’ll have to visit again once the complex is complete.”
“Of course,” Whitlam agreed. “We’re hopeful it will be one of the best elephant exhibits in the world.”
Madeleine grinned towards him.
“Well, there are no actual animals here right now. We may as well head back into the zoo.”
“Of course, take me with you.”
I strolled back behind them, to the walking trails around the zoo. Whitlam explained the histories of the animals as we attended their exhibits.
“You’d do well to have porcupines here,” Madeleine surveyed. “Do you have them here, in Australia?”
Whitlam whipped his tongue over his lips in thought.
“Ah, yes, we do,” I chimed in. “A number of zoos breed them.”
“Oh, we have them back home. Perhaps we could organise to export you a pair.”
“That would be lovely, thank you.”
Turning the corner, I noticed Jamila approaching in the other direction, and waved to greet her.
“Jamila, this is Madeleine Garnier,” Whitlam introduced.
“Ah, you’ve brought Whitlam a zebra,” Jamila commented.
“Oui, I have. Lancelot is a beautiful stallion.”
“I’m just about to head up to the vets, actually. I’ll have to poke my head over the fence.”
“What’s the matter?” I wanted to know.
“Oh, nothing much,” Jamila assured, raising a tube in her hand. “I just have to take this back.”
“Ah, right, that’s alright.”
“Well, I’d better be off. See you at home, Whitlam.”
We waved farewell, and Jamila departed. I wanted to ask if I could come with her, but she scurried off before I had the chance to say something. Madeleine stepped in front of Whitlam, facing him.
“Would you like to come to dinner with me?”
Whitlam grinned, as I tried not to pull a face of surprise.
“That would be lovely, thank you.”
I felt every bit the third wheel.
“Fantastic, I’ll make sure you’re picked up tonight.”
“Wonderful.” Whitlam wore a dopey smile. “Would you fancy a tour on our savannah?”
“Oui, of course,” Madeleine confirmed.
Whitlam led Madeleine towards the vehicle shed, where I joined them in a ute, because I didn’t know how to say that I’d leave them to it. We drove out onto the savannah, a little bit behind one of the buses on a tour.
“We use sound recall for the various species.”
Whitlam blew the horn to call over the rhinos. Letaba padded over, allowing us a closer look at her.
“This is Letaba, one of our breeding female rhinos,” Whitlam introduced, patting her back.
“She’s absolutely beautiful,” Madeleine praised.
Once we returned, I excused myself, heading off to track down Jamila. Considering she’d been heading to the vets, I tried there first. A hand-painted sign stands outside the hospital. I passed it and entered, hearing the faint sound of Lancelot bucking around in the quarantine paddock on the other side.
“Hey, is Jamila here?” I asked Bailey.
“No, she left a little while ago.”
I turned around and departed the wildlife hospital. Jamila was likewise nowhere to be found near the lions or wild dogs. Therefore, my next place to check was the cheetah exhibit. I knew that I was getting close, due to the hand-painted sign reading ‘Cheetah spotted nearby’. Even now I still smile at the pun. Kulinda was resting in the sun, just on the edge of the shade. I looked to the right, when I saw the door closing, Jamila emerging from it.
“Hey,” I greeted her. “I was wondering if you needed anything.”
“Oh, not really,” Jamila admitted.
Her keys jangled as she made sure to lock the mesh door behind her, which led to the keeper race behind the exhibit.
“I’m sorry, my day isn’t very exciting,” Jamila admitted with a self-deprecating laugh. “Well, it’s just a normal day.”
I didn’t really want to choose.
“Anyway, I haven’t had any lunch, so I’m going to head back anyway.”
We walked back to the staff quarters. There, Jamila ducked off to eat. In the meantime, I encountered Whitlam again, this time without Madeleine by his side, and we exchanged pleasantries, despite having spent the morning together.
“Jamila’s just having a normal day,” I reported.
“Well, then, do you want to come with me again?”
“I’m going out onto the savannah.”
I wanted to make a snarky comment about the lack of our French friend, but I didn’t. Instead I just followed Whitlam out of the staff quarters and towards the vehicle shed.
“Have you been having a good day?”
“Yeah, I have been,” he agreed with a smile.
Whitlam unlocked the ute and we climbed into each side. I found myself thinking about all the animals I’d come to know and love, since arriving in Victoria. Now, I only had a couple more weeks to go. I looked out the window of the ute, surveying the savannah. In the distance I could view the long necks of Werribee’s giraffes, a bachelor group, which I’d come to learn. Whitlam drove out onto the savannah. I scanned the grass, searching for the zebra in question. After a little while, Whitlam stopped the ute and I brushed my hand across my temple. Glancing out over the savannah, I smiled. You can’t go past this place. Whitlam slipped out of the ute, to search on foot. I stayed in, with the radio close by, just in case she ambled over.
“Yeah, I can see her,” Whitlam confirmed, climbing back into the driver’s seat. “She’s just a bit further up here.”
He fastened his seatbelt again, driving just a little further up like he’d mentioned. Sure enough, we arrived at the zebra’s position shortly. I noticed an open wound on her rump. Whitlam reached for his radio.
“Bailey to Savannah, please,” he requested, “for non-urgent wound care on a zebra.”
The two of us waited on the savannah, for some sort of sign.
“Yeah, I’ll be there soon,” Bailey promised over the radio.
Thankfully, he arrived about five minutes later. The ostriches came over, interested in Bailey.
“It’s a rare animal that loves a vet,” I remarked, but Whitlam was pointing out Zaidi, the zebra.
“She’s the one?” Bailey checked.
“I can see the wound, it would be good to get some antiseptic onto it.”
Bailey started to draw up the gun, although he told us that he would only be using a low dose of ketamine. I could feel my heart beating faster, anxious at the sight of the gun, and remembering Marnus’ hoof procedure – fine, but the calm before the storm on an awful day. That wasn’t what was happening to us, or Zaidi. Bailey fired a sedative into her rump. As slowly as possible so that the engines wouldn’t make too much of a rumble, Whitlam and Bailey drove the utes in. They formed a V-shape around Zaidi, who was becoming increasingly sleeply, which would protect her and us from the other animals.
“I’m going to throw a towel over her eyes.”
Bailey’s aim was good enough, which then allowed Whitlam and I to grab and support her head and neck. While we kept her upright, Bailey applied antiseptic ointment to the wound on Zaidi’s rump.
“Hopefully that will do the trick,” he mentioned.
Bailey provided a shot to overturn the sedative. We moved away, wishing and hoping. I looked at Whitlam, wondering where Madeleine had gotten to, but I didn’t say anything. Zaidi eventually raised her head. She glanced around the savannah, the other zebras flicking their tails back and forth in the distance. We all breathed out a sigh of relief. After a moment, Zaidi stood. I instinctively crossed myself, saying a prayer of thanks that she was fine. Zaidi stumbled for a moment, then cantered off to rejoin the other zebras. With that, our job was done. Whitlam drove slowly back towards the gate, Bailey following us in a second ute. I made sure to appreciate our surroundings. Once we’d left the savannah, I instinctively glanced towards my watch. I should have been able to tell from the lengthening shadows, that our day at the zoo was close to ending. Even though the chill creeps in, it’s a beautiful time of the day. I listened out for the animals, and I could hear the vervets. We drove home from the zoo, and I couldn’t remove the knowing smile from my face. Jamila drove, and I caught her eye from time to time in the rear-vision mirror, although neither of us said anything. Once the three of us arrived back home, Whitlam was first upstairs for the shower. I was next, heading downstairs once I was dried and dressed again. Whitlam was by the front door, fiddling with his tie.
“Yeah,” he insisted. “You know that I hate wearing these things.”
I reached out my fingers. Whitlam stood still, allowing me to fasten the tie in a Windsor knot.
“So, why are you?”
Whitlam rolled his eyes.
“I’m meant to be being professional.”
“So, who’s paying for dinner?” Jamila wanted to know, arms folded in front of her chest.
Whitlam cocked an eyebrow in her direction.
“Well, I’m just thinking it would be good to know.”
“We’re both independent, professional people,” Whitlam pointed out. “Like I said.”
“Well, don’t have too much fun.”
“Thanks,” he replied, as we heard the sound of a vehicle outside.
Whitlam departed the house, leaving in the car. I walked back in from the doorstep. Jamila had crashed out on the lounge, beer in hand.
“So, what are we going to have for dinner?”
“I don’t know,” Jamila answered, “but I’m not cooking it.”
I opened the fridge, crouching down to see what I would be able to make.
“In saying that, I didn’t mean you cook. We can get takeaway. It won’t kill us.”
Standing up, I closed the fridge door.
“Alright, what do you want?”
I turned around and leaned my forearms atop the kitchen bench.
“I’m not sure,” Jamila admitted. “You can choose.”
“Well, I’m vego enough not to eat snails, and it’s the wrong end of the day for croissants, so--.”
She looked up from the lounge with a grin.
“Oh, Jumilah Fioray, I’m liking you more and more.”
We ordered Thai food, which Hamish picked up for us on his way back from the zoo. Jamila twisted her fork around in her noodles, shovelling food into her mouth.
“What did you get up to today?” Hamish wanted to know.
“Well, I think that you know about my day,” I commented, in between mouthfuls.
“I had a good day,” Jamila assured.
Then, we ate in silence, hungry and tired. Hamish packed away after dinner, thankfully not a significant task. Jamila reached for her phone and started scrolling.
“I wonder what Whitlam’s up to.”
Jamila launched herself up off the lounge.
“Whitlam Whittaker, will you ravish me?” she proposed, in a terrible French accent.
“Oui, oui, oui, oui,” I responded, standing up and marching over towards Jamila, even though I wasn’t meant to be French – that was something I only realised later.
Laughing my head off, I collapsed onto the lounge. Jamila wasn’t far behind. Eventually, we pulled ourselves together.
“Oh my goodness, I’m so tired,” I admitted, although that might have just been from all the laughing.
Therefore, after turning off most of the lights, we carried ourselves upstairs, somehow. I wasn’t planning on waiting up on Whitlam. Therefore, I got into bed and made sure that my phone was on the charger, intending on falling asleep not long after my head hit the pillow.
Jumilah Fioray is a recent high school graduate from lutruwita, Tasmania. Her parents, Catherine and Adriano Fioray, met at the University of Melbourne in the 1990s and returned to Hobart after finishing their degrees, where they raised their daughter and worked in agriculture. Jumilah's passion for conservation reflects her grandparents' work running a sanctuary in Sumatra.
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.