‘Daddy! Take a picture!’
‘I’m trying, honey! Gimme a chance here!’
Jesus, Tom thought; six hundred dollars’ worth of camera and I can’t get it to take a picture through a bloody pane of glass. Even with the lights so low you were squinting into the tank to try and see the stupid bloody platypus, surely the high-tech sensor for the camera’s autofocus could penetrate a bit of ordinary glass? He fumbled with the settings, trying to figure out how to use the manual focus. Why hadn’t he ever read the manual properly?
‘Daddy!’ Lily pleaded, tugging on his elbow.
‘Hush!’ he said, waving at her in exasperation.
He was frustrated that he couldn’t do this simple thing for her. She loved animals, and it had reached fever pitch since he’d promised he’d take her here, to the Healesville Sanctuary. She’d been to the zoo before, but she’d lately become obsessed with the platypus and he’d heard this was the best place to see it.
Eight years-old and she could already tell him more about this freaky little egg-laying oddball than he’d ever known in his life. And she had plastic models, carved wooden ones, Aboriginal-style paintings . . . Her room was plastered with pictures of the thing, as if it was the lead singer in some boy band. Jesus.
They could get a great view of it now, as it swam. Lily was running back and forth, eyes wide in wonder, following it as it meandered sinuously from one end of the long tank to the other. It stayed beneath the surface most of the time and Lily was at just the right height to comfortably dip her head and follow its progress underwater, her face spread with a smile so wide the top half of her head was at risk of falling off. He, the doting dad, kept trying to get a photo lined up of her with the creature, but it just wasn’t working.
She kept looking at him hopefully every time the creature came near her, hoping that he might get the shot this time, but the camera kept going dark or flashing that stupid question mark at him. He knew he wasn’t supposed to use the flash in here and it would just bounce off the glass anyway. Afraid he was going to blow the chance for this precious photo, he’d tried the flash a couple of times and Lily had expressed her shock in a voice loud enough to draw the attention of other people nearby.
He ground his teeth as he sidled back and forth. The lights were low because, in its natural environment, the thing normally only came out in early morning or late evening and the tank was littered with branches for it to weave around. And it could move pretty fast. For something that looked like an unholy union between a beaver and a duck, it was a nifty swimmer. Looking at its flat, furry body, you expected it to just kind of flop around – maybe it even did on land, but in the water, it swam like a seal.
It seemed to almost disappear in the water too, if it went still among the branches, its colour blending into the background. Though sometimes it rolled over to show its pale underside and Tom got the distinct impression this was a platypus’s equivalent of baring its arse at you. Bloody thing.
‘I’m sorry, honey,’ he said, after taking yet another photo that came out too blurred, too dark. ‘It’s just not working. We’ll get a photo or a card or something at the gift shop, okay?’
She pouted a bit, but was too excited to be upset. Still, he was disappointed to let her down. He fancied himself as a bit of a photographer and he’d wanted one of his pictures to take pride of place among the others in her room, but clearly it wasn’t to be. The sanctuary had a lot of other animals and you were allowed walk right through many of the enclosures, so he’d take some photos of her outside, where his camera wasn’t so blind.
Next time, he’d make sure he read the manual before coming out.
Considering all the space around the sanctuary, it wasn’t that big compared to other zoos he’d been to. But then, most of the animals were quite small. There were no elephants, giraffes, big cats or rhinos. The largest thing here looked to be the kangaroos. And the place was laid out to be as open as possible. In many cases, the sanctuary’s architects seemed to want to bring the creatures right up to you. That was fine by Tom. He didn’t particularly care about the animals, he just wanted to get some good shots for Lily, and she was lapping it up.
They came to the ‘Fighting Extinction Headquarters’, as it was called; a small wire-mesh birds’ enclosure attached to an even smaller building, not far from the main café and the gift shop, just in from the exit. Lily said she wanted to go in and he sighed, wanting to avoid all that hassle. He really could do without a lecture from some self-righteous animal rights type, ranting on about how all life was precious and how mankind was essentially evil, especially anyone who didn’t use organic products or wasn’t vegetarian.
‘Why don’t we go and get an ice cream?’ he suggested, pointing in the direction of the café.
‘Dad!’ she said in a tone that came straight from her mother. ‘You said this was my day.’
‘It is sweetheart,’ Tom admitted reluctantly. ‘Don’t you want some ice cream?’
‘Of course I do,’ she replied. ‘But first, I want to go in there. That’s where they keep the animals that are endangered. Then I want some ice cream, after that.’
‘Do you even know what “endangered” means?’ he asked.
‘It means there’s hardly any of them left,’ she chirped. ‘It’s like you keep saying to Mum about all those old bands you like, isn’t it? We should go and see them play before they’re all dead.’
‘It’s not the same thing,’ he said, avoiding her stare. ‘Besides, I don’t think it’s open, Lily.’
‘Sure it is. There’s some people going in there right now.’
And indeed there were, so he surrendered and took her hand, letting her lead him to the gate. One of the sanctuary’s staff was inside with a small group of visitors. There were two gates; you had to go through, close the first gate behind you and then open the second one. He presumed this was to keep these precious birds in. He was surprised to find that neither gate locked. Anyone could just walk in and out. He looked again to be sure. They had their most valuable birds in here, creatures that were in danger of going extinct and they just left the gates unlocked? He shook his head, baffled by the attitude.
There was a short path into a circular area, with the rest of the ground within the enclosure taken up with shrubs, bushes and rocks. One of the staff, a young woman, was talking to the other people who’d come in about two of the birds here – the Orange-bellied Parrot and the Helmeted Honeyeater. Tom didn’t pay a lot of attention to what she was saying. Two of the honeyeaters were flying around the enclosure in quick flashes of movement and he thought he might get a good shot, out here in the daylight where his camera might cooperate. Anytime one of them came near Lily, he clicked the button, even moving her round from time to time to get the bird in the background.
She was starting to giggle and he couldn’t help smiling himself. He even played up to it a bit, exaggerating his movements so that he resembled some cartoon character. He knew how he looked, rushing around like an idiot, but he was a father – he was used to doing embarrassing things to amuse his child. Sometimes he thought that, as a young man, he’d shed the innocent passion of childhood, but instead of discarding it, he had put it away in a safe place and passed it on to Lily, so that she could see the world as he’d once seen it. Having her had reminded him of the pleasure to be found in the world’s little details. And the satisfaction of being able to laugh at your dad.
And the embarrassment would be worth it if he could just get that one perfect shot. But the swooping little black and yellow birds wouldn’t stay still. He was starting to understand the appeal of being a wildlife photographer – those people who would sit for hours in a hide for the chance of a getting a photo. He could imagine doing that . . . if he had any interest in animals.
He spotted one of the Orange-bellied Parrots deep in the foliage, sitting very still and smug on its perch. Standing up on a large rock, he leaned into the bush with his zoom lens, nearly losing his balance as he snapped a picture.
‘Why are they so rare?’ he heard someone ask.
‘Their habitat has been destroyed,’ the woman replied. ‘That’s the biggest threat to endangered species. They’re wiped out as we take over their land and develop it for farming or building.’
‘That’s terrible,’ an old woman said, and there were mutters of agreement from others around her.
‘But isn’t that just natural selection?’ Tom countered, shrugging as he turned around.‘A more dominant species moves in on someone else’s territory and the original species adapts or dies out. Sure, it’s harsh, but that’s nature.’
He realized he was still standing on the rock like some preacher and quickly stepped down.
‘Destroying forests isn’t nature,’ the old woman replied.
‘Then what do you think the bush-fires have been doing since time began?’ he replied, conscious that Lily was staring at him now, but unable to stop until he’d made his point. ‘Isn’t it going against nature to try and keep these creatures alive if they can’t cope with a changing world? They had their chance and they failed to survive on their own. I mean, there’s no harm keeping them alive for . . . this.’ He waved his hand around the enclosure and the sanctuary beyond. ‘But it’s more for our sake, isn’t it? The natural world doesn’t care about them. Do you really think all the other animals will miss them when they’re gone?’
He glanced over at the woman who’d brought them in. She had picked up a small, thin branch; little more than a twig. Here it comes, he thought. She’s going to give us a lecture about how this bird feeds on such-and-such a berry, and helps propagate the tree, which is home to this bat which eats mosquitoes, and it’s all a delicately balanced ecosystem, so without the bird, we don’t get the trees, or the bats, so there’ll be loads more mosquitoes, so killing off the birds means we’re all going to get bitten and catch malaria. Or something like that.
‘Would you like me to feed the honeyeaters, so you can get a picture?’ the young woman asked.
‘Eh . . . yes, please,’ he said.
With the branch in one hand, she held out a syringe in the other. Some kind of liquid oozed from its tip and the two black and yellow birds immediately swooped in to perch on the twig, lapping at the liquid with tiny, pointed tongues that darted from their beaks.
He took a few shots and, finding that Lily was hugging onto his side, nudged her forwards. She ran up to the woman with the twig and the birds flew off in fright.
‘Ah careful, Lil honey,’ he said. ‘Don’t scare them!’
The birds came back and Lily was able to stand beside them as he took his pictures. But it wasn’t satisfying. It looked false, seeing these birds fed from syringes like this. Wildlife photographers didn’t go feeding tame animals to get their shots. Even with Lily standing next to them, it all felt a bit artificial. She looked stiff and posed, too conscious of the camera.
‘If there are only a few thousand of these birds left, why don’t you keep the gates locked?’ he asked the young woman. ‘Aren’t you afraid of them getting out?’
‘There are only a few hundred left,’ she replied. She handed the twig to a man beside her to let him take a turn at feeding the birds. ‘And these ones are here so folks can connect with them, to raise awareness of them. We want to make access as easy as possible for people, so they can get up nice and close.’
‘Not sure I’d have that kind of trust in people,’ Tom sniffed.
She shrugged, giving Lily a little smile as the birds took the last of the feed from the syringes and flew off again.
‘I think we might be able to get a look at the Mountain Pygmy-possums, if you’d like,’ she said to Lily.
‘We were going to get some ice cream,’ Tom reminded his daughter.
‘Daddy!’ she protested. ‘Stop being a killjoy!’
One of her mother’s favourite phrases.
And so they were led out of the enclosure and round to the back, to a building that looked as if it had been made out of a shipping container. Inside, in small pens, the tiny, furry opossums were sleeping in boxes of straw. The woman picked up a sleeping one and held it up for Lily who sighed in rapture at the cuteness of it. Sure, Tom thought. Small and furry is always cute. Mice are cute, until you find one in your kitchen, burrowing into your box of breakfast cereal. Then your reaction was to either run from the room or stamp on the thing.
‘It’s cooler in here because they go into hibernation at this time of year,’ the woman said. ‘I can’t hold it for too long or the warmth of my hands could cause it to wake up.’
The woman took out one that was awake. She found another syringe and began feeding the little creature, so they could all take a good look. The dutiful dad that he was, Tom took a photo of Lily with the animal, but again he was struck by the falseness of the scene. This wasn’t how things were meant to be. It wasn’t where this animal belonged.
‘Awwww!’ Lily said, gazing at the possum in the woman’s hand. ‘Daddy can-?’
‘No, you can’t have one. They’re not pets, sweetheart.’
Turning to the woman, he asked. ‘Isn’t this a problem? Handling them like this? How can they ever learn to survive on their own if they’re not scared of humans?’
‘We keep a few up the front that we handle regularly,’ she told him. ‘But most of them get minimal contact. And you’re right, it’s dangerous for them to get comfortable around humans. We’re their biggest threat. They have to be trained to be afraid. Even with the birds, we have to teach them to fear predators, so they can survive.’
Training them to fear natural predators, Tom thought. Trying to force animals to behave in a way that should be instinctive. Surely that was proof that their time was over? They had their chance. These people should just let them go. And yet he saw the way Lily was looking at them and reminded himself that she had what he had lost. There was a fascination with these things that he could no longer muster. And she could laugh with an uninhibited pleasure in a way that he had lost a long time ago. He had grown out of it, but was he any better for the lack of it?
This was something he had discovered as a father. Watching his daughter’s unfiltered experience of life allowed him to share in it once more, to remember what he had been like at her age. Yes, this was a small, cute furry animal and kids always liked cute furry animals, but there was no denying that seeing this living thing in front of him had an effect on him, though whether it was because Lily was here too or not, he wasn’t sure.
Staring at this creature that could . . . should have been able to survive out in the wild – if humans could leave a wild to survive in – he wondered at what he had long considered his rather jaded ‘wisdom’ and if it might just be detachment, disconnection. Did he care so little for these insignificant species because they were not important, or because it was just easier to live without considering their significance? Perhaps caring about them meant caring about the world they were a part of and he didn’t need that extra responsibility on top of all the others he had.
He watched the animation of his daughter’s face and was struck with a profound sadness that one day she might not be like this – that she would end up like him and lose this infectious astonishment at life’s little things.
He shook his head, gazing down at the photos on his screen, flicking through them to find the best ones. The woman led them outside again and he said goodbye, thanking her, before taking Lily to the cafe for her long-awaited ice cream. They sat together on the same side of the table and she tucked into a huge dessert, leaning in towards him as he looked through the photos.
And there it was; that perfect shot. The photo he knew he’d print out and frame. The one he’d show friends and family. The one he’d treasure for the rest of his life.
It was a picture he’d taken while jumping around in the birds’ enclosure, trying to snap the Helmeted Honeyeater. There was the delicate, graceful and quick little yellow and black bird, caught in mid-flight, the tips of its wings and tail-feathers blurred with motion as it swept across the frame in the foreground. Right behind it was Lily, her eyes on the honeyeater, her face ever so slightly out of focus as her head turned, her expression lit up as she watched her daft daddy chasing after the bird. An instant of pure, giddy uninhibited joy. Stroking the screen with his thumb, he felt his breath catch in his throat.
‘Daddy,’ Lily scolded. ‘Eat your ice cream before it melts!’