In 1977, Melbourne Zoo acquired its most prized attraction to date: Bong Su the Asian elephant. Bong Su lived a complicated life in Melbourne. His very transport from Malaysia as a gift from the Sultan of Pahang was met with fierce protest from animal rights activists. In his forty years he was on permanent display, he sired five calves, and strutted his stuff in front of countless patrons.
The news of Bong Su’s death in 2017 was met with a wave of sadness. Zoo staff were encouraged to seek counselling to process their grief. And people shared their cherished memories of visiting the four tonne bull, who over the years had left an indelible mark in the minds of his visitors.
But Judith is thankful for Bong Su for a different reason entirely. Because if Bong Su had never arrived in Melbourne, or fallen in love for the first time in a shabby house on the unfamiliar end of Sydney Road.
In 1979, and just weeks before finishing her high school, a not quite 18-year-old Judith was offered her dream job at the Melbourne Zoo. With school behind her, she left her childhood home in the suburbs and settled into a share house on Brunswick Road.
Living on Brunswick Road was a pragmatic choice. It meant just a short ride to work at her new job as a zoo keeper, which consumed most of her time. Working on a 14 day roster, she regularly clocked in 11 straight days, followed by a three day break, before repeating the cycle.
Through high school she had dreamed of a profession that would allow her to be up close and personal with rare and exotic animals. But in truth, the work consisted mostly of repetitive, laborious shit-shovelling, enclosure-scrapping and animal-feeding routines.
Among them, maintaining the Great Flight Aviary, which is still in use today. The animals were removed from the enclosure for most jobs around the zoo, but not the birds. That created a tricky multi-task, using one hand to scrub the scat laden walkway whilst fending off nosy ostriches with the other.
As she grew tired of the demands of working at the zoo, she looked elsewhere for things to keep her engaged. She became close with Amir*, the elephant keeper, who had arrived from Malaysia with Bong Su two years prior.
Sensing Amir was struggling to make friends in Melbourne, she offered to come visit him at his home, which was walking distance down the other end of Sydney Road. Their meetings became routine, she would walk the dangerous stretch of Brunswick alone, share a cup of tea, and then return home. But one week, just as she was about to rap on Amir’s front door, she saw Gerard.
Gerard was a macropod keeper at the Melbourne Zoo, and despite working together, they had had little to do with one another. Gerard was a kind man with country charm. He had long dark hair which he wore in a ponytail that complemented his brown eyes and khaki uniform. As it turned out, he had also been making an effort to keep Amir company.
From then on Judith and Gerard would visit Amir together. Although Gerard was in a relationship at the time, there was undeniable chemistry between them. Lunch time in the macropod office and Amir’s house were the two places they could steal a moment’s conversation while Gerard remained in a relationship. Judith was drawn to his sense of humour, which was slowly revealed in the weekly snapshots she gathered in Amir’s living room. Soon, Amir was no longer the focus of these rendezvous for either of them.
12 months into Judith’s time at the zoo, Gerard was offered a job at the soon-to-be-opened Werribee Open Range Zoo. He cut ties with his girlfriend, with whom he had grown more distant as he drew closer to Judith, and asked Judith if she would move out west with him.
By that time she had seen enough faeces to know that zoo life was not for her. It was time for a change. She enrolled in a psychology degree, packed up her things from her small bedroom, and accepted Gerard’s invitation, leaving Brunswick, Amir and Bong Su in her rearview.
The year that followed would be one of immense personal change for Judith. She still worked casually at the children’s farm at Werribee Zoo, but was decidedly drifting away from a life of animal care.
But her love for animals never subsided, and still she retains memories of when she and Gerard were afforded the rare access she had first dreamed of in high school. They were once tasked with catching a pair of platypuses in the wild. Judith recalls a winding road trip through the forest to catch the slippery buggers, who would come to be the occupants of Melbourne Zoo’s platypusary.
But the crowning moment of their year together was their assignment to mind the newly arrived hippopotamuses. Like Bong Su in Melbourne, these hippos were prized additions in Werribee. Unsure how the hippos would acclimate to their new Australian residence, Judith and Gerard were told to keep an eye on them overnight.
And so they did, all night long, sitting in the ute, sipping a thermos filled with steaming cocoa. From that vantage point they sat in each other’s company, in awe, as the hippos bathed in the moonlight. Their lives touched once again by the presence of a magnificent beast.
As Judith progressively felt the urge to move and grow, Gerard was narrowing his focus, putting down roots and consolidating his standing within the zoological community. Their growing apart was gradual, natural even, and their time together in Werribee would end after just 12 months.
Although perhaps not a love made to last, it was, for a time, love all the same. And with it came precious moments, impossible if not for the evenings spent at the home of Bong Su’s keeper.
*Amir’s not his real name 🙂