We’re standing in kitchen of Linda Tabone: Bonorong’s very own “Chief Wombat Cuddler”, as she prepares afternoon meals for two wombats in her care.
“I always wanted to be a wildlife carer,” Linda says. “For years I wanted to do it. But it wasn’t until we moved here [near Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary] that it was possible.”
She took the advice of the Sanctuary Director, Greg Irons, and registered with DPIPWE before undertaking carers training.
“I’m glad I did that training before I took in any animals” Linda says, “I had no idea how much time and money -- not to mention resources -- go into getting it right.”
Her first few years were filled with pademelons and Bennetts wallabies, animals often considered “training wheels” for new carers, with the time commitment ranging from 3 to 12 months, and the outdoor enclosures (relatively) easy to create.
Wombats, her first animal love, only started coming into her care three years ago, when she felt she was ready and had enough support.
“With macropod joeys [animals in the kangaroo family] you must allow them to ‘go wild’ when they stop bottle feeding. By the time they are ready for release, you basically have nothing to do with them whatsoever,” says Linda.
“A wombat joey is totally the opposite: you have to be Mum to them and tend to their needs right up until they’re 2 years old - and they’ll tell you when they’re ready, which is what they do with their wombat Mum in the wild.
“You actually don’t back off from them at all - they’ll back off from you, and that’s a really good thing.”
But the time commitment is not all: you’ll also have an energetic, burrowing bundle of joy in your care. “The enclosures have to be dug down 700mm - otherwise they’ll burrow out and go exploring. I swear they have a sixth sense for gaps in the fences. And don’t get me started on their love of cables...”
Back in the kitchen we’re facing the reality of being a wombat carer, with Linda reflecting on the passing of a furless (“pinky”) joey wombat last year, which came into Linda’s care after her mother was hit by a car. Weighing only 130 grams when she was rescued, her chances of survival were low.
At such a small size, she needed to be fed every two to three hours and kept at a regulated temperature at all times. Linda was lucky to obtain a humidicrib, which provides the temperature stability and ensures she can take on such young joeys.
“For a new wombat joey, one feed can take up to an hour… so by the time you finish the feed, check in with the other little ones, put on a load of washing… you’re back feeding again.”
With wombat mothers feeding their young until they are 15 months of age in the wild, Linda works to a strict schedule to ensure no one misses out. In her care at home are two young wombats: Maria and Tara, and four of her older wombats live in an enclosure at Bonorong: Jasmine, Maggie, Fisher and Tina.
“I come up and visit Jasmine, Tina, Maggie and Fisher twice a day, Jasmine is still on bottles but Tina, Maggie and Fisher have weaned themselves,” she says. “Then Maria is on four feeds a day, and Tara is on three feeds a day. It doesn’t stop!”
“If I didn’t have [my husband] Emy, I don’t know what I’d do. You have to have backup to work as a carer. Emy helps me feed, helps keep the house clean, builds and cleans enclosures… if I didn’t have his support, I wouldn’t be able to take on as many animals as I do. Not to mention the support and expertise of other carers. It’s vital to have that.”
So, is it a career worth pursuing?
Linda laughs, “Well, it’s not paid you know. Everything… we cover it ourselves. The enclosures, the food, the formula, the vet bills, a humidicrib if you’re going to take on pinkies… no one pays you to do this. It’s thousands of dollars a year… you really have to be passionate about it!”
“If you can dedicate your time to the animal and you don’t have, say, a full time job, or kids, are planning to go on holidays or other commitments… and you go through the training and register with the [appropriate government] department, sure.”
“People really need to understand - you can’t just pass animals around from carer to carer if something crops up. They’ve already lost their Mum once - to think of them losing their ‘second mum’ as well is just heartbreaking. You have to be prepared to take the animal in your care from the moment it arrives until you release it.”
But to release them back into the wild and know they’ll be okay…. That’s pretty amazing.”
And what about those cuddles?
“You have to remember native animals are not pets - so you don’t get cuddles like you would a cat or a dog. The end goal is for the animal to be released back to the wild where it belongs. So cuddles? Not so much. Beautiful moments? Absolutely.”