How to look after an injured wombat

         If you see a dead wombat by the side of the road, do stop and see if it has a baby in its pouch. (It will be pretty obvious if the wombat is male when you turn it over.)

        

If the baby is standing by the mother, do try to catch it even if it runs into the bush - a baby at this age possibly still won't survive by itself and a few months of care will give it a much better chance.

        

Remember that the baby will be terrified, in a strange light world with noise and people. Don't try to comfort the baby as you would a dog, by speaking to it and patting it.

        

DON'T try to care for the baby yourself. First of all it's illegal - and for very good reasons. Too many people have tried to rear a young wombat on condensed milk, soy milk, bread and marmalade etc, treating it like a dog or human baby. These young may survive, but they won't become healthy adults - you have only created a toy for your own amusement, not really helped the wombat.

        

But DO join one of the wildlife carers' associations if you love wombats, where you will be properly trained to care for orphans. You, too, can then have your life totally disrupted by a small furry dictator who will insist that you play with them - mostly at night when they are awake, nurse them while they sleep, need feeding every couple of hours, leave its droppings in your kitchen cupboards, destroy your bedspread, tunnel through your dirty clothes basket, totally destroy the entire garden - and many other wombat amusements to keep your life interesting.

        

In return you will have months with possibly the universe's most cuddly and infuriating creature, totally different mentally from any pet or human. You will also have the heartbreak of saying goodbye to them, when they go bush again. But it's a joyous sort of heartbreak, as you will know that they are leaving for a life of real fulfilment, that they can no longer get with their human carers.

        

Once a wombat is about a year old it needs to have the bush around it. If it is kept in a human situation for any longer than that it has far less chance of learning to cope in the wild - and may grow so dependent on humans that it will pine if kept away from them. Some denatured wombats find homes at wombat parks and at least here they can have a reasonable life but still be near people. But it is a much more restricted life than they would have in the bush.

        

Never just dump a wombat back into the bush. They will almost certainly die. There may not be holes to shelter in - or other wombats may keep them out and they may suffer shock and disorientation. Wombats MUST have a halfway house - a place where they can venture out at will as they gain more confidence.

        

Please, please never keep a wombat for more than eighteen months. The wombat may seem happy, but it is like the happiness a human would feel kept as a pet by aliens in a comfortable room, fed slops and petted by the alien kids. The human might seem happy, because that was all it ever knew. It is not fair to turn a wombat into a long-term pet.

        

Wombats are wild animals. They need to be free.

 

Caring for an Orphan

 

1. Wrap the baby in something soft - like an old sheet - and keep it warm with a hot water bottle or cuddle it next to you - the wombats preferred heat is about the same as human's body temperature, 36 C. Keep the baby in as quiet and dark a place as possible - a pouch made from an old sack or a pillow case, well padded and slung over your shoulder is great, with a hot-water bottle replaced a couple of times through the night.

        

If you will take more than a couple of hours to get the baby to qualified care (WIRES or other wildlife rescue organisations) and if it is very hot and you feel the baby has been without milk for more than day, stop at the nearest vet's and ask for a marsupial teat and bottle to feed it sterilised water or buy a low lactose milk (like Divetalac) from the chemists. A baby wombat's mouth is very small and tender and can be damaged by a large human size teat or by forcing a teaspoon of water or milk into its mouth.

 

2. Take it as soon as you can to an agency like WIRES, where experts can care for it.

        

If this is not an option, apply to your local National Parks or equivalent for a license to keep the baby, and ask WIRES or National Parks for the most up-to-date information on keeping orphaned animals (and just be aware that these recommendations are being fairly constantly refined - so what you 'knew' for sure as a fact based on information you were given a decade ago may now be lamentably out of date. Make sure you are operating from the most recent recommendations based on the most current research). These are a few absolute essentials, however, that you need to know before caring for a baby wombat.

1. Baby wombats need between 10% - 15% of their body weight in milk every day - you will need to weigh the wombat if you are not sure they are getting enough and to check that it is putting on weight, just like a human baby - i.e. an 850 gram wombat will need at least 85 mls of milk a day, and probably more if it is hot or active (say about 130 mls a day).

        

This MUST be low lactose milk. You can now buy milk especially formulated for marsupials from Wambaroo Food Products in South Australia. Most vets in country areas now carry these. Other low lactose milk products may be used for a short time. NEVER feed a wombat cow's milk in any form at all, including condensed milk or any vitamins or anything with sugar or salt in it.

 

2. Baby wombats need to be fed every two hours till they get fur, and about every three hours after that. Wombats are nocturnal and you may find that your orphan goes to sleep on you during the day and may take most of the day just to drink enough milk. Normally a baby feeds almost constantly in the mother's pouch - and some wombats just don't ever fit in with the human idea of 'guzzle it fast then go back to sleep' pattern based on human infants. You will almost certainly have to keep waking the baby up to feed - pulling the nipple gently from its mouth is a good method - you want to wake it enough to feed, but not enough to make it want to wrestle you.

Most baby wombats prefer to feed lying on their back, which is the way wombats feed in the pouch, but I have known one demand to be on her stomach. Try the back position first but don't try arguing with a wombat.

        

Never force-feed a wombat - you may force milk into its lungs and kill it. Just keep cuddling it and offering it the milk till it finds its scent and taste familiar enough to try.

        

If the wombat wants to be fed, feed it.

        

If the baby develops diarrhoea, dilute the milk with 50% sterilised water and get vet advice AT ONCE. Sterilise the teat and container after every feed and clean around the baby's mouth with a damp cloth to make sure there is no dried milk caking the baby's lips or chin. Change bedding when it gets soiled - there is a delicate balance here between hygiene - like any premature baby an orphaned wombat is very susceptible to infections - and keeping a nice familiar wombat smell to reassure the baby.

 

3. Wipe the baby's anus after its bottle. This may stimulate it to urinate or defecate.

 

4. If the baby is unfurred, wipe it every day with lanolin, and make sure its bedding is very soft.

 

5 When the baby is fully furred, though still pink rather than brown - about eight months old - let it play on fresh clean short grass - green if possible. The baby should start to eat grass about now. Don't let the baby feed on dry grass with hard stems or hay - they can puncture the intestine and the baby will die. If possible give the baby access to other wombat's droppings that will provide useful bacteria for their guts; don't worry if they eat their own scats either. The baby may also eat rolled oats, carrots or chunks of sweet potato or sweet corn, but these should just be a treat or supplement, not the main food.

        

Your baby wombat will probably decide that it would like to try the cat's food, dog food, your toast, any cake on the coffee table and your socks. Remove all temptations - wombats will get diarrhoea form too much carbohydrate, and kidney damage from any other foods. The chief food should be milk and grass,

 

6. Give the baby dirt to play in and dig in, branches to gnaw, lots of walks on grass and also through bushland as much as possible, so they learn about space and scents and terrain - they won't run away from you and get lost. On the contrary, they will keep you carefully within bumping distance! Don't worry if their claws are long - they need to be long to dig, so don't file them off or think that, like dogs, they need to run on concrete or hard ground to war them down.

        

Play with baby wombats a LOT - as much as possible - rough and tumble and tug of war, to develop muscles and coordination. Let it follow your around the garden or anywhere it will be safe from dogs and cars but keep an eye on the weather and the baby's sun exposure.

        

Don't punish a wombat. You can't train a wombat, but you can scare it. A hurt wombat will learn to fear you, but it won't learn to be toilet trained, nor to ignore the cat food, or not to dig through the dining room floor or through your bedroom door if it is lonely.

        

The joy and despair of living with a wombat is accommodating yourself to a wombat's desires!

         (The only way I know to encourage a wombat to use a toilet spot is to find a nice dark cupboard or wardrobe - the broom cupboard is great, as brooms have such interesting smells - line it with lots of newspaper and put some of its droppings there, to encourage it to keep using that area. Or if it chooses another, go with the, er, flow and line that place with paper so at least the droppings are manageable.

 

7. Don't let the wombat associate cars and dogs with humans - it may run towards both in later life, hoping to find you - with desperate results.

 

8. When the wombat is about ten months old consider finding it a half-way house where it can come and go at will, still be bottle fed but gradually learn how to cope with the bush and other animals. Once a wombat is about a year old it should be living in a hole with a safely fenced area around it to keep it safe as it roams at night. (If you have a safe 'orphan hole' the baby may choose to live in the hole much earlier - but don't force it if it is scared.)

        

By the time the orphan is eighteen months old make sure it has complete access to the bush and freedom - so it can wander off if it likes without a farewell grunt to you. But there will be memories - and while our bush survives, more wombats to take its place.

 

How to See a Wombat

        

Most people see wombats in zoos - dusty, sleepy animals who lumber a few steps and go to sleep again, who are used to narrow restricted lives behind the zoo walls.

        

If you really want to meet a wombat, you have to go bush - and you have to watch them at night or in later afternoon on winter days.

       

Watching wombats, though, is just part of the whole experience of being in the bush - watching wombats at a zoo, even in a large enclosure, can never be anything like watching free wombats, in an environment that changes with drought and flood and rain and storm.

        

(You can't really experience the bush from watching TV either. You can't smell it, feel the moisture on your skin, watch how it changes.)

© Jackie French