Although wombats are naturally timid creatures, it is not uncommon to catch a glimpse of them rummaging for food at night. But it’s quite rare to see the nocturnal marsupials during waking hours. So when a photographer in Australia saw a pair of the animals lying prone on the ground in broad daylight, she instinctively knew something wasn’t quite right.
Southern hairy-nosed wombats spend much of their lives in tunnels beneath the earth. Their underground burrows have a multitude of uses and can even be home to more than one wombat at a time. Moreover, the furry critters’ homes can also occupy a vast amount of space. One settlement discovered in the 1900s spanned a whopping 625,000 square feet.
However, this can pose a problem for landowners, as many people consider the curious creatures to be vermin. Indeed, the marsupials have been known to burrow under fencing, presenting a handy escape route to any livestock looking to do a runner. Consequently, anyone whose property has been subjected to wombat damage can apply for a permit to legally cull the animals.
Permits aren’t just handed out like confetti, though. They’re often difficult to acquire and are accompanied by a set of rules. These guidelines restrict the number of animals that can be killed and specify a designated time in which the culling must take place. Moreover, if the landowners do not follow these instructions, they can find themselves in hot water.
Indeed, individuals may end up being hit with a hefty fine, or could even face jail time. However, despite this, many groups argue that the rules are not being upheld. One such outfit is the Wombat Awareness Organization (WAO), which aims to provide sanctuary for each and every unwanted wombat.
The WAO was founded by Brigitte Stevens in 2006 after she wanted to save an orphaned wombat named Barney. The creature had fallen ill, and Stevens had been advised to transfer him to his natural South Australian habitat. So, the unlikely pair packed up and headed south. Once there, Stevens established the WAO with the help of a friend. The organization aims to develop conservation programs for wild wombats. Here, the furry creatures would find all the care they needed.
And care is exactly what Stevens had in mind one day in August 2017. The WAO had received reports that a network of wombat tunnels had been destroyed on some farming land in Sandleton, South Australia. Moreover, a member of the public had spotted something truly harrowing.
It turned out the individual – known only as Julie – had been photographing the wombats at Sandleton over a six-month period. While at the property, she had managed to capture some heartwarming images of what she believed to be a pregnant wombat. However, she also came across something that must have chilled her to the bone.
Julie had noticed two other wombats lying motionless on the ground. A quick check confirmed they were dead, but she was unsure about the fate of the other furballs she’d been photographing. Hence, she sought the help of Stevens and the WAO. Hurrying to the site, nothing could have prepared Stevens for the devastating scene that she would be confronted with.
When she arrived, Stevens found a distressed wombat stumbling down the road. “He was struggling to move and going directly towards where his home was no more,” Stevens recalled in a Facebook post. As it turned out, though, things were about to get a whole lot worse.
At the property, Stevens discovered a scene of devastation. “There was at least 30 warrens that had been filled in,” she told The Advertiser. As a result, Stevens feared that as many as 100 of the creatures may have died. If that wasn’t bad enough, Stevens had her suspicions that they had been buried alive.
Although the WAO reckons that wombats can survive for up to three weeks in the event of being buried alive, Stevens claimed there was little hope for the Sandleton lot. “They cannot dig out as there is nowhere to place the tons of soil above them,” she told WAO followers on Facebook.
Nevertheless, Stevens was adamant that she would help at least one of the little fellas. And so, she set about trying to rescue the struggling wombat she had seen walking down the road. “I caught him in my jumper and swept him to safety,” Stevens recounted on the WAO website. However, the wombat was not out of the woods yet.
Stevens rushed the helpless creature to the WAO veterinary surgeon. And, following an X-ray, it would soon become clear to Stevens just how traumatic this particular wombat’s ordeal had been. It was a revelation that must have left the animal lover heartbroken.
That’s because Bear, as Stevens named him, had suffered several serious gunshot injuries. Two bullets were found embedded in the animal’s chest. It seems both had struck the animal’s stomach and made their way through his body. Luckily for the little mammal, neither of the bullets had caused any damage to his organs – although one had come dangerously close to his heart.
Sadly, though, a third bullet had hit Bear in the head, resulting in him losing an eye. But his savior was not about to give up on him just yet. Stevens was adamant that the WAO would tend to the little wombat’s every need, until he was well on the way to recovery. However, the organization knew that it would not be an easy road.
“He is in a bad way but trying his hardest,” an update on the WAO’s Facebook read. Unfortunately for Bear, it was deemed too great a risk to remove the bullets that were lodged in his body. However, things could be done to help his damaged teeth and missing eye.
Regardless, it was clear that this wombat was a fighter. Indeed, three months after Bear’s horrific ordeal, Stevens shared a video with WAO followers to update them on his progress. “He still burrows, he happily grazes but is still refusing to give up his bottles,” she wrote on Facebook. “He has stopped trying to use the eye he has lost and just accepts us as family.”
Thanks to a concerned photographer and the dedication of the WAO, Bear is now well on the road to recovery. Sadly, though, there are many more wombats who won’t be so lucky. For them, the goodwill of organizations like the WAO is vital. Indeed, the WAO now provides shelter for no less than 61 of the animals.
Meanwhile, the Australian Department of the Environment issued a statement regarding the apparent case of animal cruelty. It said two experts had visited the scene and cast doubt on whether any animals had been buried alive. “The experts viewed at least 30 warrens in the area that was ripped,” the statement read, “and said there was clear evidence of current wombat activity at these warrens including scratchings and fresh scats.”