In March 2020, amid the coronavirus pandemic, the city of Melbourne was ordered into lockdown. For wildlife carer Emily Small, that meant working from home in her top-floor apartment – with three orphaned wombats.
Driving down a dark road one night in East Gippsland, Australia, a caring citizen spotted a dead wombat. Roadkill is a common sight in Australia—sometimes found spray painted with a colourful cross (a mark that indicates the victim has been checked by an animal rescuer or member of the public, and confirmed dead). However, this particular wombat carried no such graffiti. Concerned, the driver stopped the car. Wombats are marsupials, related to kangaroos and koalas. And just like their close cousins, the females have pouches in which they carry their offspring. A joey can sometimes survive for days in its dead mother’s pouch. The wombat on the road—a female, and a mother—was definitely dead. But her joey had not yet suffered the same fate. The driver carefully scooped the baby out of the pouch and kept it warm and swaddled in a dark, quiet place overnight. In the morning, she called her local wildlife rescue organisation, who in turn contacted Emily Small.
Emily is the founder of the Goongerah Wombat Orphanage, which she co-manages with her mother Sharon. The facility cares for orphaned, sick and injured wombats, rehabilitating them for release back into the wild. Most of the orphans that come into care have lost their mothers due to vehicle collisions, just like the East Gippsland joey that Emily took under her wing. It was the third car strike orphan that she and Sharon had rescued in as many months. Wombats can also fall victim to mange, dog attacks, persecution by farmers, and bushfires. During the unprecedented 2019-2020 bushfires, the forests of East Gippsland—where the Goongerah orphanage is based—were turned into disaster zones. The orphanage itself survived, but the wombats in the region were horribly impacted. Normally, these partly subterranean marsupials can shelter from flames in their underground burrows. But this time, the reality was far bleaker: “The bushfire was too intense, most animals died,” says Emily.
“There were no insects for a week, no birds for weeks…” The few wombats that did survive the blaze emerged to habitats that had been obliterated—their only food sources reduced to piles of ash and scorched earth. Emily travelled out into the nearby properties that had safe access, making sure the wombats had enough food and water in the aftermath. She took in one starving wombat, and was able to rehabilitate him for a successful release. The rest had to be euthanised due to severity of their burns. Then a second disaster struck, hot on the heels of the first. Within a few months of the fires, COVID-19 swept across the globe. Emily would normally travel between work and the orphanage, juggling wombat care with her role as Operations Supervisor for Wildlife Victoria, an emergency response service for sick, injured or orphaned animals. But amid government orders to stay at home, and lockdown restrictions that made long distance travel difficult (if not impossible), Emily had to relocate the orphaned wombats 450km west, from the orphanage to her top-floor apartment in inner city Melbourne. Since May, she has been raising the youngsters in her home/ improvised care facility—and life has been far from dull.
Above: Emily feeds Bronson, while Landon relaxes in his pouch. The baby wombats are given a specialised milk formula from a bottle, which Emily makes up in her kitchen and gently warms beforehand.
Landon, Bronson & Beatrice
The wombats in Emily’s care are common or bare-nosed wombats (Vombatus ursinus) – a name which distinguishes them from the two species of hairy-nosed wombats (Northern and Southern) that are also found in Australia. The first orphans Emily brought home were two males called Landon and Bronson, rescued in March and April respectively, and relocated to her apartment in May. Both were found on the road, in their dead mothers’ pouches. In June, they were joined by a female called Beatrice, another car strike orphan who was brought directly to Emily’s apartment form East Gippsland. The trio aren’t the first wombats Emily has cared for. Seventeen years ago, she and her mother Sharon were handed an orphaned joey to look after, and that was the start of the Goongerah Wombat Orphanage. Since then, the orphanage has received a steady stream of wombat joeys – between six to eight every year.
Beatrice, pictured here at 9 months old, explores Emily’s apartment. A car strike orphan, she was found in her dead mother’s pouch, on a roadside in East Gippsland. Beatrice wouldn’t have been able to survive long without her mother, and was brought directly to Emily for round-the-clock care. (image 1)
“Landon is my little legend,” says Emily. “He literally buzzes with excitement and races around, bouncing and letting out little happy scream-hisses. He has so much happiness that he is learning to control!” (image 2)
“Bronson is a little different, he sometimes can’t cope with normally comfortable wombat situations, he gets a little worried. However, when he gets comfortable there is no stopping him. He wiggles and smiles and loves a snuggle.” (image 3)
“Beatrice is an independent warrior wombat. Initially when she first came into care she would launch, growl and try to attack me. I knew it was out of fear as she came into care a little older, it means they have more awareness about threats and she was trying to seem as scary as possible (which she was). She is now the sweetest, gentlest orphan with a playful and trusting heart.” (image 4)
What Are The Challenges of Raising Wombats in an Inner City Apartment?
Unlike Goongerah, which is nestled amongst national parks and rainforests, Emily’s apartment lacks grass and dirt. These key elements contain the microbes the wombats need for optimum gut health. Emily has to try and replicate what would normally be an outdoor enclosure, indoors, growing grass taken from Goongerah on the balcony of her apartment. She has also collected dirt in a jar to let the orphans eat/play, and bark and sticks for them to chew on. Having three wombats under her care while trying to work from home can be a challenge for Emily.
“They are so cute and distracting,” she says, “and like many children, when awake, they need and want your attention!” Emily can only leave the apartment for about an hour at a time as the orphans need to be fed 4-5 times a day. When they fall asleep after feeds, she simply places them in one of her two wombat cots and sneaks out. The wombat part of Emily’s life is voluntary. She jokingly says “I do it in my ‘spare time’, but I literally have the complete opposite of spare time”. Raising the orphans in Melbourne allows Emily to be close to her full-time job with Wildlife Victoria: “I am lucky that I have an understanding workplace and can usually duck home and feed the wombats. I need to work to be able to afford to look after myself and the orphans, I am just grateful that my job is in line with my passion.”
Relocating her wombat work to Melbourne comes with some advantages too—such as 24-hour access to power, water and gas. The Goongerah orphanage is off the grid, running on bottled gas and a new solar system from bushfire recovery support. Conversely, Emily’s apartment has unlimited power, allowing her to heat milk bottles easily, and do four loads of laundry per day (like kids, wombats pee, poo, and mess their sheets).
Emily fills up the orphans’ milk bottles at feeding time. She aims to replicate the nurturing lifestyle they would have received with their mother as much as possible, helping to eventually promote a successful release back into their natural habitat.
Bronson’s feet are treated with PawPaw ointment (a skin product made from fermented papaw fruit). Wombat mothers naturally produce a thick waxy substance in their pouch to lubricate the joey. Emily keeps the fleshy bits (paws and nose) lubricated, to stop the skin becoming dry and cracked.
Emily has been rescuing wombats for seventeen years, ever since she and her mother were handed an orphaned joey to look after.
“Wombats are incredibly affectionate and can spend up to three 3 years with their mum in the wild,” Emily says. “I try to replicate that bond as much as possible, whilst responding to their individual needs and ensuring they have the necessary skills to be released. Wombats have more personality than any cat or dog I’ve met and each orphan has their own unique character.”
How Has The Pandemic Affected Emily’s Wombat Rescue Work?
The pandemic has affected Emily’s rescue work in several ways. It’s been challenging getting supplies such as the specialised wombat milk formula, since the post has been much slower. Keeping sufficient supplies has also been harder, and travel restrictions have made it difficult to get back to the Goongerah Wombat Orphanage, where Emily’s mother continues to care for three other orphans in an outdoor enclosure (as well as the 20 that have been fully released and continue to visit for supplementary feeds that Sharon provides). Emily must keep travelling to an absolute minimum and only for necessary scenarios such as rescues, transports and care support, but extra hygiene and social distancing protocols have to be put in place when attending rescues and dealing with the public.
On 8th July, amid a second wave of coronavirus, the entire city of Melbourne was ordered back into lockdown for at least another six weeks. Photographer Doug Gimesy was able to visit Emily at the last minute to document her rescue work, but had to be fastidious about safety; such as wearing a mask, sanitising his hands and equipment when entering and leaving the apartment, and maintaining a distance of 1.5 metres.
How Are The Orphans Doing Now?
Bronson was unwell for a while with a bad tummy, and Beatrice came into care extremely stressed and scared. She would act defensively, which meant Emily had to spend extra time easing her into her new life as an orphan. That meant lots of bonding time and slower introductions into activities such as being put in a pouch and feeding from an artificial teat. All three orphans are now doing really well, and putting on weight.
When they are about 10/11 months old, they will be moved back to Goongerah so they can be put in outside enclosures. This will help acclimatise them to natural sounds and smells, as well as practice their natural behaviours, such as digging and interacting with other wombats. Initially, they will only be outside during the day (and brought in at night) and during this time, they will still be bottle fed. Eventually, when about 12 months old (and about 7-10kgs), they will be left outside in the enclosures. Then, when about 16-25kg and about 18 months old, Emily will say goodbye and they will be released back into the wild.
For now, that day is still a long way off. Emily will continue working from home for a while yet, together with her furry flatmates. Undaunted by the task ahead, she is dedicated to her life as a wombat warrior. When asked about the prospect of more weeks in lockdown with the orphans, she smiles. “It’s just my life. I have been doing this for a long time, and have learnt ways of efficiency and preparedness. It takes many mistakes and long sleepless nights, paramounts of exhaustion and tears; but it’s just something I must do. Besides, how can having baby wombats around you not be good company?”
For licensing queries, please contact Tim Aldred