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Living with wild animals - Denton Wombat's nocturnal adventures

Steve Garlick, a professor in regional economics, and his wife, Rosemary, who is a general practitioner, spend a lot of their time going out to get injured Australian native animals and bring them back to their property. There they undertake comprehensive rehabilitation. They house the animals for a time and then release them.

Most of the animals - even the wombats - are pretty peaceful characters, but Denton Wombat was an exceptional character and this is a marvellous story. Don't let it prejudice you against wombats though! Read more about wombats here.

Not your typical wombat

Denton was never your typical wombat. Named because of all the dental work to fix a fractured jaw when his mother was killed by a motor vehicle, he was happiest sleeping in a red backpack. Initially this was alright but as he continued to grow this soon became impractical. ‘Attack’ was his mode of operation with anything that moved and several of us have the scars on our legs to prove it. He would get up on his hind legs and bring his teeth down into your flesh. He was impossible to outrun and he would knock our in-care kangaroo joeys over like nine pins given half a chance.

Denton takes the initiative

After being in care for 18 months and with spring in the air, Denton, now at 25kgs, had decided it was time to venture into the big bad outside world. We weren’t quite ready for this, we ordinarily release in-care orphaned wombats at around 30kgs and we had not yet found a suitable safe release area for him to go to where the conditions were right. But he was determined. Late one Saturday night he decided it was time to go. He found a weak spot in the corrugated iron wall of his enclosure, worked away at it and eventually clambered out.

Once the escape was discovered a full search was mobilised. After three days of looking there was a report of him being seen in a neighbour’s laundry. With reinforcements, sedation and a thick blanket a wrestling match ensued in the laundry with clothing being spread to the four winds. He was not a happy boy being captured and returned to his enclosure, which in the interim had been suitably reinforced with more iron, metal star pickets and huge boulders to prevent a recurrence of the escape.

Second escapade

Despite the repairs to the enclosure after a couple of days Denton escaped a second time discarding the iron, the pickets and the boulders like confetti. When a wombat makes his mind to go there is no changing it! Signs were put up "Missing Wombat (not friendly)" with the contact phone number. During the Sunday apart from searching for Denton we found several promising, hopefully unoccupied, burrows for him at his new release site. We stuffed the burrow entrances with newspaper to test whether the burrows were indeed still unoccupied after several days. Wombats can have up to six burrows spread around to use as escape hatches when needed.

Sightings of Denton

Various sightings of Denton were reported by neighbours on the Sunday but we always seemed to be 10 minutes behind him when we got there. One neighbour thought they had a burglar when all the shoes on their veranda went flying in all directions during the night. Convinced of their burglar theory they installed a closed circuit TV security system! I told them that it was highly unlikely a burglar would upset the orderly nature of their shoes and that it was more likely to be Denton. Another neighbour said he heard things being thrown around in his shed and when he went to investigate the wombat chased him around his house and then waddled down his driveway.

The search continued on Monday in all drain culverts and other likely wombat resting places. Per chance I thought I would look in our own drain culvert and fortunately there he was. By now it was getting dark and rain was threatening. I had a blanket in the car but no sedative. How would I get him by myself? Surprisingly he responded to my calling and he eventually emerged from the culvert. I threw the blanket over him and held him down - 25kg of writhing muscle. What to do now? With no sedation I wrapped him in the blanket and bundled him into the car and headed some distance up the hill to home. I left the car to get the sedation and because it was now quite dark left the engine running with the lights on. Not a good idea.

Denton at the wheel!

By now Denton had got himself out of the blanket and when I got back with the sedative he was pressing on the car's accelerator and the engine was revving loudly. While the gear was in neutral and the hand brake on it would have been easy for him to knock the gear shift into gear and set the car in motion. I could just imagine the car careering down the hill with Denton at the wheel! How would I explain that to the insurance people? Fortunately he didn't. Turning the engine off I didn't count on him leaning on the car horn continuously despite now being sedated. In fact he fell asleep leaning on the car horn. Fixing this up I let him sleep for a couple of hours until Rosemary arrived home to assist.


Options. We could take him immediately to the release site however it was now quite late, he was too sedated, it was raining and we were still not sure the burrows we had identified were in fact unoccupied. So we decided to put him in one of our other, more secure, wombat enclosures for the night, but we would have to move the occupants (Osh and Gosh) out of their enclosure temporarily. This we did and Osh and Gosh obliged.

By this time Denton, despite being sedated, had made his way to the rear of the wagon so we took the opportunity of driving him to the now freed up more secure enclosure. Taking food into the enclosure for him, I fell into the newly dug trench for the next wombat enclosure we are building and got my foot stuck and couldn't get out. Meanwhile it was now pouring with rain and Denton was getting agitated in the car.

After some time we got Denton into the enclosure with a bag of fresh grass and got to bed ourselves at around 3.00am.

Property inspection

Next day we began plans to move Denton to the release site. When we entered his enclosure he dutifully came out, again in an angry mood (see picture at top of article). Another wrestling match ensued until we bundled him into the cage and the car for the 30 min trip to his new home. No dogs, no humans, good digging, water and other wombats. We positioned the cage near the entry to the burrow and opened the gate. We had expected Denton to just wander into the burrow and go to sleep. Not Denton. Never think you understand wombat behaviour. He went to the entrance of the burrow and came away and did this several times. He then chased Rosemary and I away and, as we watched from the safety of the car, he began to mark his territory in the usual way.

Still not convinced he would make the burrow his new home I tried to coax him into it by moving near to it. Denton thought this a great game and proceeded to chase me around and around the burrow until I was able to escape back to the safety of the car.

We will check on him over the next few days and give you some update reports and, hopefully some pictures in his new surroundings.


A wombat has a mind and life of its own!

And they say the same thing about sub-atomic particles!

Sheila Newman, population sociologist
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