I’m not entirely sure why it happened this way, but from the first week I began my training to be a Volunteer at the Toronto Zoo (in November of 2012), the Pavilion I would almost always rush over to after class (and also on my visiting days) was Australasia. I imagine it had something to do with my having far less knowledge of the species there – and in Eurasia, but that was closed for renovations – and trying to learn as much as I could right away. What I do know is this: once I started spending time there I was immediately drawn to many of the animals who lived in the building, such as the tree kangaroo, the brush-tailed bettongs, the red-tailed black cockatoos, the Komodo dragons, the wombats…and the wallabies (Bennett’s and swamp). At that time, the wallabies shared a winter exhibit with the wombats; a couple of years later it became unworkable as the younger wombats began to get too aggressive with the wallabies. But it was wonderful while they all lived together (along with the echidnas and at least one betting) because the area offered an unobstructed view of the animals and there was always a lot to see. So I spent hours at the one mixed exhibit early in my training, and the one animal I immediately fell in love with was Stevie, one of the Bennett’s wallabies. I have no true explanation for this, either (perhaps her name?) but I adored her body language and the interest she always took in me when I showed up. So when I got my first DSLR for Christmas in 2012, I took it to the Zoo on December 28, went straight to Australasia, and began to try it out. The photo here is the 16th I had ever taken at the Zoo on the new camera, and the third of Stevie.
It was an awesome exhibit to hang around in those days; if you got there at the right time you could theoretically see up to nine different animals from five different species – although I never did. From the photo at right: Stevie and Francesca (one of the two swamp wallabies along the wall) are still living at the Toronto Zoo, but I’ve only been able to view them out side in the warmer months or on a special Wild Encounter tour in their holding area. But I never forgot Stevie and every time I spotted her I made sure to have a conversation with her. She always appeared to be paying attention to me and often looked over at the sound of my voice, especially when I called her by name. In fact, the knowledge that she always remembered me even after months of having no connection is extremely comforting as I agonize here at home during our “Covid Lockdown,” desperately missing my animal friends and hoping they don’t forget about me.
Early last fall two male Bennett’s wallabies arrived at the Toronto Zoo as potential mates for Stevie. One of them – Darwin – came from High Park Zoo in Toronto and the other – unnamed, so he is now called Peter – from Riverview Zoo in Peterborough (Ontario). Only one of the males (Darwin) is “intact,” so “mates” plural would be incorrect. In any event. I would love for some spark to happen between Stevie and a suitor, because when Sarah and I visited the Edinburgh Zoo in 2015 I spotted a swamp wallaby and her joey, who I would guess would be about five months old here, and they are even more adorable than a kangaroo joey (in my opinion, of course). I think I might actually lose my mind if Stevie had a baby, and I know it would be even cuter still because Bennett’s wallabies are the best wallabies. I added that last line to see if my friend Lloyd reads these blog posts. He’s got a bit of a thing for Francesca, Toronto’s remaining swamp wallaby. I mean, she’s cute enough, I suppose:
[I have to jump in here with an edit: I learned after I wrote this piece but before it was published that Francesca, swamp wallaby (pictured above) sadly passed away on April 23rd. At 16, she was the oldest known swamp wallaby, according to my friend, Lloyd, who adored her. I am so sorry for his loss.]
Of all the times I’ve been to see Stevie, however, far and away the most memorable was the time represented by this month’s photo. That browse she has just taken a bite of is being offered to her by yours truly. I sprung for two Wild Encounters with the kangaroos last year , the second one coming on (Canadian) Thanksgiving weekend because I knew they were about to go off-exhibit for the winter due to the coming Terra Lumina attraction. The kangaroo walkthrough had been closed the entire time I had been Volunteering, which is to say for the duration of the visit of the giant pandas, as it would have been too difficult to maintain any sort of crowd control when the people exiting the walkthrough would meet the panda lineup head-on. I had never really paid much attention to it when it was open before I started, but many people (Sarah included) missed it a great deal and told me so. Thus, when it was finally re-opened (with new landscaping) last spring, I went to take a look on the very first day. Well, let me tell you: it was almost like we had added an entirely new species (well, three) for me to learn all about. I spent a large part of my summer hanging out in there; by the end of it I could tell all twelve kangaroos apart from one another, and (of course) both wallabies. I spent most of my time with my favourites: Tori and her joey (eventually named Mr. Partington…but you’ll need to wait to hear his story), Jeff, and Stevie, who is easily my favourite marsupial at the Zoo. She spent most of her time ignoring the bigger western grays, but occasionally she’d show up at a feeding bowl with them – especially the less aggressive roos, such as Sydney, who was the smallest of the adults.
On a Wild Encounter focusing on the walkthrough, the big finale is being allowed to offer food to the kangaroos and wallabies, depending on who comes over. The first time I did it, only the roos came by and I got to feed, among others, the oldest one there, Meribah. That was a delightful experience. But as the weeks wore on and I spent more and more time approaching Stevie and talking to her, I found that she became quite comfortable around me and often moved a little closer to me, perhaps to catch my scent or just get a better look. It’s a lovely connection we have made. And so it was that on the second Wild Encounter, I noticed Stevie had actually come quite close to the mob, watching what was going on but making no attempt to participate. But I talked to her and kept my eye on her and when she started to hop away from the proceedings I happened to be positioned on the outside of our group, close to where she was headed. So I held out some browse and called her, gently, to see what would happen. She paused and looked over, contemplated just continuing to hop away, and eventually decided to come to me to see what I was offering. In this photo above, you can see Stevie having just taken a deep whiff of the browse and me, and processing the scent (with her mouth open, she’s using the “flehmen response“) to establish if there were any risk involved in taking the food I was holding out. She decided everything was cool, and she began to eat from the browse… and, of course, I was a puddle. All of the photos I managed to take of the event were shot by me holding my camera in my right hand only, and shooting down my fully extended left arm to my hand holding the treats. I asked the group leader at one point if she would mind coming over slowly to take my camera and get a shot with me in it; however, even though Stevie knew her very well from many previous tours, her approach caused the beautiful girl to release the branch and hop away. I was the only person there that day that Stevie approached, and I do not think it has been a commonly – if ever – repeated event. It would appear that our bond, first forged in 2012 but with long periods of no contact, is very strong indeed, and that makes me supremely happy.
However, as strong as my bond is with Stevie it will never be as strong as the bond she has with the Keepers she loves. And of those bonds, I cannot imagine one ever being stronger than what she shared with Ruby, a Seasonal Keeper last summer. This photo might be the greatest moment I’ve captured at the Zoo yet.
I’m going to end it here, as I have other animals coming up this year that I don’t want to inadvertently steal the thunder from. (Many of them are from the same Pavilion.) I’ll add a small collage of shots of Stevie all taken last summer in the walkthrough. Thank you, as always, for reading along with me and we’ll continue the story of the kangaroo walkthrough in July. Next month: another Wild Encounter favourite. See you then, stay healthy, keep a safe distance, and wash your hands.