When I first began training to be a Volunteer at the Toronto Zoo (in November of 2012) I made it a habit to walk around the Zoo as much as I could at the end of our day of lessons, and then again as many other days as I could in a week. There were so many animals and biomes I wanted to learn about, and I didn’t want to wait. One of the places I seemed to find myself the most often was the Australasia Pavilion; I imagine this was because it was an area I knew the least about and likely also because it was a warm place to visit as the temperature consistently dropped toward winter. Everybody seemed to be talking about the imminent arrival of the giant pandas (one of the reasons there was such a large intake of Volunteers that winter) and it really was a big deal to much of the city and country. But I will never forget an Australasian Keeper – Brent – telling me that it was actually a much bigger deal that we had so many Australian animals in our collection, but especially the southern hairy-nosed wombats, of which we had three. He told me that there were only, if memory serves, 13 of this species in captivity in North America, and we had nearly a quarter of them. This never really left me after that day.
One of the most important – or at least the most well-known – was Hamlet, who was just over 30 years of age when I first met him. There were also two new kids on the block: Arthur and Millie. They were very young having arrived the previous November from Australia via Brookfield Zoo in Chicago as orphans after their mothers had been killed in South Australia. (Many thanks to my good friend, Karen Pollard, for digging that article up for me; please do check the link as it is very interesting.) I was shown how to tell all of them apart: Hamlet was not difficult to spot from any distance for a variety of reasons, while the younger required a look at their noses. The white spot on Millie’s snout covered the entire area, while Arthur’s did not. Brent commented that it looked like a map of Ontario, and once you see that you simply cannot unsee it. But you don’t need to know what Ontario looks like; simply remember that Arthur’s white patch leaves about 1/3 of his nose uncovered and you’ll have no trouble picking him out of a whole crowd of wombats.
Sadly, though, we never got to find out whether the two youngsters could produce any offspring as Millie died not too long after I graduated in 2013. I would love nothing more than to pinpoint the date here in this post; this year, however, has made it very difficult to dig up all the minutiae I am used to passing along to you. I checked through all of the reports from that time that I have and I can only find a note about her going to the Wildlife Health Centre with intestinal trouble and bloating and no actual note of her passing. But pass she did, leaving the two bachelors behind – one in his sunshine years and one just entering his prime.
Eventually, however, we did receive another female, a feisty little girl named Matilba (note the spelling) who is about a year younger than Arthur. I cannot find anything right now to confirm this but I am pretty certain I learned at some point that Matilba is actually the great-granddaughter of Hamlet, which is a pretty cool thing all in all. Perhaps this will lead to some tiny wombats down the road, but nothing has developed to this point and I am honestly not sure if we are still even hoping they will breed. Arthur is a wild-born wombat, while Matilba – if she is related to Hamlet – would have been captive-born, which often makes for a desirable genetic pairing for the SSP (Species Survival Plan) program.
Hamlet hung on for a few more years; he was the oldest living wombat when he passed in late July of 2016, just shy of achieving the title of being the oldest wombat ever (as far as we know). I went to visit him on what turned out to be his last birthday, on February 2nd, and it was well worth my effort. The previous few times I had seen him he had seemed very lethargic and tentative and, frankly, just really old (which, of course, he was). It really appeared he knew that day was his birthday, because he was as full of beans as I had seen him in a long while. He was climbing into and out of buckets and boxes in his exhibit, remaining on display the entire time I was there, whereas he ordinarily by that age pop out on exhibit for a brief lookabout and then return to a bed behind the scenes. When it looked like he was finally beginning to settle down, I noticed Annie the short-beaked echidna had made an extremely rare appearance, so I moved to the other side of the exhibit to film her movements. Here is the video of that; please watch very carefully at the end for a sudden appearance of a frolicking Hamlet, which caused me to panic and return the camera to still mode so I could grab a shot or two of the overwhelming cuteness.
Arthur and Matilba don’t necessarily avoid each other, but I do not seem to have a great many shots of them together and certainly none of them “canoodling,” so from my vantage point it doesn’t seem likely that the population of our wombat exhibit will increase any time soon – at least not with the addition of tiny wombat joeys. Perhaps we’ll at some point receive some more orphaned Australian animals from those horrific fires they endured late last year and early 2020. I have read stories of many animals surviving because they found shelter in a wombat’s den or tunnel (wombats are notorious for being constant and often destructive diggers) but then Covid hit and… well, frankly I have never been able to confirm those stories 100% as this year got more and more difficult for the world at large. I really do hope they’re true and it does seem quite likely to me that they would be.
There is an outdoor exhibit that is accessible to the wombats in warmer weather (it even has a sign which proudly proclaims “Marsupial Summer Home”) and the lighting is awesome there so I truly enjoy taking shots of them when they are wandering around in the sunshine. It’s quite close to the kangaroo outdoor exhibit and walk-through; it’s become a recent favourite destination of mine during summer months at the Zoo, as I mentioned in my May and July posts of earlier this year. But even with that being true, my all-time favourite photo of any of the wombats at the Toronto Zoo (to date, anyhow) was taken indoors just a little over a month ago, and is of Matilba who had simply just had enough of everything apparently:
I had to check very closely to make sure she was still breathing because I had never seen her this sound asleep. For the record, here’s what Arthur was up to at the same time:
Oh! I nearly forgot the most interesting information about wombats of all! It’s simply this: their poop is square. Well, technically it’s cube-shaped. There are a few schools of thought about this, but as I understand it the reason seems to be that they use it to mark their territory and when they stack it up on rocks and other physical features of the landscape, if it were round it would quickly roll away. Their anuses are round, so this is more of an internal elasticity issue. Here is an excellent BBC article about this pressing (sorry) issue from November of 2018. Enjoy!
Well, there you go. Two posts in the can in one day, broken arm and all. I really didn’t want to break my promise, so I buckled down today and powered through it. But now my whisky is done, the music on my playlist is starting to repeat, and technically it’s November 1 (it’s about 12:30 am) but I’m taking a Mulligan since we’re setting the clocks back in 90 minutes and just calling it 11:30 on October 31.
Next month is, unfortunately, going to be a sadder story and I apologize in advance. The featured animal passed away a couple of months ago in this horrible, horrible year; I’ll try to keep all of the info and photos as upbeat as possible, though, so please do come back to read it.
Thanks for reading! And please remember: all of the proceeds from my 2021 calendar are going to the Toronto Zoo Wildlife Conservancy, so please check it out when you can. Stay healthy and safe and I hope to see you here again in 30 days!