It was barely dawn when the raucous cry for help went out.
Roz Holme rushed outside in her dressing gown to find their male Gang-gang Cockatoo sounding the alarm in his pen as a diamond python wrapped itself around his female partner.
“That’s some way to start your day, trying to unwrap a hungry snake from your bird,” Roz recalled. “He didn’t want to let go either.”
But that’s the thing about a wildlife sanctuary, it’s not your standard nine-to-five job. And yes, the bird survived and is now thriving. Like so many animals that have come through here.
The irony is that the birds only play a small part in Roz and her husband Kevin’s operation.
This is proudly wombat territory.
Cedar Creek Wombat Rescue is off the beaten track, 10 kilometres up a winding, steep and at times slippery dirt road, across a creek that might or might not be dry, deep in the bush near Wollombi.
And out here snakes are part of the territory, black and brown snakes mostly – there’s plenty of bird and wombat feed around which attracts mice, which in turn brings in the snakes.
“We did have a Tiger snake up here not long ago,” Kevin says. “We don’t see many of those though thankfully.”
As we step inside there’s no searching for wombats. They find you. Wombats are running between Kevin’s legs as he walks.
“We have sixteen at the moment,” he says. “At one stage we had 35 but it was just too much.”
Kevin is a big man – a bushie through and through – and as he walks past the wombats he picks them up and gives their belly a rub, just as you might your pet dog.
Do they bite, I ask?
“Hell yeah … it can hurt too. It’s a bit like someone grabs you with a pair of pliers and then shakes.”
We go through another gate, into the inner sanctum where Roz greets us with their newest addition, tiny orphan Binda under her arm, safely snuggled up in a warm blanket.
“We both work full time so we have to manage our time,” Roz says. “Kev drives trucks and is gone all day. Fortunately I can organise my day around what I have to do here.”
Her current mission, aside from keeping an eye on the male wombat in their intensive care unit (an inside pen in their hospital area) is to find a playmate for Binda whose mum was killed in a road accident.
It was touch and go whether she would make, but things are looking good now.
By now one of the wombats from outside has circled around to the other side of the yard and has her nose up against the gate wanting to get in.
“That’s Winnie. She’s sulking because when you came in Kev didn’t give her any attention.”
But this is no place for Winnie. She belongs outside with the grown ups. In here are two male juveniles – way too big for Binda, but not big enough to be outside with the adults – Socksie and Piglet.
Kevin lets them out of their pen. Socksie is the adventurous one, running between our legs, gently nudging us, clearly having the time of his life. “He’s showing off for you,” Roz says.
Piglet is far more reserved.
“See that hole over there, they did that in an afternoon,” Kev says, shaking his head. “Just one day.”
Truth is there are burrows everywhere … under the stairs, a couple in under the shed, in the pens.
I ask Roz if she can identify all the wombats. She tells me there’s usually a feature they can latch on to.
“Look at that big face,”she says, pointing to one. “You can’t mistake that. That’s Rodney. And Socksie has a whiter foot than the other. And that one had his ears were savaged by a dog, so he’s easy to pick.”
She stops, puzzled. “I’m not sure who that is though.”
To be fair, he was heading in the other direction, away from us, and all Roz had to go on was a curvy, hairy backside. It seems all wombat backsides must look alike.
So how does it all work I ask Roz, a trained veterinary nurse who looks after the medical side of things.
“The common problems we have with wombats are road accidents, mange and dog attacks,” Roz explains.
“If they’re really bad they go to intensive care, otherwise we’ll give them a pen of their own.”
Younger ones like Piglet and Socksie are kept separate.
“When a wombat has just about recovered we’ll start spreading his poo around outside so the others will get to know the smell. Then a few days later we’ll open the pen door and they’re free to run outside with the other wombats. Sometimes they might get scared and rush back to their pen, but eventually they’ll go outside.”
Occasionally they will get into fights, but that’s where big Rodney comes in. He’s the alpha male.
“Rodney sorts it out pretty quickly,” Kevin says.
Once in this outer area the wombats can leave as they like and head off into the bush.
“Some go for good, some might disappear for a day or two then come back. It’s up to them,” Roz says. “I love it when a wombat wanders back through after they’ve been gone a while. It’s very rewarding.”
As a trained veterinary nurse, Roz looks after all things medical. And while the house is nothing flash, the hospital is well equipped with everything Roz needs to sedate, x-ray and operate on an injured wombat.
“We’re really lucky to have volunteers and organisations that help raise money for us with raffles, building work or whatever.”
She mentions her good friend Sophie – “a godsend – and those who have helped build and equip their hospital. Wineries such as Wombat Crossing and Mistletoe have been generous too.
“Just the feed bill here is about $350 a week,” Roz says. “That probably explains why the renovations to the house still haven’t been finished,” she says with a laugh.
Roz microchips all the wombats so she can keep a track on their progress. And just recently she had a zoo in Russia call her for advice on their wombats – the wombat whisperer.
She carefully documents her work because she has her on views on treating mange – a debilitating disease that is a major problem for wombats and, if left untreated, can lead to a most uncomfortable death.
“A couple of those guys had mange,” she says, nodding towards the food shed where Kevin is heading with wombats hot on his tail. “Look at their coats now. That’s proof that my way is working.”
Kevin spreads a line of food on the ground and suddenly their are eight adult wombats and two kangaroos tucking in.
Who’s the boss, I ask Kevin?
“The wombats. They’ll share with the kangaroos, but if the roos start taking too much they’ll bite their toes. That gets them hopping.
“You call that a wisdom.”
He can see I’m puzzled. “A gathering of wombats. The collective noun … a wisdom.”
Roz and Kevin look after injured kangaroos too, and that’s why they’re sharing space with the wombats. They’ll even jump the fence into the wombat pens for a snack in between feeds. Just on the other side of the fence is a herd of roos having a graze on the grass.
“A few of those I’ve looked after,” Roz says as she leans over the fence to pat a few. “They know we won’t harm them, and that we sometimes throw some food over the fence.”
One of the bugbears for Roz is people who try to look after wombats, especially young ones like Binda who are serious cuties. Sure enough, they will grow up and problems occur.
“It’s so important they get the right milk and diet as joeys. And then they’re going to start chewing things. That’s what they do. We had one come here and it had been brought up inside a house. When we got it the woman was disappointed we were going to put it in a pen outside. Can you believe that? It didn’t even have the digging instinct.”
Kevin chimes in.
“When they get to about two they’ll go wild, want to mate, that sort of thing. They can be really hard to handle.
“We have pens here where we just throw the food over and let them be. If we go in they’ll bite … they don’t want to interract, and that’s fine. They’re wild animals.”
And their other human gripes are worse.
“People come up here with dogs. They’ll hunt or they’ll let the dogs savage a wombat or a roo. I can’t stand that. And what about those idiots with bows and arrows. That’s just forcing animals into a painful, drawn out death. I don’t know what makes them tick, I really don’t.”
And just recently they have had rave parties on the adjoining property to deal with. The effect on the animals, both inside and outside the shelter, is profound.
“They’re spooked, all of them,” Kevin says. “It goes on all weekend, days at a time. I had to turn on the generator to try to drain the noise out. We couldn’t get any sleep and the animals were really, really distressed. As an animal hospital you hate to see anything that upsets them like that.
“When the party finally finished we went out for a walk into the bush and there were no animals around … none. Anywhere. It was eery, just nothing around. And out here there’s always animals around. That’s just not right.”
I ask Roz if she does much bushwalking.
“I go out quite a lot. For me there’s nothing more pleasing than to turn around out in the bush and see two, three, sometimes four wombats following me that we’ve looked after here at the hospital.
“Nothing can beat that.”
Who said the Pied Piper was a man?