Behind the scenes at Healesville Sanctuary
22.11.2008 - 23.11.2008 17 °C
Small ripples broke the calm of the dark, watery enclosure as we peered cautiously through the back door. “Milson!” The keeper called impatiently. We held our breath as a dim shape glided slowly towards us. Small, beady eyes glared at us as it slipped out of the water and waddled up the bank in our direction.
“There you are!” The keeper reached in and swept him up by the thick, beaver-like tail, wrapping him in a towel. “This is Milson, one of our platypuses. Go ahead and pat him.”
The platypus has to be one of the strangest creatures on the planet, looking a bit like a beaver’s failed attempt to swallow a duck; mammals that very peculiarly lay eggs then nurse the hatchlings, and use electro-receptors to forage under water. I find them best described by the phrase “What the f&@%, mate?”
A leathery bill closed around my finger, worrying it with surprising ferocity for a creature you could fit in shoebox. “You’re cute, mate, but it’s a bit hard to be fierce without teeth,” I said, patting the platypus fondly with the hand he wasn’t using a chew-toy.
The keeper smiled slyly, “Well, he’s actually just trying to get your hand in reach of his venomous spurs.”
“Oh.” I quickly withdrew both hands. Why is it that even the adorable, furry things in Australia have to be perilous? Male platypuses have spurs on their back ankles that hold a powerful venom which short-circuits pain receptors. It won’t kill you, just make you wish you were dead. In some cases even morphine can’t relieve the excruciating pain that can last for months. As ‘spurred by a platypus’ was not on my list of desired Australian adventures, we finished our careful patting and bade Milson a fond farewell.
My mate Marcus worked at Healesville Sanctuary before moving to Phillip Island and kindly offered to take myself and Ilka, a German post-doc penguin researcher, along for the grand tour. After being gnawed on by a platypus I felt like the luckiest kid in the world (mostly in the joyful sense, but with a little ‘lucky-I’ve-escaped-with-my-life’ thrown in), from there it just got more amazing.
Healesville is home only to native Australian fauna. Many of its residents are rescued animals that couldn’t be returned to the wild, or threatened species kept for conservation and captive-breeding programs. They also have a remarkably visitor-interactive, nationally renowned wildlife hospital on site that welcomes all injured wildlife, great and small.
In the reptile house we met gorgeous Chantilly the Lace Monitor (pun intended), as well as a mother python incubating her eggs, and were quite happy to observe the deadly Taipans and Tiger snakes from behind a thick layer of glass.
Marcus and Chantilly the Lace monitor
From there we made our way to the Nocturnal House, where we were lucky enough to catch keeper James at his feeding rounds. We hung bits of raw chicken from tree branches to give the spotted quoll a bit of a workout for his dinner. A rabbit-sized bilby snuffled mealworms out of my palm while Ilka dangled a dead mouse for a tawny frogmouth to swallow in one gulp. Funny enough, there’s actually been a movement in Australia to celebrate the “Easter Bilby” instead of encouraging a fondness for the highly invasive and damaging rabbit.
Bilby Photo courtesy of the Australian government (environment.gov.au)
Ilka and a Ringtail possum
I found myself standing in a dusky, red-lit enclosure staring up at two jet-black, raccoon-sized furballs with huge eyes, large, bat-like ears and long tails. The gliders stared back hesitantly, radiating a sense of “We’re not coming down unless you show us the goods.” I held out a dish of nectar enticingly and they warily clambered down to head height, sniffed, then promptly grabbed the dish (and my fingers) in their needle-sharp claws and buried their faces in the syrupy snack. These incredible critters can soar through forest canopy using only the loose folds of skin connecting their elbows and ankles.
Just before we were shooed out for closing we got to meet an orphaned echidna puggle! They only feed once every five days and spend the rest of their time buried in a makeshift burrow, so we were incredibly fortunate to catch it. The adorable little grapefruit-sized bundle just had his spikes coming in, so he was a little prickly to hold but well worth the trouble.
Not too many people can say they’ve been pricked by a puggle, snuffled by a bilby, or gnawed by a platypus. By far this was one of the most incredible days I have had in my life, and certainly one of my most memorable Australian experiences.