Gem the baby wombat, Healesville Sanctuary, Healesville, Victoria
Right now, a zoo near Melbourne is offering an outrageously cute experience with Gem, the baby wombat.
By Katrina Lobley
Published: 18 August, 2017
Healesville Sanctuary – a zoo near Melbourne – caused chaos when it recently announced that its baby wombat, Gem, was looking for human playmates. For the past three weeks, the zoo has been offering “pat the baby wombat” encounters with Gem – a unique experience where visitors can visit Gem’s enclosure to pat her, cuddle her and play with her. It's an opportunity that finishes shortly, but the sanctuary has now announced a new encounter with Gem, where lucky zoo-goers can get to know her sweet and playful nature firsthand.
According to the zookeepers at Healesville Sanctuary, Gem is a typical baby wombat – sweet, gentle and very playful. Baby wombats normally stay with their mum until around two years of age, but because Gem's been hand-raised (it’s believed her mum was killed by a car as Gem was found injured by the side of a road) she actually craves human company and tends to follow the zookeepers around, trailing behind them and staying as close as can be.
“She definitely loves cuddles,” confirms Katherine Sarris, one of the zookeepers who has been looking after Gem. “She's normally quite calm, although she gets a bit squirmy when she sits on your lap. And she gets quite excited when people arrive to play. She loves going for walks, too.”
Visitors who have met Gem during the “pat the baby wombat” experience have been able to hold her, give her cuddles and watch as she is fed her bottle of milk. Some have also discovered the trick to winning Gem’s heart – a scratch on her rear end. “She gets all wriggly and backs into your hand, wanting more,” Sarris says. Other things Gem enjoys include sweet potato (her favourite food) and getting into her crate, which she knows means an adventure is coming. “Gem is transported in a little crate, so when she sees it she knows she’s going somewhere new,” explains Sarris. “She gets excited and hops straight in.”
Growing up fast
Although Gem’s “pat the baby wombat” experience finishes on September 17, there’s good news for anyone who still wants to meet her – the zoo is now offering lucky visitors a Wombat Pat and Play experience with Gem.
“Gem is now 10 months old and growing up fast,” says Sarris. “Although she’s still little – about the size of a soccer ball – she’s not such a baby anymore. Wombats become more serious as they grow up, and less interested in cuddles, so the older Gem gets the more independent she will be.”
That’s still a while off, though. Right now, if you head to the zoo’s Wombat Pat and Play exhibition, you can touch, pat and pose for a photo with Gem and her two wombat mates, who are at an age when they’re discovering all the excitement of growing up. “Sometimes, when someone enters the Pat and Play pen, they virtually do cartwheels – they spin around and around and get silly,” Sarris says. "Wombats can actually run 100 metres (109 yards) in 10 seconds – they're fast and funny.”
And, although fully grown wombats have fur that’s quite coarse, Gem and her friends still have their baby fur. “She’s very soft and her fur is shiny and glossy,” says Sarris. “However, she’s quite heavy, which is normal for wombats. At nearly 10 kilos (22lb), holding her feels like a holding a bowling ball!”
More baby animals
Healesville has other baby animals worth meeting, too. One of the zoo’s resident koalas, Emily, has recently been spotted with a bulging pouch and keepers expect to see a fluffy little head poking out of it by October. By Christmas, the new little koala will be riding around on her back.
And that’s not the only pint-sized star currently winning over fans around the country. At Queensland’s Australia Zoo, you can meet Macadamia – the baby boy koala who emerged from mum Willow’s pouch in June. At Western Plains Zoo in Dubbo, five hours’ drive from Sydney, a baby black rhino named Mesi makes her public debut this month. The zoo is also home to four male lion cubs, which are at their most active in the morning when they pounce, chase and wrestle each other before taking catnaps during the hottest part of the day. At Sydney’s Taronga Zoo, an Asian elephant calf named Jai Dee (it means “good heart”) loves splashing around in a paddling pool that his keepers made from a rainwater tank. His other hobbies include swimming and running between paddocks.
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