Break out the Champaign and some tough
roots, grass, and bark for the guest of honor! It’s Wombat
Day Down Under. It’s an ancient
tradition stretching all the way back to 2005. And so what if those asses in Canberra haven’t
gotten around to making it a legal
holiday with the Post Office
closed, military parades, and bands
playing Waltzing Mathilda, it’s good enough to raise a can of Foster’s and throw another shrimp on the barbie.
The occasion celebrates those cuddly short-legged, muscular marsupials native to Australia with pudgy snouts and short tails
that resemble small, over-fed
bears. They are adaptable to
Australia’s various often in hospitable environments from arid semi-desert to forests
and mountain sides. Not that anyone actually sees them much
in the wild. That’s because they are the world’s largest burrowing mammals—adults
average about 40 inches long and can weigh between 35 and 70 pounds—and spend
much of their lives in the their extensive burrow
systems. Being nocturnal they generally only come out to dine at night except for the rare darkly overcast, rainy day.
The stout little beasts have powerful forelimbs with impressive
claws for digging and large rodent-like incisors to gnaw through their tough diet choices. Their natural
predators were few—the dingo, now
extinct Tasmanian devil, and, of
course humans. Over the last century feral dogs have heavily damaged the
are naturally both slow moving and shy, but can be aggressive when
startled or threatened. They have been
known to charge humans who get near
them and are large and heavy enough to knock down a grown man. Their long, sharp claws can slash human flesh and bites can penetrate stout boots and thick socks. On the other
hand, humans, both Aborigines and
early White settlers hunted them for
food. The settlers, with their fire arms and hunting dogs, quickly reduced the Wombat population and range
over much of the southeastern part of the Continent.
Despite holding a day in their
honor, Australians have a mighty ambivalent
attitude toward the wombat. The
Aborigines did not seem to esteem them,
despite relying on them as a protein
source. They did not imbue them with
the spiritual powers and
significance of other animals—kangaroos,
snakes, crocodiles, sharks, etc.—in
their Dreamtime mythologies and
seldom depicted them in their rock art. The origin
story about them is hardly flattering—originating
from a person named Warreen whose head had been flattened by
a stone and tail amputated as punishment
When white settlers—most of them,
you will recall, transported prisoners and
their military guards—arrived, their
opinion of the creatures was not much better.
At first because of the similarity of size and burrow habitations they
were mistaken for a kind of badger,
the large European weasel and omnivore totally unrelated the local marsupial. Several Australian place names containing the name badger—Badger Creek, Victoria and
Badger Corner, Tasmania for instance—are
really named for wombats.
The English adopted the name from a
corruption of the now extinct Darug
Aboriginal language. In 1798 John Price was exploring in what is now New South Wales with James
Wilson who had lived with the Aborigines when he recorded in his diary:
We saw several sorts of dung
of different animals, one of which Wilson called a Whom-batt, which is an animal about 20 inches high, with short legs
and a thick body with a large head, round ears, and very small eyes; is very
fat, and has much the appearance of a badger.
That dung or scat is among the most tell-tale
signs of the presence of wombats.
Because of their fibrous diet and
highly efficient digestive process,
wombats leave distinctive, compact cubical
It took much of the 19th Century to standardize the spelling of the animal.
Meanwhile they were being hunted for meat, sport, and because their burrowing was seen as a nuisance to farming and particularly sheep
grazing. The Europeans characterized
the animals in their own folk stories as
fat, lazy, and greedy.
By the early 20th Century all three species—the
common wombat, Northern Hairy-nosed
Wombat, and Southern Hairy-nosed
Wombat—were all under pressure.
Wombats were classified as vermin in 1906, and a bounty was placed on them in 1925. The results were entirely predictable.
The Northern Hairy-nosed Wombat is
extremely endangered. Only 138 were known to survive as of 2007 and
their range confined to the Epping
Forest National Park in Queensland where
they are protected behind a predator
proof fence. Tenuous efforts have
been made to re-establish another colony at the Richard Underwood Nature Refuge at Yarran Downs. The species
has become a symbol of Australian efforts to preserve endangered species.
But their Southern cousins and the
now far-from Common Wombat are also under extreme pressure. All species have been declared protected in all states but Victoria where the Department of Environment and Primary Industries still classifies
them as a pest and allows both
hunting and in some cases, poisoning.
Attempts by conservationists to manage a recovery
of the population are hindered by the low
fertility and reproductive rates of wombats. Adult females produce only one offspring each
breeding season after a gestation of 20-21 days. They carry the joey in their well-developed
pouches for seven months. Alone
among marsupials, the wombat pouch opens toward the animal’s rear. This prevents the joey from being smothered by dirt as the mother expands
her burrow during which her powerful front legs and claws toss dirt behind
her. The babies emerge as furry miniature adults. They are weaned
at 15 months and on their own and sexually
active at a year and a half.
The threatened and endangered status
of wombats has evoked some degree of public
sympathy and affection for the
previously scorned critter. They are
sometimes used as a symbol for conservation efforts and have even appeared on Australian postage in recent years,
something that their more glamorous
Tasmanian Devils, and Platypuses achieved
Wombat prestige has also been boosted as they funny looking animals have
become staples of Australian kiddy
picture books, children’s literature, and children’s television. One popular animated series features a wombat
Still the creatures lag behind those
other iconic Aussie animals in public acceptance. No Australian professional or college
sports team has adopted the wombat as their mascot.
Perhaps that is why fans of the animal launched Wombat Day
in 2005. It seeks to honor the animal,
but has more than a touch of tongue-in-cheek
humor about it. The only customs I could find associated with
the celebration are viewing parties at
zoos and animal preserves and baking
and consuming homemade chocolate cakes or
brownies made in the shape of a
wombat. Which leads me to suspect that
the chocolate industry may be behind
much of the annual promotion of the
holiday. Oh, they also consume a confection called Wine Gums. Beats the hell
out of me what they are.
October 22 was supposedly chosen
because it is smack dab in the middle
of the Southern Hemisphere spring
planting season and there are said to be certain vague traditions linking wombats with fertility. These claims are open to question.
Anyway, there you have it. A new reason to celebrate. And coming in the midst of the semi-lockdown of the Coronavirus pandemic leaves us all a bonkers this writer needs a cause to celebrate something. Pass the Wombat Cake.