Kangas and Wombats and Sheep, Oh My!

Merriwa is a pretty little town in the Upper Hunter Valley, founded in the early 19th Century, once a bustling center that provided services for agriculture in the area which was dominated by sheep and wool processing. The old depot next to the rail line that used to transport bales of wool and bushels of wheat to market was long defunct, but had been restored by devoted citizens, smartened up by fresh paint and flowers on the platform. The main street was lined with the typical small town businesses – a local bakery, a cafe that served flat whites and espressos and a visitors information center.
In Australia, just about every single little speck on the map has an info center where visitors can get free maps, brochures on accommodation, info on various area attractions, and so on. But the Merriwa center had a bit extra, Outside the center, attached to the side wall of the neighboring Iron Bark Cafe, a sculpture of corrugated steel depicting oxen pulling a cart full of wool bales to market. Inside, a huge room full of long tables placed end to end, displaying a nearly infinite variety of hand-made crafts. Quality: Excellent. Taste: Varied. Turned wooden bowls and lamp bases, felted wool, knitted sweaters and singlets and scarves and hats, beaded jewelry – and embroidery. Embroidered tea towels, hand towels, bath towels, finger-tip towels, baby bonnets, baby towels, crib bumpers, onesies, singlets, little girls’ dresses, stuffed animals, soft fabric books, boxer shorts, baby booties, blankets, table runners, place mats, napkin rings, baby quilts, face cloths, a lamp shade, gum boots, tuna cans … Okay, I didn’t see any gum boots. But there could have been. I kept moving, nervous that if I stood still, I was in danger of being embroidered.
On the other side of the expanse of crafts was a museum dedicated to the agricultural implements of days past. There was a collection of old tractors, of which I took several photographs for my father who collects models of these things and likes to go pet tractors in captivity across the U.S. There was also a model of a sheering platform, complete with some of the canvas bags that made up bales of wool, each one with a stamp unique to the station – sort of like the brands in the western U.S. I noticed that there weren’t any sort of interpretive placards for those of us who don’t know much about sheep shearing and wool processing. Maybe it’s just assumed that everybody in Australia does?
Once finished at the visitors center, we were off to visit friends of M. to have homemade pumpkin soup and see some marsupials that they happened to be nursing. They had three wombats – sizes small, medium and large – every one of them looking like they needed a pedicure. Serious claws. Two adolescent kangaroos were out on the back deck, and I was told that it was okay to go check them out. Skittish little things, but they probably thought I was a strange looking kangaroo.
There was another recuperating guest, but I didn’t notice him right away, even though I walked right by him. In the dining room, on the drawer pull of a hutch, hung a shopping bag – just a simple cloth shopping bag, the kind that grocery stores sell for a dollar or businesses give away as promotional items. The bag looked lumpy, like it was full of apples, or maybe potatoes. When I stepped back inside after visiting the two young ones out on the back deck, I could have sworn that the bag moved. Stopped in my tracks, I looked over at the nursemaids, who were looking at me.
Me: Did that just move? That bag?
She: Probably.
Me: Why did that just move?
She: Because there’s something in there.
Me: What is the something that’s in there?
She walked over and gently removed the bag from the knob and carried it out to the deck. Sitting down in a chair, she pulled a wiggly something wrapped up in an old sweatshirt out onto her lap. Out popped a little ‘roo by the name of Jack. Turns out that the shopping bag and sweatshirt were a substitute for mama kanga’s pouch. This little one was an orphan with a dislocated foot – problematic for a species whose form of locomotion is hopping.
So I sat and watched this woman mother the little orphaned one, getting him a clean pouch, wrapping him up in a clean snuggly, and cleaning him up. He was suffering from thrush, a yeast infection, and while we talked, she just kept cleaning him and rubbing him. In humans, thrush is caused by an imbalance in the system that allows yeast to overcome the beneficial bacteria that keeps it in check; in baby ‘roos, it’s caused by stress. She pointed out that the younger an animal is when it’s found, the more immune-compromised it can be. The flip side is that young animals tend to be more trusting since they haven’t yet been entirely acclimated to the natural environment. Once Jack was cleaned up, yummies were served – in this case, colostrum, since baby kangaroos get colostrum the entire time they’re in the pouch, about 15 months.
As we chatted about wild critters and the care and feeding thereof, one of the nursemaids pointed out that you can buy a baby kangaroo or a wallaby dressed up in a little tutu in the U.S. the general tone of this comment was reproachful. Once again, I was put in the position of having to answer for my country. It’s a damn big country (yes, the Lower 48 alone are bigger than Australia, you guys) and I’m getting tired of having to answer for all the idiots over there. After all, I’m sure that there are NO idiots in Australia. And, when I hear things like that, I’m never sure if I am supposed to apologize or explain … or if the people relaying the information are saying it to show me how awful my country is: “Oh, good! Here’s an American! We can vent all our shit on her, tell her in an indirect way how much her country sucks!” Or maybe I’m just sensitive. I pointed out that it’s a good thing that I’m not one of those people, and that it’s sad that there are individuals all over the world who are intent on having wild animals as pets, whether they should or not. They had to conceded this point, and the conversation moved on to other topics.
I learned a bit from the surrogate ‘roo mum. For example, you can tell the health of a ‘roo by looking at the circumference of the base of its tail. It should be nice and thick. Female kangaroos can choose when to develop an embryo after they are fertilized.
(Digression Alert: Wouldn’t that be nice? Probably solve a lot of unwed mother issues in the U.S. Oh, wait. Then the religious right would be busy telling women when they could choose to develop an embryo. Or when to get fertilized in the first place. Oh, wait. The Catholic Church already does that. And they’d probably be saying that personhood starts at the moment of fertilization, even before the embryo or no embryo. Oh, wait, they already do that, too. Never mind. See? I can be critical of my country – but you can’t.)
Back to interesting kangaroo info. If a male kangaroo coughs when confronted by another male, it’s a sign of submission. Same if they’ve been fighting. A cough means “uncle.” When a male kangaroo fights, he not only boxes with his forelegs, but also leans back on his tail to kick with his hind legs. The sharpness of his claws and force of the blow can eviscerate his opponent. Some of these things I learned from a fascinating documentary called “Faces in the Mob.” (FYI: A bunch of kangaroos is called a mob.) The film was produced by the University of New England, one of the several schools in Armidale, NSW, where I spent time HelpEx-ing. For anyone planning a trip to Australia, it’s worth a look. Even if you’re not coming to Australia, it’s still worth viewing.
In general, most animals that end up in care have been injured by cars. Kangaroos jump out across the road much like deer do in North America. Wombats do the same thing, although sometimes they wander out because they’ve gone blind from mange. (Foxes, a non-native species, carry mange, next in wombat dens, wombats get infected and go blind, wander out on the road, and get hit. Mange can be treated, but since the wombat doesn’t develop immunity, it can get infected again.) M. stops to pull hit ‘roos off the road, and always checks to see if there’s a live joey that can be saved in the pouch. One night, I helped drag a big male off the road by his tail. I’ll admit, I didn’t want to touch it, but wanted to see it up close. Big guy. Heavy. I admit that M. did most of the work. Another night, she came back with a fetal joey that she found in the pouch of a dead female. It had died, too, a furless pink-skinned little alien thing.
We headed back to the stud to see if any other fat ladies had popped yet. In a few days, I would head off to Sydney to see if I could extend my visa and not have to leave the country every 90 days.

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