Koalas, kangaroos and wombats, oh my | VailDaily.com

Koalas, kangaroos and wombats, oh my

Laura Bell
Special to the Daily

Nothing smells quite as sweet as a eucalyptus-chewing koala. You can experience that smell yourself at the Ballarat Wildlife Park in Victoria, Australia. Just a 90-minute drive from Melbourne — let's face it, if you are halfway around the world what's another hour and a half — this Zoo and Aquarium Association certified park offers encounters with some of the world's cutest animals and questionably-cute reptiles.

Founded by Greg Parker in 1985, the park has multiple exhibits from the aforementioned koalas to wombats, Tasmanian devils, dingoes and alligators to a large display of lizards, snakes and free-roaming kangaroos.

The kangaroos, some replete with joeys in pocket, are a curious bunch and next to the koala perhaps the park's biggest draw. For a few dollars you can purchase kangaroo feed and entertain yourself for hours as these creatures will hop to an open hand and greedily nibble the treats. When one kangaroo discovers a fellow co-hort is being fed, more follow with a bounce in their hop.

"Seeing our animals thriving and the joy they bring to our visitors and us when they are so tame is our greatest joy in running the park," said Julie Parker, the park's co-owner. "We aim at contributing to the survival of the environments that we ultimately share with them."

The Parkers and their son Stuart believe that connecting with the animals will help promote awareness and empathy.

However there are strict guidelines in place.

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"We have time limits and restrictions on handling of our animals as we have a strong belief in animals come first values," Parker explained. So while you can take a selfie with a koala, there won't be cuddles because it is not in the koala's best interest.

Face to face with Fatso

There is one mammal that likes to get up close and personal: the wombat. These marsupials, which keep the young in a back pouch so they can dig and not suffocate the offspring, make grunting noises and squeal like a pig.

Along with Nicole Kidman, a wombat made guest appearances in an Australian soap opera, "A Country Practice." The practice was a veterinary clinic and the domesticated wombat was called Fatso. The name stuck and Australians affectionately refer to the wild animals as Fatsoes. In fact the unofficial 2000 Australian Olympic mascot was "Fatso the fat-arsed Wombat."

Patrick the wombat was the largest and oldest living wombat in the world. His death in 2017 was covered on CNN and the BBC.

"The park prides itself on holding records of longevity as well as successful breeding. All of our native mammals have bred each year. We also breed many reptiles in captivity," Parker said.

Teeth and tails

Greg started the park following his work at another sanctuary. His passion was in reptiles mainly, however he branched out into mammals as he did have experience and knowledge with other species, Parker explained.

She, too, has extensive animal experience and after a few moments of searching for a Tasmanian devil to no avail, she hopped into the enclosure. In just a few moments, a devil appeared teeth snarling and Parker deftly leaped back out. Unfortunately this species is classified as critically endangered no longer exists throughout the country, but only on the island state of Tasmania. Ballarat Wildlife Park was the first privately owned park to breed the animal on the mainland.

Alas tree kangaroos are also facing extinction and the park keeps this breed of kangaroo in a special enclosure. There are limited interactions, which like other animal interactions, must be booked in advanced. These curious-looking creatures measure about 30 inches, not including their 16 to 34-inch tails. They do not look like typical kangaroos and have adapted to climb trees, hence their moniker.

The dingoes have a large enclosed area and run freely. Truth be told, these feral dogs look like orange-tinted Labradors, but when a nearby siren wails in the distance, their wolf-like howl is bone chilling. After the offending noise stops, the dingoes resume their activities, no babies were eaten during the melee. In fact this is one animal you cannot get close too, but if you want to handle a snake, that too, can be arranged.

Between the many exhibits, wildlife education talks, feeding of the kangaroos and countless photo ops, it's possible to spend multiple days at the park. There is an on-site cafe, which offers a wide variety of meals, drinks and snacks to keep visitors fueled for their amazing adventures.