Becoming an Animal’s Friend
By: Brad Davis, Animal Care Technician
Last year, one of our two Wallabies passed away. They grew up together, played together, and enjoyed each other’s company. Now Surprise, the surviving wallaby, was alone.
New experiences scare wallabies; they are skittish around people and adjusting to new circumstances is difficult. When the staff and volunteers would go in Surprise’s area, he would quickly hop away. He was lonely and confused and you could feel the stress in his life. What should we do? How could we help him out?
The staff discussed getting another wallaby. Would Surprise adjust to a new animal in his territory? Would they get along? Would this cause even more stress for our wonderful wallaby?
I must admit, I felt deeply for his loss. Maybe this was because I recently dealt with loss in my own family. How can you help an exotic animal like a wallaby? What are they thinking? What do they enjoy?
Since Surprise was leery of people, I decided on a simple approach: I sat. I found a small stool and sat in the middle of his yard. He either stayed in his corner or hopped inside, but he kept his eyes (and ears) on me. He probably thought, “What is this human doing in my yard?”
I watched him closely. I learned that wallabies use their ears like radar. One ear can follow noises 180 degrees in a different direction from the other ear. Watching his body language, he helped me discover when he tensed up and stressed out, and when he was happy and relaxed. Turns out, wallabies are very expressive animals.
After a few weeks, his curiosity got the best of him. He started to move within about ten feet of me – progress! Now, how do I show him that he can trust me? I went to the internet and read about wallabies. I learned they can run over 40 mph and can jump over 10 feet high. Plus … they love sunflower seeds!
Food! That was the trick. I bought some organic sunflower seeds and then sat in his yard, holding my hand out with the seeds in my palm. He came within a few feet of me. I chatted with him in an encouraging tone. He couldn’t resist. Food!
Surprise hopped over to me, put his face in my palm and began to eat. I wanted to shout for joy, but that would have scared him, so I told him, “good boy.” Oh, did he love the sunflower seeds!
Over the course of a few weeks, with repeated offerings of sunflower seeds in my palm, Surprise began to accept that I was a friend. He felt safe and secure. The tension in his body was less than in previous weeks. Then one day, he really wanted his sunflower seeds. He hopped over to me, reached out, and grabbed my hand. Now, a wallaby has claws about an inch long. I thought I was in big trouble. He could claw me to pieces. Instead, his tiny hands gripped my fingers with just the right amount of pressure. He held my hand while he ate. When he finished, he looked up at me as if to say thank you. He let go of my hand and hopped away. I just about melted. I had a new friend!
Surprise was overcoming his fears and feeling comfortable around me, but there was a problem. I am not there every hour of every day. Surprise needed to learn to trust others.
One by one, I began having other staff members and volunteers come with me to feed Surprise. I took each new person into his yard and we both held out our hands containing sunflower seeds. As Surprise hopped over to us, I pulled back my hand and Surprise ate from the staff member’s hand. My friendship with Surprise gave the green light for him to accept other people. What an amazing break through!
Today, Surprise is interacting with the staff and volunteers daily. He enjoys back rubs and petting. As I watch others interact with him, I realize how much joy he brings to the people around him. I’ve seen volunteers walk out of his yard with smiles so big they light up the sky. All this joy because a little wallaby ate from their hand.
Can we connect with animals? Yes! This Wallaby proved we can reach more animals than we realize. These animals can touch our hearts in ways we never expected. Surprise is appropriately named. He was surprised to find companions in his human caretakers and we were surprised to find a wonderful friend.
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