Photographer calls for help after 'rock' at dam's edge begins to move

The woman's next thought was that she'd spotted a rat. But when she got closer, she realised it was something she'd never seen before.

Shot from a distance, we can see the tiny wombat drinking in the dam in Canberra.
What originally looked like a rock was actually a tiny marsupial. Source: Angela Booth

It’s a rock, it’s a rat, no it’s a baby wombat. They were the quick succession of thoughts a photographer had after she spotted an odd looking creature at the edge of a dam last week.

“There are occasionally boulders around the edge of the water. But then it moved,” Canberra woman Angela Booth told Yahoo News on Monday.

Fascinated by her strange discovery, Booth made her way towards the edge of the dam. Horses were standing nearby and she was determined not to spook them in case they ran towards the hairy little animal.

“It was drinking from the dam and I thought maybe it was a rakali – a native water rat. But it didn’t look quite right,” she said.

“When I got closer I thought that’s a wombat. But it’s a really, really small one.”

Related: Unseen photos of Tasmanian tigers spark 'wonderful' hope more could be discovered

The small wombat drinking from a horse dam in Canberra.
The wombat was dehydrated and drinking copious amounts of water. Source: Angela Booth

Concerned about the tiny nocturnal marsupial being alone by the water’s edge during the day, Booth called for help and a small team of wombat experts arrived.

Yolandi Vermaak, who runs Wombat Rescue, gathered a group of five volunteers. But when they arrived, the 11-month-old juvenile wombat took fright.

“We spread out and were walking really slowly towards it. The horses in the paddock were very curious and they started stampeding. And as soon as they did she ran into a little rabbit burrow,” Vermaak recalled.

“I have a suspicion something similar might have happened when she separated from her mum. The horses probably spooked mum and she bolted.”

Close up of the 11-month-old wombat with its eyes clearly closed.
The tiny wombat was unable to open its eyes because of mange. Source: Angela Booth

Because the baby was suffering from mange, a parasitic disease spread to native wildlife from foxes, her eyes had fused shut. This made it impossible for her to find her mum again.

“If you think about something like a lioness she would come back for her cubs. But with wombats, they need to stay nose-to-tail with their mums,” Vermaak said.

“That's the way that they survive — if mum runs they have to keep up. Mum is not going to stop and check if baby is keeping up and she won’t come back.”

Because the wombat was so small, Vermaak was able to patiently sit on her knees above the burrow and wait for her chance to grab her from above. While she’s doing well in care, her mange is so severe it’s unclear if she will pull through.

“We're not out of the woods yet. But I'm hopeful she will make it because she's young and strong. And very, very feisty,” Vermaak said.

Yolandi Vermaak holding the tiny wombat in the horse paddock in Canberra.
The wombat that Yolandi Vermaak rescued was so small it was able to fit in a rabbit burrow. Source: Angela Booth

Sadly mange is continuing to spread across Canberra. Clear signs of the disease are wombats venturing out during the day because they can’t see, and patchy, mottled hair.

A decade ago, most wombats with mange were euthanised, but treating the infection is now possible. But doing so is time consuming and rescuers are reliant on property owners reporting its presence so they can medicate the animals.

“The problem is so big. I feel quite despondent some days,” Vermaak said.

“We used to say 70 per cent of all wild populations were affected, but that number is slowly increasing. It’s pretty rare to get a mange-free area now.”

Love Australia's weird and wonderful environment? Get our new newsletter showcasing the week’s best stories.