Killer Story – A Savage Wombat Tale

In the country of killer crocs, killer snakes, spiders under every toilet seat, and drop bears in every tree, nothing makes for as potent click-bait as a tale of animal versus human. Just look at the NT News. So one can imagine the relish of Canberra Times’ editors when given the opportunity to write this headline:

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It’s the story with everything; an epic battle between animal and human worthy of Melville, a cute furry critter, local interest, and it’s even an “EXCLUSIVE”. I gather CNN’s South Canberra correspondent was at the pub when this story was breaking.

Lucky for us “padawan” journo Katie Burgess had felt a disturbance in the force, and bravely ventured to the dark side… well the south side at least, to investigate. In a story full of breathless quotes from the victim, we’re told of the struggle as this small, furry, keg shaped gladiator charged the woman and her dogs out of the blue, inflicting a savage attack that ceased only with the intervention of passers-by. The assailant disappeared into the night, eluding rangers who presumably would have ensured such a violent criminal was immediately sent to the Hume Hilton.

In this story did we discover some shocking bloodlust in Wombats that had gone unnoticed until now? Are we to follow the advice at the end of the article from the victim, to flee whenever a Wombat is seen? No, of course not.

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Wombat outside Queanbeyan

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Wombats are typically solitary, timid creatures. When confronted with a perceived threat, their instinct is to move away, using their significant though fleeting speed to escape the threat and return to the safety of a burrow. Possessing large teeth and formidable claws used for digging, a Wombat has the tools to go on the offensive if necessary. Move between a Wombat and its burrow, and watch as its demeanour changes, perceiving its safe haven to be compromised.

In this tale from The Canberra Times we see a clear case of provocation, albeit unintentional. The victim by their own admission “got quite close”, with two dogs on leads who it’s fair to say would have been even closer. They stood between the Wombat in a garden, and the bushland reserve opposite from which it had likely come and would escape to if possible. The Wombat only bit the woman as she held onto the dogs it had initially charged, dogs that could easily have outrun a Wombat and thereby removed the perceived threat to it. No doubt it was an unpleasant experience and I wish the victim a full and speedy recovery.

There has never been a recorded Wombat attack before in the ACT. Instances anywhere in Australia are so rare, that the Times’ Ms Burgess could only find one prior example herself from 2010. My research using over a century of archived newspapers on Trove could find only one further example, from 1929 near Bombala. In that instance a Wombat repeatedly scratched a woman before retreating as she climbed a fence. Other reports refer only to Wombats, a herbivorous creature, attacking crops, to the chagrin of farmers.

But as with shark attacks in recent years, the media’s instinct is to deliver a breathless account, and present it as a cautionary tale to be fearful. On the contrary the moral of rare stories like this should be one of respect. We exist in their environment and they in ours. Sadly too many of them become victims when they enter ours, a fact illustrated poignantly by the five I counted lying dead by the side of Nass Road one day this month.

If you see a Wombat, admire it from a respectful distance. Don’t approach it from behind, nor approach the opening of any nearby burrows. Keep pets away, and small children under control. Be aware of signs of distress or injury that may make it more wary of human contact. If you suspect it might be injured, note the location and report it to ACT Parks and Conservation or WIRES. These are wild animals. They operate on instincts honed over millions of years, instincts that have preserved them as a species.

Treat Wombats, as all wildlife, with the respect they deserve, and the caution that is prudent, and you may have a memorable moment like this: