What is a full night’s sleep?! I haven’t had one of those in a long time. I run Sleepy Burrow Wombat Sanctuary in Australia, which is the largest wombat sanctuary in the world. I’m up every three hours to do round-the-clock feedings for the baby wombats that have recently come into our care. Their first nights with us are always the most critical time where their survival is the most at risk. If being up all night is what it takes to pull them through, I will do it. Don’t feel too bad for me though. I wouldn’t trade the life I have for anything in the world. I have a wonderful family I built with the most supportive husband, who is my partner both in life and rescue. I’m a mother to two perfect daughters, a dog, and a house full of the cutest wombats you can imagine. As a family unit we have rescued over 1,300 wombats.
How did this begin you may ask? It all started with Veg, the little wombat that could.
I was born in Cape Town, South Africa, and when I came over to Australia, I was lonely. Combating loneliness can be challenging with no outlet. In my quest to find purpose I realized I had always had a passion for animals, so I decided to get involved in rescuing animals in need. It was at that time wombats would come into my life and everything would make sense.
Wombats are short marsupials that are native to Australia. There are fewer in Australia every year because of habitat loss and drought. There is a desperate need to help rehabilitate those that are injured and misplaced. Veg was my earliest rescue who needed some TLC and became my first wombat baby. I was just completely smitten with her and her little fighting spirit. She served as a teacher for me and helped me to understand how to care for wombats. I had no prior experience. She has lived for years now as a wild wombat on our property but chooses to remain in our lives making regular visits to the house. She herself has been a mother four times and often brings her babies to us to show them off. There is just an unconditional bond between us that is beautiful.
With the knowledge I gained from that experience and the understanding that this was my purpose, I went looking for land to serve as a safe haven for wombats in recovery where they could experience all the bush has to offer. If there is sufficient room for burrows, wombats will be stable and healthy. I found the property the sanctuary is on now and saw already existing burrows from wild wombats. The land and space just made sense for my family. It was meant to be. The way we operate is we have three stages the wombats must go through. When they first arrive, they are kept in nursery school in the house where we give them round-the-clock care. Once they reach 2-3 years old, we move them to primary school where more freedom is offered. When they are completely rehabilitated, we take them to the area where we release them.
I’m so grateful to have found someone who not only embraces this life but thrives in it. I met my husband Phil 14 years ago and we just instantly connected. Everybody told me not to let him know what I did when we first met, or he would run away. I had six wombats in my charge at that time. I disregarded that advice and to my surprise he didn’t run, he stuck around. Not only did he stay but he cooked dinner with ease as two wombats sat at his feet and he just never left. He likes to joke that he fell in love with me first, the wombats came second. Nobody knows me like he does. Nobody knows him like I do. He has become so instrumental in my life and the operation of the sanctuary. He is always running to the vet and doing the tasks I can’t get to. We operate as a team. We couldn’t do something of this magnitude if we didn’t know each other inside and out.
Why do I do it besides the obvious joy I get from saving wombat lives? I do it because it’s important to me that my children understand responsibility and are compassionate humans. I’ve tried to teach them through example and get them involved. I couldn’t be prouder of my daughter Jade, who is always eager to help and has really stepped up and taken on more responsibility. She is a natural. We as a family are so close and we have to be. Caring for these animals is a commitment and 24-hour-a-day responsibility. Even our dog Stella has become a surrogate mother to the wombats. This is a journey and experience that we’re in together, and we’re very lucky.
Donna Stepan’s episode of ‘Dodo Heroes’ premieres July 6 on Animal Planet.