A Taronga Zoo keeper has found an unusual assistant to help out on her morning work rounds – an orphaned wombat joey named Chloe.
Chloe has begun following keeper and surrogate mum, Evelyn Weston, around the zoo grounds each day, lending a helpful paw while Evelyn cleans out exhibits and prepares breakfast for the other animals.
The morning walks are part of the nine-month-old joey's continuing development, as she prepares to take her next big step towards returning to the wild.
"It's a natural behaviour and something Chloe would be doing with her real mother if she'd survived. Wombats stay with their mothers for up to two years, walking by their side until they're old enough to fend for themselves," said Evelyn.
Chloe was rescued by a wildlife carer in June after her mother was struck and killed by a car near Jenolan Caves. Found alive inside the pouch, the joey was brought to Taronga Wildlife Hospital for ongoing care.
Taking on the role of surrogate mum, Evelyn has spent the past three months carrying Chloe in a makeshift pouch and stopping work for bottle feeds every five hours.
Now strong enough to walk and explore on her own, Chloe has begun learning the natural wombat behaviours she'll need to survive in the wild. Keepers have built the joey a special home in an off-exhibit area to encourage her to dig burrows and forage for her own food.
"She's really learning how to be a wombat. Her paws are already toughening up and she's quite happy digging about on her own," said Evelyn.
When ready, Chloe will be transferred to a wombat 'halfway house' where she'll learn how to care for herself before being released back into the wild.
While excited by the prospect of Chloe returning to the wild, Evelyn said she'll also be a little sad to lose her morning helper.
"I've been doing this job for a long time, but it's always hard to say goodbye. I like to think I've toughened up, but sometimes I'm still a wuss," she said.