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Roger Price, Australian Consul General (left) and Gitane De Silva, Canadian Consul General (pictured far right) visited Brookfield Zoo today to meet one of the southern hairy-nosed wombats. They were hosted by Chicago Zoological Society staff members Glenn Granat, curator, and Jean Brown, lead zookeeper.
The Chicago Zoological Society (CZS), which manages Brookfield Zoo, is leading an initiative to help bring non-releasable southern hairy-nosed wombats from Australia to North America to ensure a sustainable population in zoos.

On July 11, Brookfield Zoo welcomed two wombats that were orphaned in Australia. They will eventually go to Toronto Zoo in Canada and hopefully breed, adding to the North American population. This is significant in that it marks the first importation of this species to the United States in several decades. The pair is part of a collaborative program with Zoos South Australia, a non-profit conservation organization that is sending rescued wombats to participating North American zoos.

Currently, including the two that just arrived, there are only nine wombats living in North American zoos. Brookfield Zoo is home to three wombats with another on the way. Movement of a 5-month-old joey in the pouch of Kambora, the zoo’s 12-year-old female wombat, has been observed by Animal Programs staff. Until early fall when it will begin to poke its head out, the joey will remain in Kambora’s pouch where it is getting all the necessary nutrients it needs to fully develop.

At Brookfield Zoo the new arrivals received physical examinations and are being housed in the zoo’s Animal Hospital’s quarantine area for a required 30 days before being transferred to Toronto Zoo. Because of its long history and expertise in wombat care, the Chicago Zoological Society, along with other zoos with wombat experience, is providing husbandry training for other institutions that will be receiving wombats in the future. Brookfield Zoo will be the first to welcome all imported wombats.

“We are honored to lead this collaborative effort and provide wombats with expert care as they make the journey to their future homes,” said Glenn Granat, one of the curators for the Chicago Zoological Society. “For more than 40 years Brookfield Zoo has cared for wombats. We look forward to sharing our resources and expertise with other zoos participating in the program.”

In addition to providing care for the wombats, the program will assist with breeding in order to develop a genetically sustainable population. The AZA’s southern hairy-nosed wombat studbook is managed by Jeanne Brown, one of CZS’ lead zookeepers, and as part of this process she works closely to maintain documents that include the pedigree and entire demographic history of each wombat in the North American zoo population. These records will assist zoo staff in making breeding recommendations.

In 1969, Brookfield Zoo received three southern hairy-nosed wombats and in 1975 became the first zoo outside of Australia to successfully breed the species in professional care. In addition, October 17-19, 2012, CZS will host an international symposium to gather member zoos of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and representatives from Australia to share information on wombat care, husbandry, conservation, and management. The southern hairy-nosed wombat management program is part of the AZA’s Taxon Advisory Group, which develops recommendations for population management and conservation.

CZS staff members worked closely with Zoos South Australia to develop the program and form an agreement with the Australian government. With Brookfield Zoo, other participating zoos are ABQ BioPark, Albuquerque, N.M.; Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens; Memphis Zoo, Tenn.; San Diego Zoo; Toledo Zoo, Ohio; and Toronto Zoo, Canada.

Southern hairy-nosed wombats are thick, heavy-bodied animals found in arid to semi-arid savannah woodland, grassland, and low shrub plains in central southern Australia. They are about the size of a medium-size dog but are much more rounded and solidly built. Wombats have long claws, a stubby tail, a flattened head that looks too big for their body, and short, powerful legs. They use their long claws when digging warrens—complex, underground tunnel systems—that are the center of wombat life. Each warren is made up of several separate burrows. Wombats never wander too far from their warrens. Several wombats may have their warrens near each other, forming a cluster; however, they rarely interact with each other. Currently, the wombat population in Australia is being threatened by habitat loss, drought, and agricultural practices.