I'm sitting in what appears to be nothing more than an average family room, with a couch and a child's playpen nearby. There's a TV on the wall, playing old Looney Tunes cartoons of the sort I watched when I was six. Nearby a couple of people are talking – one of them has something stuffed down the front of her shirt, which I noticed straight away but was too polite to ask about.
But on the other side of the dining room there's a gate blocking a doorway – the kind of thing used to keep small children out of the kitchen. Currently it's holding something back, and it's not a child. The moment someone opens the gate it makes its escape, and a small, stocky creature comes charging into the living room with astonishing speed, claws clicking on the wooden floor.
A moment later he reaches the couch, and promptly starts chewing on my shoes. Which I'm wearing.
"Aw, you're so cute!" I coo at him.
Then the baby wombat takes a chunk out of my leg.
"That's Elliot," our host tells me. "We call him 'idiot'."
Then I realise what it is she's stuffed down her shirt. It's a wombat. Only a few weeks old, it's hairless, pink and rubbery. It's been there for ten days and nights, ever since its mother was killed by a car. Every so often she unwraps it and feeds it a special formula through a rubber teat.
Elliot grabs my shoe and starts savaging it with great enthusiasm.
Apparently this sort of thing is normal around here, but then I'm at the Sleepy Burrows Wombat Sanctuary. There's another wombat browsing in the kitchen, about a dozen more out in the enclosures, and others sleeping in the house. And, of course, the polar-fleece bundle in our host's shirt, which they call a "Pinky".
It's that kind of place.
My dad is a science writer, and if there's one thing he loves it's finding new and interesting people to interview. As for me I'm an author, but I like meeting interesting people too – and I've always been fond of animals. So naturally when Dad was invited to visit Sleepy Burrows and asked me if I wanted to come along, I said yes.
I was expecting a nice day out to the countryside – I'd get to see some cute wombats and learn more about them, and I thought if I asked nicely I might get to hold a baby one.
What happened instead was very different, and in many ways truly saddening.
The Sanctuary's founder is a tough, weatherbeaten woman named Donna. Originally raised in South Africa, she shows no sign of an accent, and she has devoted her life to saving the wombat. I asked what had started her on that path.
When Donna was young she was driving out near Braidwood, hoping to see some wombats in the wild since she already liked them. In the evening she saw one grazing by the side of the road – but moments later a car swerved off the road, deliberately running the animal down before speeding off. Donna stopped to help – the male wombat's back was broken, and he was in incredible pain.
"I realised I didn't know who I should call," she says. "There was no one to help him."
She stayed with the animal until he died, and it was this incident that inspired her to help the rest of his kind. And the truth of the matter is that they need help.
Until recently I had thought the "common" wombat was just that. There were thousands of them out there, and they were doing just fine. But unfortunately, the wombat is no longer common, and has been renamed the Bare Nosed Wombat. Donna is convinced the species will be endangered within 15 years.
Out in the countryside, she says, people deliberately run over wombats. Other people shoot them, or fill their burrows in, burying them alive. They're not a pest; the worst thing they're likely to do is damage farm fences. But some people have the mentality that it's okay to kill a wombat, simply because they can. Donna bitterly remarked on the incident not that long ago when at least ten wombats were killed by a couple of drunks at Kangaroo Valley – a crime which in her opinion the media more or less ignored.
"They don't realise it happens all the time," she says.
And as if that weren't enough, the sanctuary itself has come under attack, with people breaking in and killing the wombats, many of which are the rescued offspring of roadkill. When we visited, there were signs warning about surveillance cameras. And the handful of people who run the place had recently adopted a specialised guard dog to watch out for night-time intruders.
After listening to all this, I said; "You seem really angry."
Donna fixed her steely blue eyes on me. "You would be too if you'd seen a wombat with tent pegs nailed through its head for fun."
I hastily shut up, though quite frankly I was sickened and angry as well.
To add insult to injury, the wild wombat population is currently being devastated by mange – a disease which literally eats the animals alive, and about which little is apparently being done to treat. Between mange and deliberate slaughter, the future of the species looks grim.
Most of the wombats at Sleepy Burrows are rescue animals, set to be "dehumanised", as they put it (those who have yet to be dehumanised will happily follow you around like a pet dog) before being carefully reintroduced to the wild. According to Donna, some well-meaning organisations release wombats into the wild by simply dumping them near a handy burrow and leaving them there, where they will probably be killed by the wild wombat which has already claimed the burrow.
One of the adult wombats at the sanctuary was a victim of such carelessness – having been left on an old lady's property with another male wombat, he made contact with the owner, who had been encouraged to feed and pet him. Unfortunately she had been told to do the same with the other male, and the new one smelled the rival's scent and viciously attacked. He was eventually driven away and severely beaten with a tyre iron, and would have been put down if Sleepy Burrows hadn't taken him in.
The moral of the story being, of course, that adult wombats should not be treated as pets, and returning them to the wild is not as simple as dumping them somewhere and driving off without checking up on them later. In Donna's opinion (and there were plenty of accounts to back it up), dumping a wombat that has grown up in captivity and not taught how to live in the wild is little better than a death sentence for the animal.
After our tour of the grounds Dad recorded an interview with Donna while Elliot the Idiot chewed on my legs. The idea of anyone wanting to hurt him just for fun was appalling. For all I know his mother was deliberately run down by some drunken yahoo who left her to die in agony by the side of the road.
I left the sanctuary feeling sad, but inspired as well. Donna and her husband and friends are giving their all for the sake of animals that need our help. Humans are hurting them, and humans must stand up for them.
KJ Taylor is a fantasy novelist.