BETH HALE reveals how she’s learned to care for an orphaned wallababy

Who’d wanna be a mum to a wallababy? BETH HALE reveals how she’s learned to care for Britain’s cutest new arrival from late-night bottle feeds to ‘unfortunate accidents’

  • Riley, the Wallaby sleeps in a sling on his mummy’s chest for 18 hours a day
  • Julia, 43, adopted four-month-old joey Riley after his mum died of pneumonia
  • Riley’s mum Wilma was found dead in the wallaby enclosure at Studley Grange Butterfly World and Farm Park in Wiltshire, with Riley by her side

For a curious four-month-old, Riley is surprisingly low maintenance. He doesn’t cry much, is almost completely toilet-trained and drinks down his bottle of milk like a good boy, before settling down for a nice nap in his special blanket.

But, like many babies, he likes to keep his mum close. Very close, in fact.

Riley sleeps in a sling on his mummy’s chest for 18 hours a day. He goes with her everywhere — to work, to the supermarket and back home in the evening.

He’ll tolerate a car seat or a space next to her on the sofa if he absolutely has to, but mostly he likes her where he can feel her body heat and the rhythmic, soothing sway of her body. And, of course, that lovely comforting Mummy smell.

Four-month-old orphaned wallaby Riley is being hand-reared in a rucksack by Julia Stewart (pictured) after his mum died of pneumonia

Luckily, ‘Mummy’ Julia Stewart is very relaxed about it all. It’s not often, after all, that you get to be a foster mother to a baby wallaby.

Julia, 43, who has three grown-up children — aged 18, 21 and 25 — thought night feeds were a thing of the past, until an unexpected, tragic turn of events at the wildlife centre where she works.

One morning a couple of weeks ago, Riley’s mum Wilma was found dead in the wallaby enclosure at Studley Grange Butterfly World and Farm Park in Wiltshire. Staff found her on the ground, and next to her, looking forlorn, was Riley, her little joey.

‘We’d seen him poking his head out of her pouch a few times, and he’d actually been out the day before, but he was mostly in his mum’s pouch,’ says Julia, who was driving into work from her home in Devizes when she was told what had happened.

Julia Stewart who is the wildlife carer looking after Riley the baby Wallaby at Studley Grange Garden & Leisure Park

She gives Riley’s head an affectionate rub as she adds: ‘He was making little noises. They cry, which is so sad.’

Wilma was taken to a local vet who specialises in the care of exotic animals, and tests revealed she had been suffering from pneumonia.

‘Probably a bacterial infection — just one of those things,’ says Julia. ‘She had been fine the day before, but wallabies are group animals and if one of them is sick they tend to hide it, they don’t want to weaken the group.’

For Riley, who had spent the first three months of his life tucked inside his mum’s pouch — growing from a tiny, blind, hairless, pink little thing into a fur-covered bundle with very sharp teeth (he will grow four sets in his lifetime) and an increasingly powerful set of hind legs — it could all have been too much.

The adorable joey four-month-old Riley with some fresh basil that he is snacking on 

Julia at home with he family dogs and Riley. Riley is not scared of the dogs having been raised around them

When a nursing animal loses its mother, the first 48 hours are crucial. ‘You have to keep them warm because they lose heat quickly and you have to get them to suck at a bottle, which they have never done before,’ says Julia.

When Julia arrived at work, the traumatised Riley was snuggled under a blanket. But having been involved in the care of a motherless wallaby once before, the farm manager knew that a blanket was not going to be sufficient long term.

In the wild, baby wallabies live in their mothers’ pouches for up to a year — often until the next joey comes along — and aren’t fully independent until they’re around nine months old.

So this tiny marsupial (at 2.2 lb, Riley weighs the same as a bag of sugar) needed a pouch — not something your average human is equipped with.

 Riley in a child’s rucksack worn by Julia Stewart, his carer, as she feeds him fresh leaves

Cue a drive to the local B&M, a budget store where a £9.95 child’s rucksack looked just the job.

A stop at the nearby pet shop yielded a fleece blanket (the inside of a marsupial’s pouch is actually fleshy and hairless, but the blanket provided an extra bit of cosy warmth), but it had only bottles with short teats suitable for puppies and kittens — not marsupials.

Luckily, a local animal rescue centre had a suitable offering, which it had used to suckle a motherless deer. And it worked.

Beth Hale ( Daily Mail reporter) feeds baby wallaby Riley while he’s wrapped in a blanket

Riley is now so adept at feeding that he has put on weight, and even tolerates me giving him one of his four-hourly bottle feeds, making loud slurping noises as he guzzles away in my lap.

He feeds five times a day, starting at 6.30am and ending at around midnight, drinking 30ml to 40ml of lactose-free milk at a time. Luckily, Julia doesn’t need much sleep, but when she goes to bed, Riley sleeps in a pouch hanging from the bedpost.

‘Four-hourly feeds is quite hard work if I’m honest — you don’t realise how much of the day it eats up,’ admits Julia, who has taught college pupils animal management and worked with everything from tigers (she once bottle-fed an orphan tiger in India) to ferrets.

Thanks to his sharp teeth, the little herbivore is already supplementing his diet by grazing on grass. He’s also partial to a bit of strawberry or some chopped grape, has recently discovered basil leaves and is very accepting of the endless stream of strangers who just can’t stop cooing over him.

He is utterly adorable. Watching him peeking his inquisitive little head over the top of his pouch, you get the impression there’s nothing he can’t cope with, as long as he has Julia close by.

Julia Stewart cuts up fruit and vegetables while Riley looks interested in taking a bite

When he’s finished a feed, Riley likes to stretch his legs, which really are rather long — when he is fully grown, they could power him to speeds of up to 40 mph.

Bounce, bounce, bounce. He bounds across the floor.

‘Watch out,’ says Julia, as Riley takes a small jump on to my lap. It turns out Riley likes to take care of his toilet needs after lunch. Phew, he’s opted for the floor.

It seems a slightly indelicate subject, but given Julia is wearing Riley for 18 hours a day, I can’t help but wonder, how has she coped?

‘In the pouch, his mother would stimulate him to go to the toilet and then clean it all up herself,’ she explains — a step too far, it seems, for even the devoted Julia.

‘At first I’d give him his milk and try to encourage him to “go” with a strategic dab of some wet cotton wool, but now he can do it on his own and normally relieves himself as soon as he is out of the pouch,’ she says, proudly.

‘He’s only had about three accidents, and one of those was when he had an upset tummy after eating too many grapes.’

Julia is very practical about the realities of the animal world and is happy that, in a few months, Riley will be going outside to join the other five red-necked wallabies (so-called because of a patch of reddish fur around their necks and shoulders) in the centre’s mob.

Wallabies are part of the macropodidae family — the term comes from the ancient Greek makros, meaning long, and pous meaning foot.

But even practical Julia is besotted; she can’t help talking about Riley with all the pride of a mum talking about her newborn.

Another feed for baby Riley who looks sleepy as he relaxes in Julia’s arms

‘Your mummy’s dying of heat in here,’ she tells Riley as they stroll through the butterfly house.

Like any good mother, she is alert to potential dangers, the biggest of which appears to be Riley tumbling from his makeshift pouch as she goes about her busy day, bending down to scoop up feed for the goats, grooming the donkeys or letting the tortoise out of his enclosure for his evening walk.

Unlike a human baby, which often nods off during a stroll in the pram, Riley is stimulated by walking.

So, as Julia sets about her farm chores, out peek two pointy ears, an inquisitive snout and a pair of beady eyes (his eyesight is actually quite poor, but a wallaby’s sense of smell is so acute it’s been compared to the ability of a shark to detect a drop of blood in the ocean).

When Julia stops, Riley tucks himself up in a ball and snoozes. ‘I’ve not dropped him yet,’ she laughs.

‘He likes to walk around with me and is quite keen to see everything that is going on.

‘He’s a popular attraction. The kids love him, the adults love him; we had a group suffering with dementia in the other day and it was lovely to see their reaction. He really does bring joy.’

There are just a handful of jobs at the centre that Riley is not allowed to be a part of: feeding the eagle owl, racoons, racoon dogs, otters or meerkats.

He might eventually stand at 90cm tall, but at the moment he would be a tasty morsel for a prey animal.

When it comes to the drive to and from work, Riley’s safety is also paramount.

His pouch is hung over the headrest of the front passenger seat and the seatbelt clicked into place. ‘Safety first,’ jokes Julia. ‘It takes about 35 minutes, sometimes he goes to sleep but he likes to look out of the window.’

At home, where divorcee Julia lives with her two youngest sons, she avoids wearing the pouch when she’s cooking.

‘I’ve got a gas cooker and the flame would only have to catch a bit of fluff and . . .’ It doesn’t bear thinking about.

Youngest son Adam, 18, is rather taken with Riley, which means Julia does at least get to use the bathroom on her own. But when she finally sits on the sofa at the end of the day, Riley will be next to her either curled in his pouch, or fast asleep on a cushion.

He likes to try to jump on to the sofa, but can’t quite manage it yet — although once he masters using a tail that is as long as his body as an extra balancing aid, it will be very easy.

One of the home’s other residents, collie dog Luna, likes to keep a maternal eye on the new arrival, even giving him the occasional lick. But, like every good mum, Julia is preparing Riley for the day when he has to stand on his own two, very big legs.

‘When I’m at work with wallabies, I let him hop around the pen so he knows he is one, too,’ says Julia. One of those wallabies is Riley’s dad, Wilson.

So far, Riley is getting on well with the other members of the mob, and his confidence is growing daily.

‘If he can’t see me, he calls for me. It’s a weird sound, not a squeak, and I like to think he responds differently to me,’ says Julia.

‘I’ll keep him in the pouch for at least three months, because he’s still very small, and then we’ll integrate him with the others.’

Television cameras, a school visit, curious pensioners and now me; it’s been a long day for a small wallaby and Riley is exhausted.

As Julia flips the top closed on her furry charge’s pouch and sets off to finish her tasks, she smiles. ‘He really is living the life of Riley.’

 

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