A Queensland sanctuary, and thousands of former visitors, are in mourning for Tonka, the wombat so extroverted he fell into depression when a temporary closure cut off the cuddle supply.
Wombats, it has been observed, are “like other animals, only better” and Tonka was like other wombats, only better.
Tonka's mother was killed by a car in 2009. Like Lily Potter, her love (or possibly her epic wombat rump) shielded her beloved offspring from the threat. Tonka was taken to the private Billabong Sanctuary, where “he was hand-reared and the staff used to take him home at night and sit down and watch TV," Billabong founder Bob Flemming told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
Tonka was noted for his love of teddy bears, although it turned out he "loved them not wisely but too well" with the repeated need to replace individuals that couldn't stand up to his boisterous affections.
He first came to fame, however, when Cyclone Yasi forced the shutdown of the sanctuary for 10 weeks. Tonka showed all the signs of depression, including the most unwombat-like behavior of refusing to eat. As soon as the park reopened, Tonka began feeding again. "The conclusion? Tonka had missed his pats and cuddles and become depressed! Since then he never looked back," the sanctuary reported on Facebook.
"He just loved people so much, he fretted if he wasn't being handled," Flemming told the ABC.
Tonka the wombat. Billabong Sanctuary.
The idea of a wombat who loved cuddles more than food captured the imagination of visitors and Tonka became even more of a favorite than before.
Tonka was a bare-nosed wombat (Vombatus ursinus, previously known as the common wombat) and so not an endangered species like northern hairy-nosed wombats (Lasiorhinus krefftii), which meant he missed out on the joy of a specially designed morning tickle for science.
Sadly, while his species is not in danger, Tonka himself is now gone, after being euthanized because of kidney failure, which the sanctuary says was destroying his quality of life. Wombats usually live substantially longer than seven years, with 15 years achievable in the wild. Tributes have poured in on the sanctuary's Facebook page from past visitors, where the staff have said “we are quite overwhelmed by the huge response to Tonka's passing.”
Devastated wombat lovers can take comfort in the survival of another cuddlivorous wombat, Derek of Flinders Island. Like Tonka, Derek's mother was killed by a car and he was hand-raised, becoming an icon for the island's tourism industry after a video of him garnered hundreds of thousands of views. The worldwide search for a “Chief Wombat Cuddler” has now found a winner, but assistant cuddlers remain in great demand.
In memorium. Billabong Sanctuary