Wombats basically look like living teddy bears, but that doesn’t mean you should satisfy the urge to squeeze them. In fact, one Australian island wants you to sign a pledge ensuring that you’ll leave the cute, fuzzy marsupials alone, reports Lilit Marcus at CNN.
Wombats in Maria Island National Park, located off the east coast of Tasmania in Australia, are very curious and friendly—but that’s starting to become an issue on the the 44.6 square mile island, which has no permanent residents. Visitors to the island have been getting closer and closer to the wombats, taking selfies and patting the furry beasts.
While the animals may not obviously seem to mind, rangers on the island say all the attention is likely stressing the critters out. That’s why businesses near the park along with the local parks service have recently posted an oath for visitors to take at the ferry terminal to the island, promising not to bother the wombats or other wildlife at the park, including Tasmanian devils, Forester kangaroos and Bennett’s wallabies.
The oath reads:
"I take this pledge to respect and protect the furred and feathered residents of Maria. I will remember you are wild and pledge to keep you this way.
I promise I will respectfully enjoy the wonders of your beautiful island home, from the wharf, to the Painted Cliffs, to the Rocky bluffs, haunted bays and mystery of Maria's ruins.
Wombats, when you trundle past me I pledge I will not chase you with my selfie stick, or get too close to your babies. I will not surround you, or try and pick you up. I will make sure I don't leave rubbish or food from my morning tea. I pledge to let you stay wild.
I vow to explore with a sense of responsibility, adventure and kindness. I will leave your wild island as I found it, and take home memories filled with beauty and my soul filled up with wonder.”
Taking the pledge, which is being posted in several languages, is not mandatory, but is more of reminder to visitors that the park is a wild space and not a marsupial petting zoo.
Then again, it’s hard to resist a wombat when they trumble right up to you. Georgie Burgess at the ABC reports that wombats on the island are numerous, and they often wobble past visitors as they get off the ferry. That wombat-love is one reason the park has become popular on social media along with the hashtag #wombatselfie, which has been used 428 times on Instagram. Visitor numbers to the park have doubled to 31,000 over the last decade, mostly powered by wombat watchers.
“People are so enthralled with them, and they look so cute and cuddly, but people are getting too close,” East Coast Tourism executive Ruth Dowty says. “They pretty much ignore people, but people run up to them and they don't run away. People get very excited about wombats.”
John Fitzgerald, the CEO of Tasmania Tourism, tells Marcus at CNN that they try to educate the public about leaving animals alone at all their national parks. But Maria Island presents a special problem because the wombats are so approachable.
“We’re asking people to respect the fact that they’re wild animals and respect them for what they are. There was no particular incident that occurred; it’s just seeing an increased activity and people wanting to have photos of animals and get up close to them. We’re in the age of the selfie, and people want to take selfies in different locations with people and animals.”
Not all marsupial selfies, however, are discouraged. Last year, Instagram created a firestorm when it started posting an animal welfare warning on images labeled #quokkaselfie. Quokkas, which look like teeny tiny fuzzy kangaroos and may even be cuter than wombats, are the main draw to Rottnest Island in Western Australia, where visitors are encouraged to take photos with the cat-sized animals as long as they don’t touch, feed or abuse them. The Rottnest Island Authority sees the selfies as a boon to conservation and education and asked Instagram to take down the notices.
Quokkas, however, seem to be an exception. Jane Wakefield at the BBC reports that a 2017 investigation by World Animal Protection found that at least a quarter of wildlife selfies posted online were problematic and involved animals—like sloths, monkeys, or caimen—that were snatched from the wild for the tourist selfie trade. Those images, they argue, do need to be flagged by social media platforms.
If you travel to Tasmania, however, and just can’t leave without touching a wombat, Marcus reports that some wombat rescue centers, including the Trowunna Wildlife Sanctuary, do occasionally let visitors squish a wombat, as long as the “cute aggression” doesn’t get out of hand.