WIRES Carer Patricia Edwards is raising a puggle, a baby echidna. WIRES is the Wildlife Information, Rescue and Education Service.
Baby echidnas are notoriously difficult to rear, so when I was handed Puggles on 25 October, I accepted him with reservations. I hadn’t even seen one this small, never mind raised one. But there it was, a circular 150g grey globule with some strange appendages that appeared on occasions. And it was alive. That was the oddest thing about it. It moved. It lived, on the planet, with us, in this day and age.
Puggles' mother was hit by a car on the Brooms Head Road, and while she had sped away seemingly uninjured, her tiny puggle had fallen from her temporary makeshift pouch and been left on the road, facing certain death within minutes on a hot day.
He had spent 36 hours with his rescuer before he came to me, and he hadn't eaten. Even that small a baby echidna can go for a couple of days without food, but now he would be ready to eat. I knew about the dripping milk on the palm feeding technique from our training courses, and how he would nuzzle and sup it up. It sounded easy. It wasn't. It was impossible to hold a strong, squirming blob in one hand, try to keep its nose facing forward, keep some milk on the palm of the other, and keep dripping milk - with what? It was messy, and entirely unsuccessful. The milk kept disappearing, but obviously not into the echidna. I ended up with wet pants every time, and four days later he still hadn't eaten, or if he had, I had no idea how - or how much.
I broke all the rules. I was told to put him away after each feeding attempt and not try again for another 24 hours. Refusing to let him fall into a coma I woke him three times a day to teach him to eat. On the fifth day he was looking lumpy, with a hint of a backbone and baggy skin. I phoned our small mammal coordinator and warned her I was going to lose him. Then in desperation I gave him an injection of rehydration fluid and tucked him back into his box, quite certain I had killed him. Two hours later I was astonished to find him awake and active, rustling around and nosing the air. I warmed his milk, poured some into a little dish, held him gently, let him roll around as he pleased until I could see which end was which, then dipped his nose in the dish. He blew bubbles and sneezed. Then an unexpected thing happened. He raised his head, stretched out his neck, and his little pink tongue suddenly protruded from the end of his beak. It was the first time I’d seen it. Gently I lowered it into the milk and he took a couple of laps.
From then on I knew I could raise him. It was a long time before he regained the weight he had lost, and for several days I fed him twice a day, letting him wake slowly, not allowing him to sleep his life away as he would have liked. In time he was taking 10 or so erratic mls and was down to one feed a day. A day or two later he was taking 16-18 mls, very slowly, and moved himself to two day feeds.
Right until now feeding has not been easy or natural for him, he slurps and nose-dives, blows bubbles and still sneezes into the milk and needs to be guided into the dish. But he eats. Now he can at times guzzle a walloping 30 mls, quite quickly and determinedly, and is heading towards 250 g. He is on stronger milk, he is bristly, and when he sleeps stretched out with his nose out of his pants he looks like an echidna.
I have to say, from the moment I first saw him I adored him. While accepting that they either eat or they don't, and are virtually impossible to raise if they don’t, it still would have broken my heart if he had died. You cannot get pleasure from something when you are scared for its life. He has been an incredible challenge, a definite labour of love, but only now am I truly enjoying him. I would not have missed the experience - but only because he made up his mind to live.
When Puggles is old enough, he will be released into the bush.