The Wisdom of WombatsA panda sneezes and breaks the internet; photogenic cetaceans inspire generations to “Save the Whales.” And then there’s the northern hairy-nosed wombat. Despite the desperation of their situation—just over 200 exist on Earth, almost all in a single colony in a far-flung Australian research preserve—public outcry has been relatively restrained. Should we care that these obscure marsupials—overshadowed as they are by their cuddlier cousin, the koala—are teetering on the edge of extinction? If a species falls in the (ever-shrinking) forest, does it make a sound? Andy Podolsky ’88 is one of what he estimates are under a thousand people who have actually seen a northern hairy-nosed wombat in the flesh. He’s made it his mission to increase visibility of the species, so that their lonely plight does not go unnoticed. Podolsky is an unlikely wombat savior. First of all, he’s not Australian—he grew up in Boston and has spent his career in the U.S., collecting a doctorate in colonial history and working as a technology consultant and academic administrator. And second, he’d never laid eyes on any of the three species until the late 1990s, when he saw a wombat at the San Diego Zoo. Even so, it was love at first sight. “They are nocturnal, often surly, and have a hairy nose ... not unlike myself,” he laughs. “I don’t have anything against more iconic, charismatic animals—say, pandas—but they almost get over-resourced while wombats are actually far more endangered. Maybe if people knew, they would care, and if they cared, something would happen.” Spreading the word about the northern hairy-nosed wombat is not Podolsky’s first underdog fight to protect an undervalued population: He pulled off a miraculous act of advocacy on behalf of public-interest lawyers nearly 20 years ago. At the time, Podolsky was working to improve a student-loan forgiveness program Stanford Law School had implemented for graduates in public-interest careers. Podolsky noticed that a number of alumni were about to complete the program, but that those same underpaid lawyers would be taxed heavily on the imputed “income.” “Stanford’s outside counsel told us that solving the problem was impossible,” Podolsky says. But he, fellow Stanford faculty and administration, and staff in government relations persevered. By working with a member of Congress and eventually a representative of the U.S. Treasury Department, they crafted a tweak that was included in the Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997 and modified slightly the next year. The law is still on the books today, excluding from taxation student loans forgiven for citizens in public-service work. “When President Clinton signed the bill into law, we had a party,” Podolsky says. “I told the aspiring lawyers who were there: If you learn nothing else in law school, please learn to never, ever tell your client something is impossible.” Podolsky followed his appetite for the impossible into the tech industry, where he worked for years in the complex field of knowledge engineering and semantic analysis. “These days, I’m almost retired, in the sense that now I spend most of my time visiting wombats, which is not a career,” he laughs. “There’s not any way, as far as I can tell, to make money chasing wombats.” Podolsky’s referring to his completist urge to visit every wombat-hosting institution in the world. After the first meeting at the San Diego Zoo, Podolsky and his wife, Christina Devlin ’86, traveled to Australia and Sydney’s Taronga Zoo. There, in the wombat heartland, he learned more about this roly-poly marsupial’s family, including its three species branches: northern hairy-nosed (Lasiorhinus krefftii), southern hairy-nosed (Lasiorhinus latifrons), and bare-nosed or common (Vombatus ursinus). The southern hairy-nosed variety, though more numerous than its northern relations, is a threatened species; the bare-nosed wombat is protected in some areas, pervasive in others. Podolsky’s fascination with the creatures only grew-—he made a list of the 10 U.S. zoos that host wombats and, over the course of a year, visited them all. Inspired, he planned trips to Europe, Asia, and all over Australia, observing the approach of each institution he visited. He knows of 97 zoos and wildlife parks worldwide that care for southern and bare-nosed wombats. Podolsky has visited them all. The more he saw of this culture of conservation and public education, the more Podolsky became intrigued by the sad and sobering future facing the northern hairy-nosed, which has never successfully adapted to life in captivity. “For such a critically endangered animal to be so almost totally unknown itself is intellectually interesting,” he says. “I’ve been to zoos in Australia where the signage says, ‘Did you know? There are two kinds of wombat: a bare-nosed and a southern hairy-nosed.’ I’m standing there thinking, Actually, you still have a couple hundred northerns left. “You’ll meet Australians who don’t even realize there’s this third incredibly endangered wombat species.” Podolsky knew that to encounter this most endangered wombat would require a visit to their protected colony at Epping Forest National Park, in remote central Queensland. Epping Forest is technically closed to the public, open only to scientists and long-term wombat-protection volunteers. But for the cheerfully self-described “crazy wombat guy,” the Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage Protection made an exception. “From an Australian’s perspective, I was about as exotic as a wombat to an American,” Podolsky says. “It was very odd to find this 50-year-old Yank, without any children in tow, appearing at small, sometimes rural zoos. I was able to leverage my hobby and receive permission to visit Epping Forest. There’s a lesson in there of, well, you have to ask.” One early evening in Epping Forest, Podolsky experienced the thrill of his wombat-chasing life, as he became not only one of the lucky thousand to spot a northern hairy-nosed, but also one of an even more select few to document the sighting on camera. It was dusk—the time wombats emerge from their burrows to begin the night’s forage. Podolsky was waiting by the entrance to a burrow that the site’s managing scientist believed to be home to a breeding female. “It was a case of being in the right place at the right time and, unbelievably, also having a camera on hand,” Podolsky says. “Being lucky enough to see her, and realizing that there were actually two pairs of eyes peering out. Her joey was next to her, also looking out of the burrow, which was really remarkable.” What does a wombat-chaser do after he’s seen them all? Podolsky has focused his wombat-related energy on advocacy. He urges alumni to get involved with habitat preservation—if not for wombats, then for other endangered species around the world. “Swarthmore graduates, to make a generalization, tend to like to engage directly,” Podolsky says. “To the extent that someone can participate as a volunteer or can raise their hand and say, ‘We need to preserve the environment,’ either on land or engaging directly with the government, as I did with the tax law—that’s something people can do. Plus, donations to fight habitat loss are always needed.” Podolsky has twice given speeches about the outsider’s experience of wombat conservation and public outreach efforts, through Montgomery College’s Spectrum Lecture Series in Maryland and at the National Wombat Conference in Australia, where he was able to connect with wombat researchers and enthusiasts from around the country. He came away from the conference most impressed by the ordinary Australians who receive certifications to aid southern hairy-nosed and bare-nosed wombats injured by wild dogs, cars, and other civilizational nuisances. Podolsky began his love affair with wombats very much out of a feeling that these endearingly odd creatures—with whom we humans may share more in common than we think—were going the way of the dodo with too few noticing or caring. But his deeper dalliance with wombat culture has brought him into contact with a community of others like himself: a wisdom of quirky, compassionate wombat-lovers. That has been an affirmational lesson. “This started for me as a personal hobby,” Podolsky says. “But it grew into more. I’m going to places I didn’t expect to go and meeting interesting people. Their careers are so inspiring. A lot of them are pretty much living on a shoestring. One that I met put herself through a veterinary nursing program on her own dime so the animals wouldn’t have to endure hours in the car to care facilities. I’ve met a lot of dedicated people who just care so much.” + READ Andy Podolsky ’88's full lecture on wombat conservation.