All creatures great and small

By Melissa Walsh Photos: Gary Sissons

Ever since Founder and Director of Moonlit Sanctuary Wildlife Conservation Park, Michael Johnson, dreamed of opening a wildlife park, it has been a safe haven for thousands of animals. It opened in September 2001 and, seventeen years later, Michael is still kicking goals. He recently won the 2018 RACV Victorian Tourism awards with two gold wins including the highly coveted Tourist Attraction category as well as Ecotourism. 

“I wanted a place where people could experience the rare and unusual animals that roam the Australian bush, especially those  that no longer do locally, and to help save endangered species by giving them a safe place to be,” said Michael from the café on the Moonlit Sanctuary. 

As a child, Michael collected small creatures in his suburban Melbourne backyard, with his school yearbook even quoting his future ambitions as “wanting to help animals.”
An avid reader, he was inspired by Gerald Durrell, a famed British naturalist, conservationist and zookeeper. Durrell’s writings fascinated and captured the hearts and minds of animal lovers worldwide and Michael was not immune. In 1996 Michael travelled to the Durrell Foundation’s Conservation Academy which has been at the forefront of wildlife preservation for decades. There he took part in an endangered species breeding course for conservation professionals.

“We purchased the property in Pearcedale where the park is now;  it was formerly a farm and pony club,” said Michael, who could see there was nothing like it on the peninsula and it was a great place for tourists to visit on the way to Philip Island. 

“When we first opened it was just night tours to the public,” said Michael, of the lantern-lit tours that were declared ”magical”. As word grew about this special opportunity to get up close and personal to nocturnal wildlife, the number of visitors increased.

By 2007, the sanctuary opened its doors during the day, expanding the number of animals and welcoming up to 80,000 visitors a year. 

The award winning Wildlife Park has over 10 hectares of open bush-land, feeding kangaroos and wallabies, petting koalas, colourful birds, reptiles, dingoes and many other animals including endangered species. At night, it comes alive with world-famous lantern-lit tours; night birds are active, tiny feather tail, gliders and giant yellow-bellied gliders swoop around, and endangered quolls, pademelons and bettongs forage for food.

“Our Sanctuary is an ark for endangered creatures, and a showcase of their unique beauty. It is a living classroom which encourages children and adults alike to unlock the mystery of Australian mammals, reptiles, birds, fish, insects and amphibians in a natural bush setting,” said Michael. 

You can wander around the beautiful wetlands, a haven for water birds that change with the seasons. Meet koalas, kangaroos, wallabies, emus, Cape Barren geese and curlews, and stop to look at the wombats.

There’s also daily dingo talks, or pop over to see orange bellied parrots, a critically endangered species; then visit the stunning red-tailed black cockatoos, gang gang, superb parrots, and the unique violet eyes of their bower birds.

“One of the more pleasurable outcomes of growth has been the ability to introduce education in behavioural training to the keeper staff. This has resulted in our daily Conservation in Action show in the new amphitheatre, where young animals, such as a bettong, dingo, spot-tail quoll, barn owl, barking owl, cockatoo or tawny frogmouth can be seen going about their training where they are rewarded for their natural behaviour, such as climbing, or flying point to point. As this is not a performance, each day can be different and the success has been the staff interpretation as they talk visitors through each animal’s traits, quirks, and conservation status,” said Michael, who wants to thank every visitor who comes through their doors to experience Moonlit Sanctuary. “It is our hope that each connection creates awareness of the plight of these rare and unusual animals, and that we can all help halt their extinction, so that our children’s children will also experience the joy of their company.”

Moonlit Sanctuary is at 550 Tyabb-Tooradin Road, Pearcedale.

First published in Peninsula Essence – January 2019