Michael as a child collected creatures small and great 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 in Jersey which has been at the forefront of wildlife preservation for decades where he took take part in an endangered species breeding course for conservation professionals.
The Johnson family purchased a 25 acre property formerly a farm and pony club, in Pearcedale on the beautiful Mornington Peninsula.
Development of the Sanctuary commenced in December 1998, and entailed:
Construction of a modern, environmentally sensitive visitors centre.
Planting of over 10,000 native Australian trees and plants.
Construction of a 2 acre wetland with lake and water bird habitats.
Construction of over 30 animal enclosures and support facilities.
The park opened in September 2001, and initially operated by providing night tours to the public. The lantern-lit tours were declared “magical!” as word grew about this special opportunity to get up close and personal to nocturnal wildlife, most few visitors had ever seen.
As local and State Tourism Awards were won, and visitations increased, any funds were directed right back to the animals and their comfort. At this time notable breeding successes of rare and endangered species were:
- Eastern Bettongs
At that time, the only Eastern Bettongs on mainland Australia in the wild or captivity (outside of Tasmania). The bettongs soon settled into their large enclosure and began to breed prolifically at the same time as charming night visitors with their antics.
- Eastern Quolls
Though bred in South Australia, no captive-bred management had been set up in Victoria. Moonlit Sanctuary were the first to breed the Quolls successfully in Victoria since their last reported wild sighting in 1963 at Studley Park.
- Julia Creek Dunnarts
Intensive breeding was undertaken on behalf of the Queensland Government, for these rarely seen and critically endangered Dasyurids. A successful outcome being the release of approximately 14 progeny back into the wild.
- Squirrel Gliders
A healthy captive bred colony has been maintained since 2001, and our progeny have gone into many other zoos and breeding programs across the country.
In 2007, the Sanctuary opened it’s doors during the day, expanding its number of animals and welcoming 80,000 visitors a year. Expecting to be 100,000 close of 2016.
The Sanctuary employs over 40 full time and part-time staff. Including three veterinarians and willing volunteers. The park has a considerable food bill, with insects, mealworms, fruit, vegetables, grain, meat, branches of fresh eucalypt collected daily, and freezers full of rats and mice.
Having received no government funding or grants in the past 15 years, this family business has continued to reinvest in enclosures, staff training, facilities and visitor encounters and experiences, and where possible, investing in Conservation breeding.
The ultimate aim of conservation breeding is the reintroduction of endangered species into the wild. Moonlit Sanctuary is involved in several conservation breeding programs;
- Southern (formally eastern) bettongs
- Tasmanian devil
- Feather-tail gliders
- Squirrel gliders
- Yellow-bellied gliders
- Black-winged stilt
- White-browed woodswallow
- Sacred kingfisher
- Orange-bellied parrot
- Bush-stone curlew
- Spot-tail quoll
Recent notable breeding successes of rare and endangered species are:
- Bush-stone Curlews
Moonlit Sanctuary breeds bush-stone curlews for a release program near Albury, New South Wales.
- Spot-tailed Quolls
Moonlit Sanctuary manages the national population of spot-tail quoll on behalf of the Zoo and Aquarium Association. This includes managing the studbook to create the most appropriate genetic match and prevent inbreeding.
- Orange-bellied Parrots
Moonlit Sanctuary supports the national recovery program by breeding in a specially constructed breeding facility, built with support of the Avicultural Society of Australia. In 2014 we saw the first of these critically endangered birds bred at the sanctuary, released into the wild. The success of our breeding has seen our participation grow with a new breeding facility being completed in 2016.
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.