Family takes a walk on the wild side

While most children beg their parents for a dog or cat for Christmas, in the Holmes family a crocodile is on the top of young Mali and Noah’s list of most wanted animals. This may be an unusual request for most, but for zoologists Sarah and Alex Holmes it doesn’t come a surprise, with the family of four the owners of a large wildlife collection. Caitlyn Morgan got to know the Mildura family behind EnviroEdu and was introduced to their much-loved animals. Pictures: Carmel Zaccone

A CAREER involving the care of animals is one that both Sarah and Alex discovered they longed for from a young age.

Sarah clearly remembers the defining moment in her life when she decided it was what she wanted.

“I have always loved animals from a young age. It was a love of domestic animals – cats and dogs – and I had a mad love of horses but in Grade 2 I made the discovery I was going to be too tall to be a jockey,” she recalls.

“It was then in Grade 6 that a friend of mine went and saw the gorillas in Africa, that was a really defining moment for me.

“I knew from then on that I wanted to be the next Dian Fossey. She remained my childhood idol and I had decided I wanted to be a vet, as I thought that degree would one day get me to Africa.”

It was after beginning her degree at the University of Melbourne in 1999 that Sarah realised her passion was to become a zoologist and not a vet.

After finishing her degree, Sarah’s dreams of travelling to Africa did come true but it wasn’t until her second trip with her husband Alex that she finally got to see the gorillas.

Similar to Sarah, Alex had always loved animals, particularly reptiles.

“I was a kid who loved dinosaurs and never really grew out of it,” Alex admits.

“The next best thing was reptiles, so I had always known I wanted to work with animals.”

Growing up Alex had an abundance of different pets including turtles, lizards and Mexican walking fish but no snakes, despite asking his parents more than once.

While at La Trobe University in Melbourne studying a Bachelor of Science with honours, majoring in Zoology, Alex secretly kept a pet rat on campus and once he moved out into a share house he adopted his first of many snakes.

“The oldest snake I have is 20 years old and I still have him,” Alex says.
“I was always just fascinated by them and their skin texture.”

Sarah adds: “Alex is now the go-to person for anyone locally wanting to know anything about reptiles.”

In 2000 Sarah and Alex met through friends and shortly after made Mildura their permanent home.
During their first few years together, the pair spent many months travelling overseas, where they visited and worked at some of the “world’s iconic wildlife destinations” and witnessed some amazing wildlife spectacles with highlights including the Charles Darwin Research Station in the Galapagos Islands and KwaZulu Natal Wildlife in South Africa.

“The day we went to actually see the gorillas in Africa was a spine-tingling moment,” Sarah says.

“It had been a childhood dream of mine since Grade 6 so to finally see them was such an emotional experience.

“The group we went and saw was the first group exposed to tourists and the silverback (gorilla) actually charged at Alex, so it was a very close encounter.”

It was while independently travelling that Sarah says they had three other encounters that were extremely memorable.

“I remember visiting a national park and we were the only ones there, we just sat there watching a group of wild dogs. Seeing them in their natural habitat was an absolutely amazing experience, a real pinch-yourself moment,” Sarah says.

“While travelling we went to Antarctica so it was incredible to be surrounded by penguins and seals.

“It was that same trip we thought it would be a good idea to take a ute and go looking for polar bears but instead got bogged and in the distance there they were – it was mind boggling just how big they were.”

Alex says the destinations were always animal-focused with the ultimate goal to see something specific.

It was after returning from their travels that the pair properly began their wildlife collection.

“I was particularly passionate about threatened snake species,” Alex says.
“So we did begin to breed snakes with an aim to reintroduce them.

“Ultimately our goal still would be to breed (certain wildlife) and reintroduce them down the track, it would be our way of giving back.”

After the birth of their second child Mali and while on maternity leave Sarah attended their eldest Noah’s childcare class, where a visitor from Melbourne was putting on a wildlife demonstration.

“I remember sitting there thinking that could be me,” Sarah says.

“I always loved working with animals and loved the education aspect of my prior jobs so I came home and told Alex we needed to get some sugar gliders.”

After 12 months of planning, EnviroEdu was officially a business in 2013.

Over the years the business has grown and expanded with EnviroEdu primarily presenting fun, interactive, “hands on” environmental education programs tailored to suit various age groups including early childhood/kindergarten, through to primary and secondary school aged children.

“I love working with the different age groups, one day it will be kinder kids, the next I will be out in the field with Year 11s,” Sarah says.

“We want to be able to deliver powerful conservation messages and that is all about building a connection.

“Education can only go so far without a connection but once they do connect that’s when they can make a difference.”

The programs are dedicated to promoting environmental, conservation and sustainability awareness and showcase Australia’s amazing biodiversity, with a focus on the local environment.

Alex and Sarah have continued to grow their wildlife collection to include 50 animals, many have been hand-raised, which allows them to be confident enough to be seen, patted and sometimes held during the program sessions, giving children a real “connection” to the animals.

While the collection is predominately reptiles, there are still many cute and cuddly mammals including sugar gliders and a brush-tailed bettong.

“The brush-tailed bettong is by far our most endangered animal and the one which took the most to get so we are pretty lucky to have him,” Sarah says.

“The possums were my favourite but our new bettong and tawny frogmouth may have surpassed them now.”

For Alex his favourite animals are of course the reptiles, with the collection including a two-metre goanna, turtles, pythons and various other lizards.

Their two boys Mali and Noah currently don’t have any favourites, with their hearts set on getting a crocodile and with Alex also leaning towards this new addition, they only have Sarah left to convince.

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