The Moonlit journey started to take shape almost forty years ago when owner -Michael Johnson travelled to Sumatra, Indonesia, to experience the wildlife and immerse himself in history. “Even as a child, I wanted to help animals,” says Michael, “I was very inspired by the work of Gerald Durrell, the famed British naturalist, conservationist and zookeeper and by 1996 found myself attending the highly respected Durrell Foundation's Conservation Academy (established by the same Gerald Durrell), in Jersey, where I took take part in an endangered species breeding course for conservation professionals.” It was a knowledge and experience-packed few weeks, which emphasized the importance of the indigenous aspect for zoos/sanctuaries and was followed by Michael’s own study tour of zoos and sanctuaries in Europe.
The dream to own an Australian animal sanctuary to both protect them and provide a place where people could experience and learn about them was getting closer – but first it was important to find land that reflected the original landscape of the area. Michael’s family always had a strong entrepreneurial spirit, so after a 2 year search the Johnson family purchased 25 acres of former farm land in Pearcedale and started construction of what was to become Moonlit Sanctuary. With plenty of native bush already on site it had a lot of potential. In 2001 the first public experience was introduced. These were small group, lantern-lit, night tours that showcased Australian animals when they are most active - an Australian-first – and they still run today. Since that time over 10,000 native plants have been planted, a 2 acre wetland and environmentally sensitive visitor centre has been created, and more than 30 animal enclosures and support facilities have been built. It continues to evolve every year.
Michael is committed to conservation, “It’s so rewarding to help more animals and be able to share their story with visitors”, says Michael. “Usually this is a planned thing, but sometimes it is an organic thing as animals from other zoos or rescue services find themselves needing a home. We have to be flexible.” Australia has so many unique species of animals but sadly also the worst extinction rate on the planet for mammals. It became apparent that the proximity to Philip Island and Western Port was important for specific native species such as the very endangered (and tiny) Orange Bellied Parrots who manage their annual herculean migration between Tasmania and Victoria. This has led to Moonlit establishing a successful breeding program for these birds with public education about their challenges. Moonlit is now involved in four key endangered bird breeding programs: the beautiful Regent Honeyeaters and Helmeted Honeyeaters, the fascinating Bush Stone-Curlews, as well as the Orange-bellied Parrots.
The lifelong interest and passion behind the business means that the animals are extremely well looked after. Michael has visited close to 200 zoos, sanctuaries and fauna parks world-wide to research best practice. His team of keepers are just as passionate, well regarded nationally, and have built strong relationships and trust levels with other zoos and wildlife parks. This has meant that Moonlit has been able to rehouse a lot of animals that could not be released into the wild for various reasons, and today over 400 animals of some 60 species make the sanctuary home.
With birds, animals, reptiles and more all calling Moonlit home, the team of keepers and support staff is large and highly skilled. Michael ensures that they undergo a huge amount of training to be able to handle their assigned animals in a sensitive and practical manner. They become very close to their assigned animals (knowing their habits and personalities) and are passionate about educating people. Visitors can see the strong relationship they have with the animals and are interested in the history and future of the various species. “This is a dream job and we love sharing our knowledge with visitors” says Lisa Tuthill, Manager of Life Sciences. “About 30% of the animal species here are in the three brackets of Vulnerable, Endangered, or Critically Endangered. As keepers, we are making a difference through our work in conserving endangered species for future generations. It is a very special role.”
Michael’s family have always been involved in the business. His parents were instrumental in their support to get the project established, and his sister, Cate, and her husband, Geoff, work behind the scenes ensuring things run smoothly.
Sharing natural experiences comes naturally to this talented team and gives visitors from around the world the chance to meet endangered animals, learn about conservation breeding programs and become wildlife ambassadors.
While the evening tours remain a favourite activity for visitors, the day time experiences have grown to include a large number of exhibits, animal encounters and activities (there are interesting presentations happening every half hour) all in a spacious bush setting. “Visitors love the serenity and getting close to the animals. The Wallaby Walk is a perennial favourite with the opportunity to hand feed a variety of kangaroos and wallabies in a natural environment,” says Lisa, “while the Wedge-tailed Eagles inspire awe with their size and majesty.” There are lots of stops to explore within the park so visitors can do it their own way with many activities to include throughout the Sanctuary. A couple of hours can go by very quickly so to help keep you going there is a friendly café with a sunny deck and plenty of space for a picnic.
There are literally dozens of interesting mammals, birds and reptiles to meet and learn about with walk-through aviaries, koala encounters, dingo walks, snake and lizard tanks, demonstrations of animal handler training and more. For those looking for more in-depth experiences there is the chance to become Keeper for a Day or book a Behind the Scenes experience where visitors can also see the keepers prepare the food – it’s a bespoke menu for each animal and a strict regime to keep them healthy, make enrichments for the animals and discover the day-to-day workings of a wildlife park.
A lot of effort has gone into creating engaging exhibits; no wonder Moonlit has won so many awards. Visitors love it - so much so that Moonlit has the highest Trip Advisor rating of any animal experience in Victoria. “So often the visitors mention that their expectations are exceeded. They find the interactions with the animals to be fantastic, and love that the animals are so happy and healthy”, says Michael. “We have had people connect to the animals on a deeper level and establish their own personal commitment to conservation.”
A lifelong interest and love for animals and saving them for future generations sparked the creation of Moonlit Sanctuary and continues to be their focus today. This well-respected Australian wildlife experience delights guests with intimate encounters. Perhaps it’s time to rediscover your connection and fall in love with nature again in this surprising and picturesque region.
The Mornington Peninsula is a place unmatched in its beauty, diversity of experiences and quality of produce. Here you can discover hand-picked, handmade local heroes.
Sometimes you need the local knowledge to find them so “I AM Mornington Peninsula” shares with you the stories of 10 local heroes. Come and meet the talented makers, creators and innovators of our region. The welcome is personal and there is so much heritage and passion. They work hard to make their dreams come true, and they want to share it with the world. “I AM Mornington Peninsula” means that you can find your way to meet them for yourselves.
Read more at www.iamMP.com.au