11 Jun Wildlife rescue in Victoria is broken – meet the people who are trying to fix it
On June 3, I introduced a Bill into Parliament that seeks to establish a dedicated wildlife response authority. The framework would be modelled on the CFA/SES and be enacted at times of emergency and in general response, allowing wildlife rescue to reach its highest potential. Ahead of it, I spoke to 3 experienced rescuers and carers about why this reform is crucial to sustaining Victoria’s wildlife and those who protect them.
Standing in 45 degree heat dressed head to toe in protective wear; long pants and sleeves in the middle of the bush. Backpacks filled with water weigh them down as they attempt to hydrate as many of the 30,000 flying foxes that they can locate. When it’s too late they fall to the ground, animals are dying in the thousands.
Lisa Palma is volunteer coordinator for grey headed flying fox heat stress events for the main bat colony at Yarra Bend. She explains the horror of watching on as animals try desperately to survive the heat. Often as they take off in flight, the tiny bodies of their young fall from their backs, they are simply too weak to hold on.
“And this isn’t even a bushfire, it is just a hot day.”
The three heat stress events of December 2019 saw thousands of threatened flying foxes at this single colony perish, over five thousand on one single day. A mass death event that like most wildlife emergencies, falls on volunteer rescuers and carers across the state.
Lisa Palma releasing a rehabilitated ringtail possum
Like Lisa, experienced carer Helen Round volunteered her time again when the bushfires swept through Australia a few short weeks later. Armed with a range of skills including fireground response, capture, darting and tree climb rescue, they are some of the best emergency responders in Victoria.
“We just couldn’t get there. We’d done all the training, followed all the protocols and we were still denied access. When we called to request it they didn’t get back to us, it was harrowing,” she explains how restriction to fire grounds was eventually justified by concern for safety.
“In an active fire you’ve got to have lockdown zones, human safety comes first. But you don’t need to be on the black, animals here are incinerated. It’s the animals that leave the fireground that require help and you can do that well from the adjacent land – out there your biggest risk is falling into a wombat hole.”
Helen Round working at her home shelter – Photo Jane Cowan, ABC News
“Very soon after all sorts of people are wandering around. You see residents returning, chopping down trees in thongs having their Foxtel connections restored and still wildlife personnel are restricted” adds Tash Bassett, an experienced small animal vet.
Workloads eventually increased once surviving animals entered care but most rescuers never entered fire zones, those that did had the sole responsibility of euthanizing and removing animals who were never given the chance .
Tash was eventually deployed in NSW, reducing her veterinary shift work from part time to casual to volunteer at the fires in Cooma. “It was a 4 month deployment between us, treating and assessing burns victims but don’t think we weren’t seeing bluetongues with whipper snipper injuries at the same time,” she says.
“We need to remember that these people are working all year round, not just in fires but also in heat, due to floods, loss of habitat and pollution. There are a whole range of consequences to animals that are being directly faced by this cohort and it deserves support,” adds Lisa.
Across Victoria, there are a large number of wildlife rescue groups and services, some are big, some are small and they do things differently. As a result, contact points and objectives become unclear to the general public, specifically regarding awareness.
“People think because they see 50 to 60 roos on the fringe of the city we have a kangaroo plague, but we know that their numbers in the open farmland are crashing. Even in urban and peri urban areas where they retreat at times of distress, they are dying. To not give them any relief at a fire is sealing their fate, it is just unbelievable that culling was allowed to resume so soon afterwards,” says Tash.
Decisions on wildlife response continue to be made despite the Government having no visibility over how many rescuers are active, what their skill sets are and where they are physically located.
Tash describes the inaction of the Government to deploy and support appropriate workers as a “a total disregard for the value of wildlife and their responders”.
Once again, as we see with the annual duck shooting season, this inaction rejects the overwhelming public sentiment that wildlife should be protected.
Tash Bassett treating an injured Kangaroo following her deployment in Cooma, NSW
The other fundamental issue lies in the department currently responsible for wildlife management. The Department Environment Land Water and Planning (DELWP) are simultaneously responsible for both the licencing of wildlife shelter operation and cull permits.
“Kangaroos are just vermin to some people and that is at complete odds with the enormous amount of effort and skill required to protect them, it just doesn’t translate,” says Tash.
Officers within the department aren’t required to be animal or conservation advocates and often they have the job of euthanizing animals in place of experts such as vets and experienced rescuers.
“If it’s traumatic for us, imagine how traumatic it is for somebody untrained. It’s extremely difficult to make that call,” adds Helen.
The Government and DELWP simply cannot replicate the experience of wildlife rescuers and carers who are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
“Some carers can tell you from a distance which toe on a kangaroo is hurting.”
Financially rescuers and carers are almost completely independent, relying on their own savings or public donations which they describe as overwhelmingly generous. The Victorian Government provides up to $2k per annum to wildlife shelters but as Lisa explains, it doesn’t amount to anywhere near the associated cost of specialised care. In fact, it can cost roughly that amount to raise and release a single joey. Applications for access to this grant are exclusive to carers, dismissing rescue teams and are never guaranteed. For shelters and rescue teams not included, fundraising efforts are their fallback.
“There are many stories of wildlife rescuers pausing crucial work to organise a last minute sausage sizzle just so they can continue to operate on a day to day basis.”
Lisa goes on to compare this reality to emergency services personnel working for SES and the CFA.
“There is no shared infrastructure, if we have to rescue an animal from height we can only do it should we happen to possess the equipment to do so and that includes protective wear. If we have it it’s because we paid for it.”
Many rescuers have also shared concern for learning and accreditation.
“You learn by experience and we’re not leveraging the skills we have within our current set of volunteers simply because we lack a formalized mentor program.”
After years spent on the frontline, an accumulated understanding of how these animals suffer is what eventually wears them down, she adds.
“It is highly traumatic work in the same category as every other emergency service offered by the state.”
Often, the work of rescuers involves standing in the rain on the side of a dangerous road dealing with as many of 9 out of 10 cases resulting in euthanasia. The rescuer who collects surviving animals will likely be the carer who treats them, and it’s ongoing care. Months of care can be dedicated to the rehab and release of a single kangaroo with out of pocket costs of up to $200 per dressing, per animal.
“We are talking about a 3-5 day schedule for weeks upon weeks, only to risk releasing them into the hands of a system that fails to protect them. We have seen animals we know and raised, shot legally by farmers who obtained DELWP licenses, only a few weeks later,” says Helen.
It’s important that with whatever reform eventuates, rescuers and carers are able to maintain their volunteer status.
“It’s important to our work that we are here because we want to be.”
A sentiment that echoes throughout the sector.
“I don’t want to turn anyone away because saving these animals’ lives is the reward at the end of the day,” says Tash.
“I’m standing on my property looking out at 32 kangaroos that I’ve successfully reared and released, they are now living wild,” adds Helen.
They hear stories of those who were eventually deployed at the fires still sharing photos, progress reports of animals in care and are already in discussion about how fire season could be better managed next year.
“If people are feeling disempowered or distressed by the plight of wildlife, they should get involved. Even in suburban Melbourne, wildlife needs help,” says Helen.
“All we really need is for the Government to recognise the diversity and importance of these animals. On our charts in the clinic we have Sean the koala, he likes his Gabapentin in Banana and Violet likes hers in Nutrogel. You nurse them as individuals because that’s exactly what they are,” says Tash.
The other fight that continues is a greater understanding of the importance of species recovery and diversity.
“When you cause a disruption to an ecosystem it has dire consequences. Without bats there are no trees, without trees there is no us,” says Lisa.
The role of native wildlife to maintain and preserve our ecosystems is crucial and the support for a reform is clearly strong.
“Quite simply, Victorian wildlife deserve better than a department whose only management tool is a gun,” says Helen.