The text comes through to your phone. “Can you rescue (1) kangaroo, eastern grey, hit by vehicle, frothing at mouth? Reply Y or N.”
Will you text back:
(a) “N. I am only equipped to rescue possums”;
(b) “Y. But I’m not authorised to carry sedatives”; or
(c) “Y”, and try to round up four other volunteers to work a net.
It’s a game of choose your own adventure, being a wildlife rescuer. The stakes are raised considerably when it comes to kangaroos, the No. 1 species called in to Wildlife Victoria’s emergency response hotline.
Between March 21 and April 21 this year, 667 kangaroo incidents were called in by the Victorian public, up by 400 from the same 30-day period in 2012. It’s not that the marsupial population has sharply increased, it’s the fact that Melbourne’s suburbs are advancing ever further north, eating up the surrounding bushland.
Burnout is common. In serious cases, there’s post-traumatic stress disorder.
Good Samaritans who report a wildlife emergency often expect an officer to turn up within minutes. The reality is that all responders are volunteers using their own time, petrol and equipment. Calls to the RSPCA, Parks Victoria, councils or the police will result in a referral to a charity such as Wildlife Victoria or Help for Wildlife, which then contacts the volunteers of about 10 rescue networks around the state.
Jon Rowdon runs Hepburn Wildlife Shelter with Gayle Chappell. He understands how distressing it is for a caller to stand guard over a mutilated animal with the belief that their call is being ignored by some civil servant. “Once, our phone rang at 6am and we didn’t get to it until we started a shift at 9am. The message amid the text essay was, ‘I think it’s disgusting that you people are leaving animals to suffer.’ ”
As a rescuer myself, I’m regularly called out to a fence-hanger caught on barbed wire, or to a roadside roo. At first I turned down these jobs in favour of doing pouch checks: making sure there were no joeys and then spraying a pink cross on the corpse. Anything bigger seemed impossible.
My classroom training came from Manfred Zabinskas, owner of Five Freedoms Animal Rescue. It was an exciting presentation: all camouflage gear, guns, run-ins with police helicopters – he’s like the Bear Grylls of roo rescue. For new rescuers, though, armed with only a towel and a hi-vis vest, further training has to come from one’s own initiative: by teaming up with veterans for field experience and by working at shelters to get to know the animals.
Zabinskas is contracted by Wildlife Victoria for incidents where roos are still mobile and is insured to the back teeth. Rescuers like me rely on Medicare or personal health insurance, because volunteer insurance is basic. Many vets have dart-gun licences, but as Karen Masson, CEO of Wildlife Victoria, notes, vets won’t come out and dart a roo. Yet there’s an increasing need.
In the Plenty Gorge and University Hill suburbs, the kangaroo habitat was encircled by shopping malls and housing developments. Then that circle was filled in. There’s a mob of about 2000 kangaroos, some of which might pop up in an apartment, in a car park, even in the pharmacy at the airport. No matter whether VicRoads, Melbourne Airport or Coles calls in the problem, it’s the charity that foots the darter bill.
Heidi Still works Melbourne’s northern suburbs. She fell into rescuing after the 2009 bushfires and it has taken over her life. “It’s not unusual to go out to 10 to 15 kangaroos a day. It’s crazy,” she says. “Recently there were five in one suburban block. I was there for eight hours.”
Burnout is common. In serious cases, there’s post-traumatic stress disorder. “We had a volunteer who has been magnificent,” says Masson, “but she’d completely lost her objectivity. It’s that, ‘I can’t sleep if there are animals out there dying and I’m the only one who can help.’ ”
It’s for this reason that Wildlife Victoria allows rescuers to go offline and be unsearchable by the database system. The state’s shelters, however, can never go offline. Barbara Morrow works part-time as a GP to fund the Shamrock Wildlife Shelter in Woodend. Unlike tourist attractions such as Healesville Sanctuary, which received $6 million from the Victorian government for its Australian Wildlife Health Centre, shelters are not open to the public, so half the battle is raising donations.
Morrow describes giving blood recently and the nurse complaining that kangaroos are dangerous, that they attack dogs, children and small women. And cars, of course. Further up the Calder Freeway in Castlemaine, a road that’s a blackspot for roo accidents has “GO FASTER!” spraypainted on a road sign.
The public does tend to be more giving when the media gets behind a crisis. In 2009, Wildlife Victoria received donations to its bushfire appeal totalling $3,324,888.81, a stark contrast to the state government’s response of $350,000. Last year Victoria’s Wildlife Rehabilitator Grants program gave $176,000 to the industry, but Masson believes it favours organisations that draw tourist dollars. “The majority went to Phillip Island for the penguins, and Zoos Victoria,” she says. The grants available to individual shelters were capped at $2000 each.
No funds raised by Wildlife Victoria currently trickle down to the shelters. In fact, Masson reports donations have dropped sharply, making it difficult to pay the four staff and operate the phone lines. The kangaroo training and coaching of new volunteers is paused, stretching rescuers further. “We’re a phone service,” she says. “We always thought we could do more than that, but realistically we can’t.”
The Victorian government does employ wildlife officers in its Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, but their role is not to rescue animals, rather to investigate crime, issue licences to shelters and – conflictingly – permits to cull. Figures from 2008 show that 1497 permits to cull kangaroos were granted, out of a potential 58,259.
“They don’t have enough staff,” says Masson of the idea that DELWP officers could assist with rescues. “They don’t care about individual animals. They’re about species.”
At present, the Victorian Wildlife Council – made up of carers and shelter operators – is trying to establish best practices across the state, amid patchy training and fractious networks of rescuers who make huge physical, social and financial sacrifices.
If the state government committed a department to wildlife rescue then regulation would be compulsory, but Rowdon believes the work is more effective in the hands of the community.
“The body of knowledge is held by shelters,” he says. “The government is a regulator and it does that well because it has taxpayers’ support, but to actually have action on the ground, it’s better to leave it with us. It just needs to be better regulated.” And funded.
Masson’s greatest hope for change is at a council level, although only Nillumbik Shire Council has a wildlife officer, purely to euthanise. “There are things that can be done,” Masson says. “Wildlife bridges, fencing on highways where roos regularly get hit.”
Her biggest fear is a kneejerk reaction to an inevitable incident. “We’re scared that with all the calls from the northern suburbs, someone will die in a bike or car accident and then there’ll be calls to cull. We’re trying to manage that situation so that the councils are seen to be doing something now, so that the reaction doesn’t have to be a cull when something happens.”
A greater sense of responsibility from the public is also high on Masson’s wish list. Seventy per cent of calls are Melbourne-based because “people in the city cannot deal with animals. It’s: ‘I’ve got a possum in my backyard. What the hell do I do with it? I’ll ring somebody!’ ”
In the case of small animals and birds, Wildlife Victoria operators do try to walk callers through the issue, to free up volunteers for big rescues. With an echidna in the backyard it could be as simple as bringing the dog in until it leaves, while a badly injured lizard might be taken to the vet. Roadside callers are asked to mark a tree by tying something around it if they can’t stay, and to check pouches of dead marsupials for joeys. All this requires an investment of action that’s out of people’s comfort zones but, then, the volunteers are in the same boat.
If not us, then who?