Reports from 25 of the hundreds of animal aid charities working in the hot zones
CANBERRA, Australian Capital Territories––More than 100 wildfires raging in Australian coastal forests and wooded parts of the Australian interior in September 2019 exploded beyond immediate hope of control and burst into global consciousness during the first days of 2020, splitting into at least 146 fires in New South Wales alone.
Amid the emergency evacuations of tens of thousands of people, including thousands of Gippsland residents who fled to beaches after all roads out were cut off by fast-moving infernos, ANIMALS 24-7 readers begged to know who is doing what for animals.
With cell towers down all over fire-stricken regions, disrupting both telephone and online communications, that took a multi-day effort just to begin finding out.
Almost the whole of koala habitat burned or at risk
Practically the whole of koala habitat, in eucalyptus forests ranging from Melbourne north to Queensland, has either been engulfed or threatened. More than 12.7 million acres have been seared altogether, more than the whole of the Netherlands and Denmark combined, or Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island combined.
The fires have killed as many as 480 million animals in New South Wales alone, according to a much disputed estimate by University of Sydney ecology professor Chris Dickman, who based his projection on a 2007 habitat survey, and more animals nationwide.
Badly burned and dehydrated koalas, begging for water by roadsides, have come to symbolize Australian wildlife in wildfires in recent years, much as Smokey the Bear has since 1944 symbolized U.S. wildfire prevention.
Joy the baby feathertail glider
But the animal perhaps best symbolizing the human response to wildlife during the present Australian crisis may be Joy the baby feathertail glider, a tiny creature of a marsupial species native to eastern Australian also called a pygmy gliding possum, pygmy glider, pygmy phalanger, flying phalanger, and flying mouse, named for a long feather-like tail.
Narrated the Animal Justice Party NSW (New South Wales) Facebook page on January 2, 2020, “On December 28, 2019, Joy––as she was later named––jumped from a burning tree. She then tried to climb another tree but was stopped by the flames. A [female] Rural Fire Service volunteer witnessed her struggle, gently cupped her in her face mask, and brought her out of the active fire ground.
“Animal Justice Party Central West Region group leader Queenie Green received the call and picked Joy up. Joy has some burnt tail feathers and will remain in care until after the fire passes.”
Wildfire response is a political issue
After the fire, Animal Justice Party NSW noted, “As with all of our native wildlife, there are fewer and fewer places they can be released back into” with any hope of survival until the habitat recovers.
Animal Justice Party NSW and the Australian Wildlife Protection Council, of Mornington, Victoria state, are among the organizations most involved in leading and coordinating non-governmental animal rescue efforts during the 2019-2020 wildfires.
Animal Justice Party NSW, as the name indicates, is a political entity “established in 2009 to pursue the vital issues of animal protection through Australia’s political system and to encourage political parties to adopt animal-friendly policies,” according to the Animal Justice Party web page.
Wildfire response, however, is a political issue in Australia, not least because of the climate change denial policies of present prime minister Scott Morrison, who spent much of the hottest part of the crisis on vacation in Hawaii, after cutting funding for firefighting and refusing an urgent request from the Rural Fire Service for more water bombers.
Australian Wildlife Protection Council began in response to land-clearing wildfires
The Australian Wildlife Protection Council, explains its web page, “is a non-profit charity founded in 1969 by Arthur Queripel and incorporated in 1981. Arthur remembers seeing ‘smoldering piles of mallee scrub and mounds of dead kangaroos and emus following round-ups after clearing.’ He sought help from the police, conservation and animal welfare organizations to no avail, with each passing the responsibility to the other. Finally in desperation he set up AWPC, the aim of which is to protect our native animals from cruelty and exploitation, for their own sake, for their intrinsic worth and because they are unique and special.”
Among the hundreds of Australian organizations helping animals amid and after the wildfires, many of them spotlighted through the social media pages of Animal Justice Party NSW and the Australian Wildlife Protection Council, ANIMALS 24-7 picked out 25, listed in semi-alphabetical order, beginning above, whose activities seem particularly representative of the crisis response.
Helping companion animals at emergency relief shelters
Animal Aid Gippsland chief executive Mark Menze reported on January 1, 2020 that “Staff and volunteers have been working tirelessly to assist the community, while also trying to manage the preservation of their own lives and property, with many of them directly affected. The shelter is safe and is housing a number of displaced animals in need of emergency accommodation. Our staff are providing animal food, blankets, bowls, leads and containment items to emergency relief centers, who are encouraging people to keep their companion animals with them.”
Animal Aid Gippsland operates shelters in Coldstream and Bairnsdale, Victoria state.
Animal Referral Hospital Canberra, a veterinary clinic in Fyshwick, Australian Capital Territories, announced on January 2, 2020, “We are now a drop off point for any pet food, bandages, bedding, wildlife pouches, consumables, water bottles and bowls. If you are in Canberra after being evacuated and need veterinary services or food for your pet, please contact us. We will also be organizing a team to get these urgent supplies to those in need.”
“Happy hands” wanted
Animal Rescue Collective Victoria on January 1, 2020, appealed for “happy hands to make some fauna wildfood balls. These balls will be placed out under logs, rocks, in tree hollows, any safe places where fauna can search them out to supplement feed, but not become prey to predators.”
Animals Australia longtime chief executive Glenys Oogjes emailed, “We are not able or skilled to be directly involved in the rescue efforts, but instead we are providing immediate support to expert wildlife vets––Elaine Ong and Chris Barton––from Vets For Compassion to travel to fire-devastated Mallacoota in Victoria to assist local carers dealing with injured koalas. For the countless other animals––the cattle, sheep, horses, chickens, goats, et al, the sheer scale of suffering and devastation of these catastrophic fires sweeping across the country is like nothing we have seen before.”
Volunteers make rescue pouches
The Australian Koala Foundation team “are watching the fires closely and our chair, Deborah Tabart, is evaluating each fire as it happens,” AKF posted. “We are trying to determine whether koalas are in those habitats or whether they are empty. Of course, by ‘empty’ we mean empty of koalas, but our concern for the biodiversity, and of course all others animals is also front and center. It is all just horrifying. We must leave the experts in fire to decide what to do and all of us pray for rain. It is a time for patience but we can assure you that our patience for a Koala Protection Act is also front of mind. It is needed more than ever.”
The Australian Rescue Collective appealed “for people to make pouches for injured animals. If you have craft skills,” ARC asked, “then download the simple pouch patterns. Once you have made your pouches, you can bring them into any of our library branches, where they will collected for distribution.” Australian Rescue Collective chapters operate from Lane Cove in New South Wales, Mitchell in the Australian Capital Territories, and Warragul, Hastings, and Mornington, Victoria state.
Proper feeding means no seeds for marsupials
The Australia Walkabout Wildlife Park, in Calga, New South Wales, advised inexperienced would-be rescuers, “If we are to help animals, we must make sure we do not cause them more harm. With so many wonderful people putting food out to save our starving wildlife, we all have to know what is safe and what isn’t.
“The most dangerous food for kangaroos and wallabies is seed,” the Australia Walkabout Wildlife Park explained. “Birdseed and seeded bread gives them a truly horrible condition called ‘lumpy jaw.’ These seeds do not occur naturally in Australia. If kangaroos eat these seeds, they often get stuck between their teeth and their gums and work their way into the jaw bone and cause an infected inflamed excruciatingly painful bone abscess,” which “can’t be cured.”
The Australia Walkabout Wildlife Park recommended that “For kangaroos and wallabies, the safest food is grass pellets. Native foods (flowers, leaves, grasses) are best, but with the drought and fires they’re in short supply.
“Different kinds of possums have different types of gut systems,” the Australia Walkabout Wildlife Park continued. “Fruit is dangerous for ringtail possums. If they eat fruit they commonly get bloat, a paralyzed gut which is painful and life threatening. This is because their gut is designed for the same food as a koala. So if you are putting out food for possums and you can’t find enough native food for them, only feed non-sweet vegetables.
“What birds need most desperately,” the Australia Walkabout Wildlife Park finished, “is water. Most birds can fly long distances to new places to find food, as long as they have water.”
Saving cats & flying foxes in Gippsland
The Cat Protection Society of Victoria on January 4, 2020 posted, “With your incredible generosity, this morning we packed up a wagon, utility vehicle, and SUV to the brim with donated animal food, blankets and beds and delivered it to the amazing team at Animal Aid Gippsland,” explaining that “This will assist the team in their efforts caring for displaced animals in need of emergency accommodation and will be distributed at emergency relief centers.”
Friends of the Bats & Habitat Gippsland reported “a good news story at Bairnsdale maternal flying fox colony” on December 30, 2019, where members “had installed a pump to the river and a sprinkler spray mister system along the bottom of the colony in the days preceding,” recalled as “a hard slog over hot days, much expense by private individuals, and no help from the authorities.”
With the help of “Michelle Thomas and Alison Kuiter from Animalia Wildlife Shelter who travelled up from Melbourne,” the Friends of the Bats & Habitat Gippsland team rescued and rehabilitated 42 grey-headed flying foxes.
“They are all doing well,” the team said, “and while there were an estimated 300 deaths , this is far below the number experienced in January 2019. The cooling effect of sprinklers without a doubt saved thousands of batty lives.”
Friends of the Bats & Habitat Gippsland also thanked “Lynne Amore for taking on more of these wee climate refugees at her Sale [the name of the town] shelter. Legendary work!”
Wildlife shelter burned
Help For Wildlife, of Melbourne, Victoria on January 1, 2020 warned residents that the Plenty Gorge Fire might drive wildlife “out of the Plenty Gorge park and into suburban streets on the edges of the fire zone. We have been monitoring some of the kangaroos that have been frightened by the activity involved while bringing this fire under control. An amazing job was done keeping homes and locals safe,” Help For Wildlife said, “but please think of our native wildlife. Keep dogs on leads at all times if walking on surrounding footpaths and place bowls of water in your front garden.”
The Wallabia Wildlife Shelter in Goongerah, East Gippsland, Victoria, burned on December 30, 2019, along with the founders’ home, but quickly rebuilt emergency holding facilities for species including wallabies, possums, gliders, kookaburras, lyre birds, magpies, wombats, and goannas. The Wallabia Wildlife Shelter is the only licensed “all species” rescue facility serving 1,500-odd square miles of Far East Gippsland.
“Please be mindful whilst driving”
The Kangaloola Wildlife Shelter, of Yackandandah, Victoria, on December 31, 2019 posted that “Kangaloola is safe from the fires, but very sad. We only have to imagine what is happening to feel very distressed about it. The fires are still burning. There is no rain coming [though some rain did finally fall on January 5, 2020], only more heat and more wind. Then, another three months of summer. Stay safe!
The Lost Dogs’ Home, operating shelters in North Melbourne and Cranbourne, Victoria, mentioned on January 5, 2019 that it “is involved in the rescue and care of people’s pets who are evacuating from the bushfire-affected locations, one of the many agencies working behind the scenes.”
The Macedon Ranges Wildlife Network, of Woodend, Victoria, on December 31, 2019 noted that “Local rescuers are pleading with residents to not walk dogs around Canterbury Lake for a few days so that the animals that are sheltering there can calm down. Wildlife are already displaced,” the Macedon Ranges Wildlife Network explained, not “just fleeing the fires but also all the activity and noise. Please be mindful whilst driving,” the network added.
$50 per dart to sedate kangaroos
Monty’s Rest Wildlife Refuge, of Porter’s Retreat, New South Wales, exulted on January 1, 2020, that “Some good friends and two wonderful vets turned up today to help with the burnt babies (three kangaroos). The vets removed the necrotic skin, cleaned the burns, treated and re-bandaged, as well as giving pain killers and antibiotics. This was fantastic help. Now though it gets a bit harder,” the poster continued, as “Every two days I have to do this myself,” darting the animals with an anesthetic that costs $50 per shot sedate per kangaroo, with only the caregiver’s pension for income. “This is just the beginning. More babies will come into care,” Monty’s Rest Wildlife Refuge said.
Native Wildlife Rescue, of Robertson, New South Wales, “are members of Wildlife Rescue South Coast Inc., a rehabilitation organization licensed by the Office of Environment & Heritage, covering an area from Wollongong to the Victorian border and inland to the East of Goulburn and including the Southern Highlands,” according to the Native Wildlife Rescue web page.
“Our care center here in Robertson is in a much better position than many other places,” Native Wildlife Rescue posted to Facebook. “Currently we are not in the path of either the Currowan Fire nor the Green Wattle Creek Fire,” the two major fires burning in the vicinity. “But we need to stay vigilant and are prepared and ready to defend our property and care centre should the conditions change.”
Meanwhile, Native Wildlife Rescue said, “Released animals returned to our property and we are holding off with any [further] releases until a decent rainfall provides relief.
“Numerous big and small wildlife depend on us with limited options to relocate them.
We decided to stay on our place and we are prepared to fight off any possible ember attacks and retreat into a shelter if our trigger points are reached,” the posting continued.
“Tragically, many of our fellow wildlife carers down the coast, in the Southern Tableland and northern part of the Southern Highlands, combatted the fires with numerous evacuations, loss of property, loss of enclosures and compounds, and also one husband/wife team sustained very severe injuries,” Native Wildlife Rescue finished.
Wildlife carers “severely burnt”
Elaborated the New South Wales Wildlife Council on January 2, 2020, “Two wildlife carers have been severely burnt defending their home and wildlife in care on the south coast. They have been flown to Sydney for critical hospital care. Sadly a number of their adult animals perished in the fires. The Rural Fire Service and police did manage to get their baby wombats out. They have been taken in by other carers.”
ANIMALS 24-7 received a report that two wildlife rescuers had been killed, but was unable to confirm if these, who were not named, were the same two victims.
The Port Macquarie Koala Hospital, in Port Macquarie, New South Wales, treated 72 badly burned koalas on Christmas Day alone, clinic director Cheyne Flanagan told media. Newshub reported that a Gofundme page for the koala hospital posted in September 2019 had raised more than $2.1 million [USD], the most ever for an Australian Gofundme appeal.
Ongoing declines in koala population expected
Nature Conservation Council ecologist Mark Graham told a December 2019 Australian parliamentary inquiry that koalas “have no capacity to move fast enough to get away” from fires spreading at treetop level.
“The fires have burnt so hot and so fast that there has been significant mortality of animals in the trees, but there is such a big area now that is still on fire and still burning that we will probably never find the bodies,” Graham testified.
“We’ve lost such a massive swathe of known koala habitat,” including in the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area and parts of the Gondwana rainforests,” Graham,added, “that I think we can say without any doubt there will be ongoing declines in koala populations from this point forward.”
Kangaroo “was so happy to see me!”
Wild2Free sanctuary founder Rae Harvey waged a multi-day struggle to save herself, her cat, and about two dozen kangaroos, detailed on January 2, 2020 by Michael Dahlstrom of Yahoo News Australia.
“The Wild2Free kangaroos were a popular fixture on the Yahoo News Australia Facebook page,” Dahlstrom reminded his audience. “Harvey said she moved to the New South Wales south coast,” as an inholder in the Mogo State Forest, “after traveling all over NSW, looking for the highest concentration of wildlife.
“After researching for 18 months, she moved to the area believing it was the only part of NSW where kangaroos are not commercially hunted for the pet food industry.”
Harvey and a volunteer named Karen eventually fled the sanctuary, with Harvey’s cat, but there was no way to evacuate the free-roaming kangaroos.
Both Wild2Free sanctuary properties were burned over, Dahlstrom reported, but a shipping container filled with hay and kangaroo food escaped the flames.
A Rural Fire Service volunteer told Harvey, Dahlstrom wrote, “that two kangaroos had arrived at a neighbor’s property that had survived the flames.”
Meanwhile back at Wild2Free, the firefighter relayed, “There’s about 20 here and there’s big ones and there’s small ones and they’re all friendly and approaching me and wanting food and water. Then there was this big one and he rubbed his face against me because he was so happy to see me.”
“Largely a job of euthanizing”
Wildlife Victoria chief executive Megan Davidson told Andrew Drummond and Marnie O’Neill of Australian Associated Press that “The fires have killed millions of animals––mammals, birds, reptiles,” regardless of how anyone estimates the toll.
Rescue, Davidson said, “is largely a job of euthanizing at this stage, both livestock and wildlife,” Davidson said.
New South Wales Wildlife Information, Rescue and Education Service, better known as WIRES, deployed “over 2,500 volunteers in 28 branches,” the organization said.
“In WIRES history we have never seen a concurrent series of emergencies events like those that began in November,” WIRES posted. “Many animals were already struggling with a lack of water and food due to the drought” that preceded the fires.
“With the fires destroying unprecedented amounts of habitat,” WIRES continued, “food shortages have increased and lack of suitable habitat will be a significant long-term challenge for surviving wildlife.
“In December 2019 alone there were over 20,000 calls to WIRES,” the organization recounted, “a 14% increase on last year, and volunteers attended over 3,300 rescues.”
“Emergency support now, rebuilding later”
Warriors 4 Wildlife, of Emerald, Victoria, “are coordinating tremendous efforts across Victoria to care for displaced and injured animals” in Victoria state, having raised $96,000 for the work, Warriors for Wildlife said on Facebook, pledging support to volunteers helping with animal recovery, treatment and rehabilitation, and to help the estimated 250 animal shelters around Victoria state “recover after this terrible event. This means emergency support now, and rebuilding later.”
“The fires have brought our individual nightmares to visit,” author, musician, and senior wildlife rehabilitator Daemon Singer posted from Mungallala, Queensland, to the Australian Wildlife Protection Council Facebook page.
“As carers we frequently experience loss,” Singer wrote. “We all experience it at one level or another. In the absence of anything looking like a leader in Canberra, we are stuck with doing this ourselves. We get nothing from most governments. Some areas have local councils which provide small amounts of support, but nothing like the amount we actually spend in caring.
“Animals first, us second”
“So weekly, our pension is carved up. Animals first, us second. Year after year. And eventually we find we have run out of energy. That’s called ‘compassion fatigue.’ It hits all of us, at some stage.
“There are over 20,000 of us carers, Australia wide,” Singer continued. “Eighty-five percent of us are women. Eighty percent plus are over 60 years of age. Over 78% of us are on fixed incomes. 100% of us run the risk of compassion fatigue.
“We carers need to take care of ourselves,” Singer reminded colleagues, “because there are precious few others who can even grasp the depth of our grief at the loss of a joey, or a possum, or a magpie, or any of the myriad other natives we care for. And really, is it just natives? How many of us have cared for a fox hit by a car (our hand is up). How many have cared for a deer? We mostly don’t make any sort of distinction between the native and non-native cares [animal patients].
“We can’t expect government to do anything”
“Unless of course we are part of an organization which doesn’t see animals as first priority and which have six-figure salaries for their management team. Or if we are a species co-ordinator in another organization which has the president being of the utmost importance. Or the secretary. Anyone but the animals.
“We can’t expect government to do anything,” Singer said. “They simply don’t care, not just about us, but about our animals. That’s why Queensland allows the slaughter of 2.8 million of our beautiful icons [kangaroos], annually.
“The fires have brought the challenges we all face into stark relief on television every night,” Singer finished. “A koala doe holding her precious joey on a log, surrounded by fire. All of a sudden people are saying ‘Who cares for these animals we love and that we kill as a matter of course in being human?”