Wildlife warriors stand strong
Erika Tumambing | Melbourne, Australia
For Denise Garratt, it all began in the depths of the Victorian bush, where a fascination with the kangaroos in her paintings became a lifelong passion for wildlife rescue.
“It was just something that was meant to be,” she says, “they’re exquisite creatures.”
A former painter, Garratt left her art gallery thirty years ago for a life in the bush, where she studied and lived with a mob of kangaroos on a remote property for seven years. She has nursed hundreds of joeys and kangaroos back to health since. “Some mornings I might get six calls before 9 o’clock for animals injured on the road all across the state,” she says.
The real tragedy, says Garratt, is that not all incidents are immediately reported, leaving injured kangaroos stranded on the roads until someone else calls for help, by which time it may be too late. “Ninety per cent of motorists will hit kangaroos and keep going,” she sighs as she bottle-feeds little Bill, one of the many joeys she has taken into her care.
“There’s this huge area for education that is desperately needed to encourage people to think about driving from dusk to dawn a little more carefully where wildlife is known to be on the roads.”
For this reason, Wildlife Victoria rescuer, Fiona Rowley, believes kangaroo numbers are in decline. “Kangaroos have very few natural predators,” she says, “but there is little doubt in my mind that man is the kangaroo’s biggest predator.” Landowners and farmers are now applying for culling permits under the misconception that kangaroo numbers are out of control and taking food and water from their sheep and cattle which, according to Rowley, is not the case. “We have now built so many housing estates and commercial development[s] that we have landlocked many mobs of kangaroos into the only remaining parcels of land and made them easier to see,” she says.
Australian Society for Kangaroos coordinator, Nikki Sutterby, agrees. Road deaths, drought, commercial shooting and loss of habitat have all shown how humans have put the national icon at risk of large-scale extinction.
“Not only are they shot in rural areas by farmers, they are displaced by development and civilisation that is extending at a rapid rate in regional and metropolitan areas,” she says. Sutterby fears kangaroos may never recover from their current critical situation. This is exacerbated by continued government support of the kangaroo industry, which slaughters millions each year – 3.6 million in 2008 – to supply meat for export and pet food.
“The Australian government is in denial about the plight of kangaroos and I believe they won’t realise until it’s too late,” she says.
Garratt has dedicated her life to saving kangaroos and other wildlife, including koalas and possums. Aside from being on a number of animal welfare boards and ethics committees, including the Department of Sustainability and Environment and the Platypus Conservancy and Victorian Wildlife Rehabilitation Council, Garratt is one of the founding members of the RSPCA wildlife branch and the president of Help For Wildlife.
“I work 36 hours a day,” she muses. “It’s very rewarding. But in some cases it can tear your heart out when you don’t get them through and you can’t save them.” Running a wildlife shelter, she says, is particularly difficult for those on the outer skirts of the city that take in high maintenance wildlife. There are also travelling, food and facility costs to cover, most of which comes out of her hip pocket. As a non-government funded organization, Wildlife Victoria relies solely on donations from the public as well as the help of voluntary staff to keep afloat. She knows that “we’re all in this together.”
But financial drawbacks did not dampen her spirits during the Black Saturday bushfires last year. Garratt and a team from Help For Wildlife were some of the first aides on the scene at the Kinglake complex. “All of the food that we gave out to the animals in the fires I funded myself,” she says. “Some medical supplies were donated, but most of the cost we bore ourselves. We didn’t get very many donations for the fires because nobody really knew we were doing it.”
With the help of other shelters, Help For Wildlife distributed 70 tonnes of food and supplies to those in need, including dog and cat food, horse rugs, hay, horse food and human food, all the way from Kilmore to Gippsland.
“We were inundated,” she says. “Everybody did what they could, when they could and how they could.”
In the midst of the chaos, Garratt did not have any time to seek donations, which proved to be especially difficult when she ran out of medical supplies. Medical supplies, she noted, were distributed poorly during the bushfires.
“Some people got a lot, some people got none and some people didn’t know where it was,” she says. Fortunately, aid did arrive from interstate. The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) sent down a specialist burns vet and an international relief coordinator from New South Wales.
Bob Irwin, animal conservationist and father of the late Steve Irwin, and other wildlife workers in Queensland also contributed what they could. “They were the wind beneath our very charred wings,” Garratt says.
In spite of all the difficulties she is confronted with in running Help For Wildlife and rehabilitating kangaroos, she wouldn’t trade her job for anything else in the world. “I find I’m constantly humbled with the privilege of being able to have access to them,” she says.
Fellow wildlife shelter owner and friend, Michele Philips, is equally passionate about the wildlife that she takes in.
“They’re my pride and joy,” she boasts, “I’ll give an animal every chance it needs, as long as it’s not suffering.”
Owner of the South Oakleigh Wildlife Shelter, Philips takes in smaller wildlife, including possums and a variety of birds. Her front yard is often dotted with cockatoos, magpies and lorikeets that she has rehabilitated and released in the past but insist on coming back to pay her a visit. “Every animal has its purpose and when humans interfere, it’s disastrous,” she says.
Although the injured wildlife she rescues require low maintenance, the cost of care does add up and like Garratt, the majority of funding comes from Philips’ own pocket. When she isn’t tending to her wildlife, she spends most of her time foraging for bottlebrush and eucalyptus branches to feed the animals and adorn the makeshift homes in her backyard. Her dirt-encrusted hands are testimony to the physical demands of her day job.
Unlike Garratt, Philips runs the shelter on her own, covering the cost of feeding, cleaning and rehabilitation with little help from the government, which, in her opinion, is less than adequate. “It’s up to me to get the money however I can,” she says.
Donations and council grants have helped Philips run the shelter, but are currently her only sources of income. Last year, she received grants of $800 from Moorabbin Kingston council and $2000 from Glen Eira council, however she has received nothing from her own council, Oakleigh-Monash. “Monash have got no allowance whatsoever for wildlife,” she says, “for me, $3000 is nothing.”
Only recently has the Government formally recognized the contribution of wildlife carers to animal welfare. Under the 2009/10 Wildlife Rehabilitators Grants Program, $400,000 will be made available as grants to rehabilitators for equipment and infrastructure over a two-year period. A further $150,000 will go into the development of an education program for wildlife rehabilitation.
Colleen Wood, manager of the Southern Ash Wildlife Shelter, can identify with Philips’ lack of funding, which made the bushfires all the more difficult to endure. “The only funding that we received during the fires was a $1000 grant that they allocated to any shelters or carers that had dealt with any wildlife… There were times when we could not access medical supplies. There were another four shelters that were completely destroyed, so we also took on the brunt of their animals. It was pretty horrendous. But you just deal with it.”
Among the wildlife in Wood’s care was Sam the Koala, who was put to sleep four months after contracting Chlamydia. But the legacy of Sam has inspired Wood to build a specialised rehabilitation centre for burns victims.
“What I’d like to do is build a proper burns unit and have it operate as a koala hospital,” she says. The centre, she says, will provide education for PhD students as well as train vets and carers to deal with burns.
“We certainly don’t have the funding to go through with it, but it’s something that will come to be and will drive me for the rest of my life,” she says.
A public fund has been established for the proposed koala hospital, which will allow Wood and her colleagues to access grants and public donations. Wood hopes to have the centre up and running in the next five to ten years.
Erika Tumambing is a student currently at Monash University in Melbourne.