It encapsulated the horror engulfing New South Wales: the footage of a koala mewing in pain as its habitat burned around it. The rescue of that animal, saved from the Long Flat blaze by a woman using her shirt as a shield, went viral.
But the bushfires have injured and displaced vast numbers of other creatures, many of which no longer have homes. Who rescues them – and what does that involve?
Kristie Newton works as campaign manager for the NSW Wildlife Information, Rescue and Education Service (Wires), an organisation that, in normal times, says it cares for tens of thousands of hurt or distressed animals each year.
But these are not normal times.
“We are completely inundated at the moment,” she says. “This is the biggest event we have ever dealt with.”
Australia’s flora and fauna have evolved to coexist with fire – but not with fires of such intensity. Wires’ search and rescue teams still can’t access many affected areas, even as people in towns or outer suburbs report injured animals fleeing into backyards or roads.
“We probably won’t know what we’re looking at for about a month or so, maybe longer, until we can really go in and start to get more animals out. But we’ve lost a lot of habitat, so it’s not only directly affecting the animals now, but will continue to affect them for years to come.”
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It’s a sentiment echoed by Vickii Lett, a veteran carer with Clarence Valley Wires.
She’s dedicated her property in Lightning Creek near Grafton to caring for wild creatures, so much so that she takes an instant to recall just how many she’s currently sheltering.
“I’ve got three flying foxes, one koala, three – no, four! – redneck wallabies (one of which is burned), and one wallaroo. Oh, and a boobook owl.”
A volunteer since 1988, Lett has never experienced fires of such ferocity, affecting such a vast area.
“This is man-made; we’ve done it,” she says.
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At the same time, she worries that the immediate crisis might cloak the broader wildlife emergency, the everyday devastation of deforestation and land clearing.
“When you’re a wildlife carer, fairly early you realise that you might be able to fix animals, but you’ve got to have somewhere to put them. They’re not pets, but when I release them, I worry about every one of them. They’ve got to have a home and a food supply.”
Wires offers a short rescue and immediate care course that equips people to work with common species.
Volunteers can nominate their level of commitment. They can decide to be carers or rescuers or both – or help with various administrative tasks.
Some take on additional training to specialise in particular animals – anything from koalas to venomous snakes.
That’s how Kristina-Lee Willis, a 29-year-old from Corindi Beach (two hours north of Port Macquarie), ended up with Teddy, the baby sugar glider.
Originally, Willis wanted to rescue bats – “to break down the knee-jerk reaction that ‘ewww they’re disgusting’,” – but the first course available focused on possums and gliders.
Then, during the recent blaze, a crew clearing firebreaks on an isolated road near Glenreagh found a glider joey on the ground.
“It was so sweet: this big burly bloke who was driving the dozer carried her crooked up in his arm all the way back to their base. A lady made the call to Wires and then another two gentlemen drove her to the Golden Dog pub in the middle of Glenreagh. And I took her from there.”
A little glider means a lot of work.
Teddy – named after the dozer driver who cuddled her – only drinks a special milk formula.
“She’s very clever,” says Willis, with maternal pride. “She doesn’t need a bottle. She laps at milk from the tiny little spoon or from the bottle cap.”
But that’s just the beginning.
“Now she’s older, she’s getting little bugs like crickets and meal worms and some moths when I can catch them, though that’s really tricky. And also some sap. She likes to chew on some branches and lick at blossoms as well.”
Teddy’s gaining weight and will, with luck, make a full recovery.
But she’s just one animal – and so very, very many need help. At the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital, the volunteers feel that strain.
The facility boasts 14 intensive care units and can house up to 50 animals.
Hospital president Sue Ashton worked in the corporate world before retiring to Port Macquarie two years ago, and then taking up a vacancy on the hospital board. “I enjoyed my old job. But this is so satisfying – working with wild animals and seeing them rehabilitated back into the wild.”
Yet after the recent fires, she fears for the long-term future of the species.
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In places like the Lake Innes nature reserve, as many as two-thirds of wild koalas seem to have died, incinerated by the astonishing heat. Those that survived were dehydrated; many had been burned on their paws, noses and mouths.
“We’ve got to cut the dead skin off, bathe their wounds, then treat them with a cream for burns and bandage them,” Ashton says. “We’re giving them a low lactose milk supplement, for extra nutrients and hydration – some of them aren’t eating leaves because their mouth is burnt. The really bad ones have gone into home care. Some might need to be fed more frequently; they need to have their noses rubbed with cream or something like that.”
Many of the centre’s 150 volunteers currently come in almost daily, and their physical exhaustion exacerbates the toll of watching animals suffer.
Burns are, after all, notoriously difficult to heal. Several of the injured koalas, including the one rescued at Long Flat, have had to be euthanised.
Nicole Blums, from Brisbane’s Rescue Collective, knows how shattering wildlife volunteering can be.
She established her group specifically to help resource frontline carers, providing them with basic materials as well as little gifts to lift their spirits.
“Over the last nine days,” she says, “Wires has received nine carloads and trailer loads of resources from us. That includes medical supplies, drugs for the animals, formulas, feeding bottles, joey pouches, bat wraps: anything that they need to be able to spend more time with the animals.”
A fortnight ago, her group consisted of four women; now it’s grown to about 20.
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Like the other volunteers, she’s been appalled by the fires; like them, she’s been buoyed by the community response.
“Working in rescue, you see a lot of bad things and you can begin to hate the human race,” Blums says. “But every time we start to think it’s too much, it’s too heavy for our hearts, we open a box and we find a letter from one of our supporters or a drawing from one of the kids.” Her voice catches slightly. “That gives us strength to know that we are making a difference and that we have so much behind us now that we can’t stop.”
The rescue organisations need donations. They also need volunteers. But Wires’ Kristie Newton stresses that it’s possible for anyone to help native animals, just by taking very simple steps.
“If people are in an area that’s affected by fire or even by heat, if they can leave bowls of water for birds and animals, that’s fantastic.”
Likewise, a cardboard box and towel kept in your car can help contain an injured animal, if it’s possible to do so safely.
“If you do encounter any injured animals,” she says, “call your local wildlife group – and get them help as soon as possible. It really can save lives.”