'Desperate': Canberra wildlife carers inundated as drought drags on
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'Desperate': Canberra wildlife carers inundated as drought drags on

There's a baby flying fox that needs its diaper changed, a tawny frogmouth squawking for another feed and two wombats crashing into furniture in the living room.

Herding the team at ACT Wildlife into a photo was never going to be easy, but this year has been even more chaotic than usual.

Orphaned wombat Adelaide catches up on her beauty sleep.

Orphaned wombat Adelaide catches up on her beauty sleep.Credit:Jamila Toderas

The volunteers who care for Canberra's wildlife say they are struggling to keep up with record demand as a punishing drought in the region drives more animals into the capital.

Apart from one-off government grants here and there, the 24-hour service relies solely on donations - and good will - to get by. More than five years ago, when the RSPCA pulled out of dedicated wildlife care, ACT Wildlife emerged to fill a "desperate need" in the capital, president Marg Peachey says.

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Today volunteers field calls from the public, drive out to collect injured and orphaned animals and care for them, largely at their own expense.

From left: ACT Wildlife carers  Caroline Hennessy, Marg Peachey, Joan McKay and Lindy Butcher.

From left: ACT Wildlife carers Caroline Hennessy, Marg Peachey, Joan McKay and Lindy Butcher.Credit:Jamila Toderas

It's exhausting and, at times, heartbreaking work; waking up around the clock to feed hungry little mouths, hiking into bush scouting for safe release sites and, sometimes, burying animals in the backyard. Already, 180 animals are being looked after by the group's 40 or so carers as they head into their busiest time of year.

In a recent budget submission, ACT Wildlife called for $30,000 in government funding for a part-time administration assistant to help take the pressure off carers.

"This year for a number of reasons, the drought being a major one, [there are] a larger than usual number of animals", the submission said.

And, as Canberra's urban sprawl continues to encroach on bush, more and more animals are becoming marooned in the suburbs, carers say.

Last financial year, ACT Wildlife answered almost 10,000 calls for help and took in 2329 native animals, releasing 1210 back into the wild and raising 171 orphans.

This endangered grey-headed flying fox was orphaned after his mother was caught in a barbed wire fence.

This endangered grey-headed flying fox was orphaned after his mother was caught in a barbed wire fence.Credit:Jamila Toderas

Ms Peachey, who has 35 animals at home, expects those statistics to hit a new record by the end of 2018.

"It's a huge operation but we still only have about the same number of volunteers as when we started," she says. "I personally answered over 5000 calls.

"People think we're government employees, some are wonderful and take the animals to the vet but others say 'Can't you just deal with this, it's your job'.

"What would happen if we stopped?"

Almost in the same breath, she leans forward to pat Isabella, a particularly needy wombat sniffing hopefully at her shoes.

"Well we wouldn't stop. They all have different personalities."

Baby tawny frogmouths can be particularly demanding house guests.

Baby tawny frogmouths can be particularly demanding house guests.Credit: Jamila Toderas

Caroline Hennessy started taking in wildlife after she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis.

"I couldn't work anymore and I wanted to give back," she says, nursing her latest charge: a baby flying fox.

"It gives me something to wake up for, with the pain I might not necessarily have gotten out of bed but they have a very strict feeding regime.

"This little guy's mum got stuck in a barbed wire fence, we couldn't save her."

Sometimes, out at roadsides counselling a stranger or holding a dying animal, the trauma of rescue work is impossible to ignore, even for seasoned carers.

At other times, it's perplexing, with misidentifications of species frequent - including one memorable call about a "noisy herd of cassowaries" in a roof.

"We've had possums grow up into rats, someone gave us a baby rabbit convinced it was a wombat," carer Lindy Butcher says.

Her husband only set two rules when she first started caring for wildlife 20 years ago: no bats and no whales. These days, she mostly takes in wombats - including Banjo, the little orphan she nursed back to health (after a nasty dose of mange) who still scratches in his sleep.

A spokeswoman for RSPCA ACT said its vets still assessed and treated native animals before passing them onto ACT Wildlife.

"It was a significant financial cost to the organisation to run a fully functional wildlife clinic," she said.

In ACT Wildlife's first year of operation in 2013, the RSPCA saw a 44 per cent drop in wildlife brought to its own shelter, she said.

"Now, thanks to [their] amazing work, we can focus primarily on domestic animals."

ACT Wildlife is hoping to open a wildlife hospital of its own at its office in Duffy one day. The government recently spent almost $50,000 upgrading additional facilities at the Jerrabomberra wetlands for the group to use, also awarding them a grant of $34,642.

Wombats are a commitment - babies will stay with carers for up to two years before they can be weaned off bottles and released back into the wild.

Wombats are a commitment - babies will stay with carers for up to two years before they can be weaned off bottles and released back into the wild. Credit:Jamila Toderas

A spokesman said the government was monitoring demand for ACT Wildlife and considering funding options for further positions at the organisation.

Work to improve habitats within nature reserves was under way to reduce the need for animals to cross roads, he said, and areas for further research had been identified.

Roads Minister Chris Steel said kangaroo fencing installed along the Tuggeranong Parkway in 2017 had already seen a significant reduction in injured animals along the road.

While 130 dead kangaroos were collected along that stretch of highway in 2016, by November this year the number had dropped to 56. Reported collisions with animals also halved from 120 to 60.

"[We're] currently assessing the crash data involving all animals across the road network to determine where the next highest priority for animal fencing will be," Mr Steel said.

He pointed to the Monaro Highway as a likely site, with $200 million already committed to upgrading the road. So far this year, 164 dead kangaroos have been collected on the highway, up from 129 last year.

Wildcare, which looks after native animals over the border from Queanbeyan to Bungendore, is also reporting an influx of injured wildlife this year. While the group has managed to fundraise for milk powder for the 300 kangaroo joeys taken into care over winter, species coordinator Natalie Patrick says volunteers still have their hands full as the drought stretches on.

This year, for the second in a row, the ACT topped the nation for car collisions with animals.

Last financial year, ACT Wildlife:

  • Took in 2329 native animals
  • Released 1210 back into the wild
  • Raised about 171 orphaned birds and mammals
  • Answered almost 10,000 phone calls for help

Of those animals:

  • 426 were known to have been hit by cars or had flown into windows
  • 94 had a confirmed disease
  • 88 were caught by cats
  • 56 were caught by dogs
  • 79 endangered grey headed flying foxes were rescued from fruit tree netting and barb wire fences
  • 510 were euthanised due to injury or disease

What to do if you come across wildlife in need:

  • Drive with caution on highways near bush - especially at dawn and dusk
  • Keep a towel or pillowcase and a box in the boot to keep animals warm
  • Check the pouches of dead animals for joeys
  • If you decide an animal is geniunely sick, injured or orphaned, gently pick it up in a towel and contain it in a box or cage
  • Be careful - adult kangaroos can kick hard and some animals can scratch
  • Orphaned joeys should be kept warm but not fed milk
  • Take animals to a vet or wildlife carer as soon as possible - vets don't charge for intial check-ups and pain relief for native animals
  • Never handle a bat as a small percentage may have disease

Call ACT Wildlife for advice on 0432 300 033

If you find an animal outside the ACT, call Wildcare Queanbeyan (6299 1966), Native Animal Rescue Group (Braidwood area 4846 1900), Wildlife Info and Rescue Service (Southern Tablelands 4822 3888) or Wildcare Rescue South Coast.

Visit actwildlife.net to donate or lend a hand.

Sherryn Groch is a reporter for The Canberra Times, with a special interest in education and social affairs

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