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Saving Australia's Wildlife - Heidi's Rescue Mission

Updated: Feb 1, 2021

On January 20th, 2020 I, alongside the Brad Pattison Rescue Team, flew to Australia to start a month mission to help rescue wildlife from the wildfires. An estimated 1 billion animals were already dead from the fires and counting. We knew we needed to help in any way that we could.

Landing in Sydney we took 24 hours to get accustomed to our new environment and make a plan. When we left Vancouver it was -20 and once landing in Sydney we were hit with a wave of +35 degrees. It was hot. And it was about to get hotter.

Within 3 days of travel and going to communities to offer support, we ended up in Wandandian helping our first private sanctuary. This was a private sanctuary run by a wife and husband duo. Two years ago they bought their property for the sole purpose of rehabilitating joey Kangaroo and Wallabies. This sanctuary had become a hub for wildlife groups during the fires, to station vet triage and host volunteers who were helping. When we got there there was a German, French Canadian and New Zealand team all working together.

For 4 days we assisted in black walks (searching burnt areas for injured animals in need), building and refilling food and water stations, feeding and caring for joey Kangaroos and Wallabies and dropping off supplies for people in need.

Less and less wildlife were being found after the fires. Sadly we saw more carcasses than living things. While on a search, we met a local woman who had lost her entire house and her family was living in their shed. Their house burnt to the ground on January 1st, just minutes after she had left to go to the grocery store. They lived on, what I could have only imagined, to have been a beautiful lake house on the water. She talked about how she would sit out on her porch and listen to hundreds of birds singing every morning, and watch the Kangaroos hop around her property. Now everything was black, burnt and gone.

It was 45 degrees out, the sky was a hue of red, like you were wearing red tinted sunglasses. The winds were 40 km/hour and there was dust blowing in our eyes. Fires were spreading in areas close by. Searching her property we found many kangaroo and wallaby carcasses and bones among the severely burnt vegetation. Brad, our team lead, spotted a Kangaroo. She was standing alone, in the smallest patch of almost green grass, while the earth around her was completely charred. We observed that she was shifting her weight from her back legs to her hands, because of the burns on her feet. You could see pain in this animal's eyes. We were able to keep eyes on her while we waited for the on site vet and darter to arrive to assist in her rescue. As all this was happening, fires were getting close, the closet 5 km away, and the area was being evacuated. We got the Kangaroo in a hessian sack, and into our Yute and got out.

Once in vet care her burns were cooled, treated and wrapped, she was treated for dehydration and put on IV and then put into a safe enclosure. We named her SuzieQ after the owner of the property. Sadly, 3 days later she had to be euthanized because her injuries were so severe, the burns were all the way to her bones. We learned very quickly from this experience the reality of how deadly these fires were. Even if found, these animals still had very small chances of survival. While it still is painful, we are happy that SuzieQ got to live her last days in safety, with food and water and the care she deserved - not in desolated black char with nothing, a place that she once called home.

After a successful 5 days in Wandandian, it was time to move on as there was a need for help in the Canberra and Snowy Mountains Area. Amidst the fires burning viciously here, we learned of a Koala Sanctuary that sadly had been burnt to the ground. We knew we needed to relocate and assist this area so we started our travels.

We arrived in Cooma (which is 1.5 hours from Canberra) and were asked to assist in the Countegenay area close by where the Sanctuary had burnt down. Here, a couple, Richard and Alison were building a sanctuary on their property to start to rebuild what was lost from the burnt Sanctuary. Their close friend James, was the owner of the Sanctuary who had lost everything and the area was not safe to even go back to. We arrived 4 days after the fire burnt it down and they were already building enclosures and creating this new safe house for Koalas.

The plan at this location was to assist in the following:

-The search and rescue of Koalas as well as other animals

-Relocation to safer, healthier zones

-Rebuilding a sanctuary

Everyday we would meet with Richard and other volunteers, and go out and perform grid searches in areas that were on the edge of recent fire grounds, or in areas that were at risk of being burnt. We would search for Koala’s until just after lunch, when the heat was too hot to function. Some days it would be 30 degrees by 9 am and the sun would be blazing. In the afternoons would assist with further rescues sometimes with tree climbers, set up traps for Koala’s that were too high, refill feeding and water stations, and assist on the property.

Over the next 10 days we assisted in the search and rescue of 25 Koalas. As well during these searches we were getting intel on what areas were still healthy enough for future release, how bad some areas were burnt and if there were even just signs of life in some areas. For almost a year this area has been suffering a drought. Areas that were not even burnt had no food or water. The wildlife was living in a state of starvation and dehydration. The fires only added more to the problem making food and water that much harder to find. The animals we found were in an emaciated state and it was absolutely heartbreaking.

For Koala’s they will rate their condition on a body scale 1 to 10 (1 being poor and 10 being most healthy), they would determine this by how much muscle you could feel on their strong arm muscle over the scapula. The more muscle you feel, the better their body score.was between their shoulders. Most Koala’s we found were at a body score of .5 to 2. They were skin and bones and very weak. Koala's in Australia are now functionally extinct, so these rescue efforts are pertinent the preservation of this species.

To perform a Koala rescue:

Use long poles with something that makes a noise on the top, called a flag or a ring with fabric called a halo. This is put above their head and waved to get the Koala to move down towards the trunk of the tree. and ideally they will come down from the tree. Someone is very quietly waiting there and surprises them with a bag to catch the Koala.

If a Koala is too high in a tree, then an tree climber will get themselves higher in the tree and something catch the Koalas out of the trees.

Traps are also used in situation where rescues are not possible. All the tree branches within 4 meters from the housing tree are trimmed (Koalas can jump that far to a branch), and then Corflute (sign material) is put around the tree with a trap. The Koala will eventually come down to the ground to move (mostly at night) and when they cannot get out will go into the trap and be safely caught. (see picture above for what the trap looks like)

Protocols in catching a Koala:

Put a towel or blanket over their head and grab them by the arms and then cover them and make them lean against your body or - if possible - straight into the carry cage.

In emergency situations people have scuffed them by the neck. This is normally not done, as koalas don't have enough skin to do that.

My most memorable day was the day that myself and my teammates Kelli and Hollywood (Heidi) assisted a team of 2 Koala specialists in rescuing 2 Koala’s. There were 5 of us in total performing a grid search (spreading out in a line with 20-30 meters between us and scanning an area on foot), and we spotted a Koala within 45 minutes of our search.

Our first rescue mission with Koala #1 was unsuccessful. But we flagged the tree and GPS tracked it, as this Koala was too high in the tree. We set up our line to start the search again and after maybe 3 steps, Hollywood spotted a Koala in a tree only 10 feet from me. We all immediately dropped down, went quiet and discussed a plan over our radios. We had Richard move slowly in front but away from the Koala, to distract it, so we could get ready with the equipment to perform the rescue. The 3 of us had never physically done the rescue just assisted and helped with setting up before this. I was given a pole and a 2 minute instruction and then Richard was around and in position with his pole. Before I could hesitate we were using the poles to guide the Koala down, while Malika (the other specialist) was prepared at the base of the tree to catch the Koala. About 5 minutes of pole work, the Koala was moving quite a bit and he jumped to a different branch, missed the branch, making him fall to the ground. The tree was rooted in the ‘V’ of a small ravine, so he fell, he slid right to my feet and all I heard was “GRAB HIM”! I grabbed the Koala’s shoulders and held on. This Koala was weak and didn’t fight, but normally they can be very viciously. I held on until Malika could bag him and he was safe.

We couldn’t believe what just happened. Richard named the Koala Bec (after my last name) and he was one of the biggest we had found so far. While hiking out we stopped for a short break in a burnt area on the ridge line. All of the sudden Malika pointed and yelled - “KOALA”. Again, only 10 feet from us, there was a Koala in a tree. He was low enough to perform a rescue and we quickly acted. We did not have another bag that we could use to secure the Koala once captured, so we improvised by using Hollywood’s coveralls. We tied the legs together and zipped them up enough to make somewhat of a hole. Once ready we went into position and performed the rescue. I was able to grab this Koala right off the tree with some ease, except he was much more of a fighter and left some scratches, that are now scares on my arm. We named him Mal (after Malika).

Both Koalas were transported to the triage vet in town. Unfortunately, Mal had a major injury in his knee that has caused his whole knee joint to be seized. It was full of infection and spreading. He was euthanized shortly after and put out of his pain. Incredibly painful as this moment was, this Koala was suffering and we know we prevented him having a much more painful death.

Every day was a new adventure and every day new people arrive at Richard and Alison’s property to volunteer. We met new people everyday from all over Australia and some internationally. It was humbling to see so many people banding together to help these animals. In these conditions, the animal needed human help, otherwise they were all doomed to starvation, dehydration, fires and ultimately, their death.

On our last day we helped released a Koala back in to the wild who was healthy and lived in a safe area. We got to have a full circle experience from searching, rescuing, recovery to release. When approaching the Koala's tree they would get excited and start to stir in the cages. Once the door opened they would jump onto the tree, climb to their branch and make a call almost celebrating their own homecoming.

As the end of our last week approached, the weather started to cool down and rain was in the forecast. Fires were still raging and they would only stop and get fully contained with days of rain. The day we left Cooma it started to rain. It was a light drizzle in the morning and by afternoon there was a steady fall. The next day we received a video from Richard with the river that had been dried up for a year in their backyard was flooding and the rain was pouring heavy. For 6 more days it rained and last week the fires were contained for the first time since November.

Before coming to Australia, I had really never worked with animals other than dogs, but had always wanted to. Now I have worked with some of the most loved Australian wildlife and learned so much. We won't know for 50 years if our effort will help save species from extinction, but what we do know is that we helped the animals now, that needed us. We saved animals from starvation, and gave them what they needed to survive. While this experience was sad in many ways, the glimpse of hope seen through these animals eyes made ever second, no matter how hard it was, worth it everyday.

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