“I was inspired by the 2009 fires. I was watching a news report – I still tear up – and a kangaroo was running down the road. A helicopter came down and it turned around and skipped back into the fire and ran through a wall of flames.”
“So that was my big one. I don’t know why it gets me. There was a heap of horrifying stuff around the loss of human life on that day and I thought – someone’s got to do something for these animals. I’d always wanted to, but that was my point. And here I am.”
Sharon Boccini has been a wildlife rescuer for nearly seven years now: a volunteer who dedicates her free time to taking reports about injured wildlife, then driving out to help in any way she can. Heidi Still, another member of the Wildlife Rescuers who joined around the same time, has a similar story.
“I’ve always wanted to, and it wasn’t until the 2009 fires … I actually found a dead wombat that had a live baby in the pouch, and I scooped it out and took it off to a shelter. They gave me a tour of their facility and I said: that’s it."
The Wildlife Rescuers are a group based in the northern suburbs of Melbourne, although their reach is growing as their volunteer base expands. It is one member of an informal network of wildlife rescue groups around Victoria who look out for the injured animals in their area. Members of the public can keep the group’s number saved in their phone, and if you come across an animal in need of assistance, all you have to do is call it in.
“A call will come in, we’ll get the details, we’ll get as much history as we can,” Sharon explains. “We get a rescuer on the way or we go out ourselves depending on what’s happening. I know when I’m driving there I’m trying to think of 3000 scenarios that could happen … It doesn’t matter how many I think of, it’s always different.”
“Every rescue is different, every animal reacts differently,” Heidi adds. “You’ve just got to be ready to adjust to whatever happens.”
Once the rescuer has a handle on the situation, they must decide what course of action is best for the safety and wellbeing of the animal. “You contain the animal, assess it, and then decide where you go from there,” says Sharon. Rescuers are trained to apply first aid, but if the animal needs medical attention, it’s taken to a vet. Once it has been treated, the rescuer will transport the animal to a registered wildlife carer.
It’s difficult, unpredictable work, and Heidi and Sharon’s dedication is remarkable. Working by day for Wildlife Victoria, a statewide emergency response centre for injured wildlife, Heidi volunteers the rest of her time: “I wake up in the morning and I get calls or texts to go out and do rescues, and then generally I start work at Wildlife Victoria on the phones around about 1 o’clock. I work there until about 8 o’clock at night and then I drive home and by the time I get home the Wildlife Rescuers phone gets diverted to me… And then we start it all again the next day.”
Sharon works full-time as a teacher, but her passion for wildlife is what keeps her going: “I can do a day at work and it’s six hours and it feels like it goes forever and I’m exhausted at the end of it, and I can finish that day at school and do 8 or 10 hours of rescuing straight after it and feel fine. It’s like a puzzle piece that fits.”
Heidi is often asked how she can drag herself out of bed in the early hours of the morning to go to a rescue, but for her, it isn’t a chore: “I don’t do it because I have to. I do it because I love doing it.”
These two women are exceptional, but it doesn’t need to be a 24/7 commitment. If a member of the public is interested in learning about wildlife rescue and transport, Heidi and Sharon advise participating in a basic skills course offered by the Wildlife Rescuers. After that, it’s up to you how much time you commit. “It can be one hour a week. It can be one hour a month!” says Heidi.
“Even if you’re not available for rescues, it’s a really good skillset to have,” Sharon adds. “Just in case you come across something. Know how to check a pouch – you could save a life.”
In the meantime, there are plenty of things Victorians can do to ensure their lives have minimal impact on our native wildlife.
“You generally find 99.9% of rescues are caused by humans in some way. Whether they’ve been hit by a car, they’re entangled in rubbish that we’ve left behind, they’ve flown into our window – whatever it is, it’s usually because we’ve put something in their way,” says Heidi. “Don’t leave rubbish behind,” she advises. It’s also helpful to leave a bowl of water outside on hot days to help local wildlife fight dehydration."
If you do come across an animal in need, don’t hesitate. “Plug our number into your phone so you’ve got it,” says Sharon. “Make the call.” Both advise that accidents happen, and you aren’t going to get in trouble if you’ve hit an animal in the road. “Just call it in so that the animal doesn’t suffer.”
For Heidi and Sharon, rescuing wildlife isn’t just a hobby - it’s a compulsion to do right by other living things. “It’s the thought that if I’m not here doing this for this animal, who is going to?” says Heidi. “When I’m there and I’m looking at a living animal that has feelings and is suffering, I’m going to do everything I can.”
“For me, it’s very similar,” says Sharon. “Every critter – they have a soul, they have feelings, they have connections, they have relationships. It’s not an animal I’m rescuing, it’s a being.”
Make sure to log the Wildlife Rescuers’ number in your phone in case you come across a wildlife emergency: 0417 506 941
For wildlife rescue course updates and news on recent rescues, like the Wildlife Rescuers Facebook page: www.facebook.com/wildliferescuersinc
Alex Mullarky is a freelance journalist and works part-time in threatened species conservation. Her other passion is ex-racehorse rehabilitation and she is currently completing her Masters.
You can find her on Twitter at @ajmullarky
Banner image is of tranquilised kangaroos rescued from Epping firegrounds and is courtesy of Wildlife Rescuers.