It Shouldn't Happen to a Vet, laments the title of James Herriot's 1977 memoir about working with animals. Had Herriot been a wildlife carer in Victoria in 2016, the sentiment may have been a little more desperate.
One shelter operator compares the constant cycle of disappointment, grief and futility to body blows. Another suggests marriage breakdowns and mental breakdowns are commonplace. To run a wildlife shelter in a culture that's largely unsympathetic to wildlife is like having a prolonged existential crisis.
Not all neighbours are hostile, but those that are might speed past your property with their hand on the horn, causing a stampede of animals. Then there are the incidents everyone in the wildlife care industry has heard about, of kangaroo heads left in a letterbox and of locals driving into a shelter's front paddock, shooting.
Stories of animal cruelty that sicken the public are grim reality for those in the wildlife care industry. Last September a male kangaroo survived nine days with a crossbow arrow in his skull, and just this month a female kangaroo was found with an arrow through her chest and a distressed joey in her pouch at Plenty Gorge. (Rescuer Manfred Zabrinkas has called for arrows to be bar-coded.)
Yet there's scarce funding, no super, no sick leave, no weekends free, no annual leave and no way of just quitting when there are scores of sick animals to find a home for. You're reliant on untrained volunteers and the kindness of vets.
Since moving to the Goldfields from Melbourne seven years ago I've volunteered at two of the shelters in this story. It's tourism for me, really, a break from my laptop. During my shift I'll mop floors and take my turn on the endless merry-go-round of sterilising baby bottles. Outside, I'll pull on gloves and fill buckets with kangaroo poo, to keep the paddocks disease-free.
As I work I'm followed by blowflies, but also by young kangaroos, who lean on my arms in curiosity and nibble at the rim of my baseball cap. Once they catch sight of someone bringing out bottles from the house, each joey will execute a perfect forward roll into a fabric pouch that's held open by a volunteer. Then they'll lie back, waiting to be bottle-fed.
I can't deny the cuteness, but it's important to value wildlife as just that – wild. Back in January, most major news outlets in Australia, including The Age, ran the "heartbreaking" photo of a buck cradling his dying partner, lifting her head to gaze upon their joey one final time. Kangaroos were revealed to be just like us. We were duly moved. We shared on social media.
This touching tableau was debunked within a day as more likely to be a last-ditch mating scene. While that media circus provided an enjoyable few minutes' distraction for millions, it also reinforced the terms under which the public is prepared to feel kindly towards our national emblem. Tug at our heartstrings with a human-like domestic scene and we'll ooze over with compassion. Let roos loose anywhere near our cars and we'll respond with a ferocity usually reserved for cyclists.
It's a dichotomy that shelter operators are well used to. They take in kangaroos that have been injured in road accidents, sliced up by fences, shot with arrows and mauled by dogs – and they've seen the very best and worst of humanity as a result. Donations of hand-knitted pouches and blankets arrive on shelters' doorsteps every week, and yet, according to Wildlife Victoria, the culling and commercial harvesting of kangaroos is the largest land-based commercial wildlife slaughter in the world.
"People like to think of kangaroos as a pest so that they can shoot them," Gayle Chappell, of the Hepburn Wildlife Shelter, says. "They'll say things like, 'There's no food out there; that's why they're on the sides of the roads'.
"But if there's no food, that points to a deeper environmental problem and people don't like that. It's like, 'Oh god, that means that we're probably responsible. No, let's make the kangaroos responsible.'"
Add to this the advance of housing developments, both in Melbourne's northern suburbs and in country towns, and you'll see kangaroos landlocked in higher concentrations. Their visibility prompts accusations that the population is in "plague proportions".
"There's just nowhere safe to release them any more, and that's devastating," Chappell says. "I went out to a fence hanger in Yandoit, which I had to euthanise because of her injuries. I looked across the landscape and from the forest to the dam there were eight fences that she had to get through. They were small paddocks that nobody uses any more, with old fences that could be taken down."
Both Chappell and her partner, Jon Rowdon, trained as environmental scientists. Rowdon estimates that 25 kangaroos released by the shelter last year recently turned up looking for a feed. "I was going around looking at their legs and over half of them had new fence scars," he says.
But there are solutions. "People are still putting up barbed wire and ring-wire fences that are deadly," he says. "There are better fence designs. If they're keeping livestock, electric fences are the cheapest and best way to do that."
Chappell and Rowdon work in shifts. They manage to have one meal together, dinner, at 11.30pm. In their 15 years on the property they've never enjoyed a glass of wine on their verandah, despite its gorgeous dam view, nor had the time to entertain parents or friends.
"We don't have any friends left," Chappell laughs. "When we lived in St Kilda we did yoga four times a week, and we could go to film festivals and comedy festivals. Now we only leave the property to do our food shopping and rescues, or occasionally have a haircut."
When the couple moved to their property outside Daylesford to create more space for the animals they'd started rescuing in the city, two nearby shelters shut down within the year. Suddenly, the bulk of local rescues were being transported to them. Now they have about 150 animals and birds. If there's a natural disaster such as a bushfire, the pressure can become immense.
The Surf Coast Wildlife Shelters Group was in the thick of the Wye River bushfire rescues in December. The network of carers and rescuers was set up by Bellbrae Wildlife Shelter, which itself looks after about 30 animals and birds at any given time. Bellbrae had struggled with raising donations until the fires hit.
Licensed carer Shelley Hyndman had set up a GoFundMe page for people who had reported injured animals and wanted to help out with their rehabilitation. Suddenly it was flooded with nearly $20,000 in donations. "People can see exactly what we're doing and how we're using money," she says of the page. "We're so grateful for their generosity."
During that disaster the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) offered one-off payments of $500 to affected shelters, but the road to rehabilitation for an injured or orphaned animal can take years. Similarly, DELWP's $2000 annual grant for carers statewide would cover only one week of expenses in a large shelter. It requires extensive paperwork and logging of cases, so it's frequently left unclaimed.
"People are always very shocked to find out that this is all volunteer-run and we have to go to work," Hyndman says. "I'm a travel agent by day and Tina Lawrence, who owns the Bellbrae shelter, is a lawyer."
In addition to her two jobs, Hyndman looks after baby possums in her own home, which means she's pulling four-hourly feeds throughout the night. "I think that might be partly why I'm single," she laughs. "It's one of those things that once you start you can't stop, and the animals take priority over everything else."
Barbara Morrow can certainly relate to that. She's a GP based in Woodend whose shelter Shamrock has been a safe haven for kangaroos and wallabies for eight years. In decades past she's worked as a medic in a refugee camp in Rwanda, treated street dogs in Calcutta and turned her old Belfast house into a dog's home, and yet she says of her time as a wildlife carer, "I've pushed myself harder than I ever have in my life. The need is so great – and virtually unnoticed by most of the general public – that it's been impossible for me not to respond."
Morrow has about 30 kangaroos in her paddocks and her lounge-room is a creche filled with pouch stands, hay and drips. Then there are the volunteers tramping in and out. "They are treasured helpers, without whom I would be completely insane," Morrow says. "But there are times when I crave peace, space and order," she says, admitting that she's considered finding a second-hand caravan to move into.
With her medical background, she's a natural candidate for taking in some of the sickest animals, particularly since training throughout the wildlife industry is sporadic. This ability creates a trap for someone who, with a day job to also contend with, can only physically do so much before stress takes its toll.
To this end, Morrow has been forced to call a halt to taking in more animals. It means she's less likely to still be working at 2am. She feels guilty, but as we're warned on planes, it's vital to fit your own oxygen mask before you can think about helping anybody else.
There are grassroots networks of wildlife rescuers and carers that have banded together throughout Victoria, and the Macedon Ranges Wildlife Network helps Morrow with fundraising.
Up in Greendale, Donna Zabinskas, of BADGAR Emergency Wildlife Rescue, has set up a training program for rescuers, envisaging a model similar to St John Ambulance or the Red Cross. With no central governance or funding, however, there's no solid way of regulating the skill sets of everyone in the wildlife community.
"Most shelter operators are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and there's no support for them," Chappell says. "People within the networks don't have those sort of skills, so that side of things needs to be funded. People need to be employed to support the networks."
Most rescuers and carers agree that a few wildlife hospitals scattered around the state would be ideal. "It's happening naturally where you have large shelters that take on most of the workload," Rowdon says, "but those shelters don't get any more support from DELWP than someone who takes on just three joeys. They could support large central shelters that are secure and properly financed, with employees, and then have foster carers that operate from those shelters – a bit like the RSPCA."
An exit plan for a stressed shelter operator is a long, drawn-out affair, but with proper funding and staff on a payroll, the outlook wouldn't be nearly so bleak. Personally, I'll continue to help where I can, ever mindful that it's the few that are doing the heavy lifting for many. But after my shift I get to go home, for a night's sleep that's unbroken by feeding, bandage-changing or the sort of emergency phone call that makes your heart sink on first ring.
Please note: none of the shelters are open to the public. To report injured wildlife, please call BADGAR 1300 223 427 or Wildlife Victoria on 1300 094 535.
The cost of care
Hepburn Wildlife Shelter's monthly costs (based on July 2013 through June 2014 profit and loss statement).
Feed: Milk formula, rats and mice, meat, hay and grains, fruit and vegetables, insects, fish, oats, other, feeding equipment. $1561
Housing: Rental, enclosures, utilities, equipment. $2352
Medical: Veterinary bills, medications, dressings, bandages, medical equipment. $985
Cleaning supplies: Laundry. $98
Office: Phone, internet, stationery, office equipment, books, promotions. $721
Transport: Petrol, car maintenance, travel and accommodation. $3184