Words and pictures by Jane Cowan
July 26, 2018 20:09:58
Rescuing kangaroos is not all cuddling joeys and happy endings. It can leave you with a dim view of humanity.
GRAPHIC CONTENT WARNING
This story contains imagery and descriptions some may find upsetting.
By the dirt roadside Manfred Zabinskas drags a kangaroo into the long grass, stoops over.
With a spray can he marks a giant pink cross, a signal to other rescuers that the animal has been checked. It’s a motif repeated on roadsides around Australia.
published by the CSIRO.
Her injuries included a broken pelvis, impossible to treat. Euthanasia was the only option. While the “captive bolt” device delivers instant brain death, the heart takes several minutes to stop beating. Zabinskas keeps one palm pressed against the roo’s chest as long moments pass. The shadow feels suddenly colder.
“You do wildlife, you get nine bad ones out of every ten,” says Zabinskas.
“You tell yourself, ‘Ok, I couldn’t save this animal but I was able to give it a good death.'”
In the paddock across the road a lone kangaroo — probably the dead one’s mate — stands in front of a bank of gums, licking his forearms in an expression of distress. He’d been beside the female when Zabinskas arrived.Like a cup without a saucer.That’s how Helen Round, Zabinskas’s partner in life and in wildlife rescue, describes a roo left alone by the death of its mate. I see her wipe away a tear, feel the heaviness of this work they do.
To be a wildlife rescuer is to stave off the inevitable in a world where kangaroos are so often seen as vermin, roadkill or pet food.
“We drink a lot and we cry a lot,” Round confesses.
“We’re fighting a losing battle. But it’s like that Midnight Oil song. I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees.”
Right now both are kneeled on the roadside. As Zabinskas tends to the mother, Round breathes into her shirt where she’s tucked the joey that had been thrown from the pouch. So young as to be hairless, the “pinkie” is cold to the touch. If she makes it, the youngster will need around-the-clock feeds.
‘The place to get healed’
It can be past midnight by the time the couple gets to feeding the mob at their home-come-wildlife shelter in Victoria’s Wombat State Forest, the animals’ heads casting giant roo-shaped shadows in the torchlight. These 15 are those that have been “soft released” into the bushland, a gradual process which sees them grow wilder and wilder.
Most still materialise like clockwork out of the forest at dusk “for a bottle and a cuddle”. Some hand-reared roos choose never to come back. Still others disappear for months and then suddenly they’re at the back door. One came “home” to show off her newest joey, the couple is sure. Once the offspring of a roo Zabinskas had saved turned up hurt, without his mum, and allowed himself to be taken in for treatment.
“He knew this was the place to get healed,” says Zabinskas.
Surrounded by bush, the cabin is all mud brick and wood and faded corrugated iron.
The scene is like something out of a Frederick McCubbin painting.
Roo and wombat skulls line a window ledge. Somewhere through the gums, the nearest neighbours are a defunct nudist colony and a long-abandoned house. Three roos squat under the back verandah, spaced equidistant as if blinking statues arranged among the tangle of pot plants and sculptures. From the vegie patch stare decapitated dolls’ heads on stakes, hinting at the black humour of those who live here.
Inside, a fire is crackling. Eclectic ornaments fill the shelves.Specialising in the kitsch, inane and tasteless,Round’s erstwhile business card as a second-hand dealer used to say. These days antiques vie for space with bandages and ointments. A row of plastic teats drain on the sink.
Where the suburbs and the bush collide
Wildlife rescue is a labour of love.
It’s done almost entirely out of the couple’s own pockets, funded largely by Zabinskas’s contracts as a wildlife specialist doing fauna management consultancy on major development sites. New roads, pipelines, the clearing of land for housing estates.
It’s work that’s given him a box seat to the intersection of development and wildlife.
As suburbia encroaches inexorably on the bush, roos have become entrapped on smaller and smaller tracts of land. Even golf courses, in many places the last vestiges of green space for marooned mobs, are being bulldozed for houses.
There are seemingly endless ways for a kangaroo to come to grief. Many of them, man-made.
Roads are corridors of death.
Motor vehicle insurer AAMI says kangaroos accounted for 81 per cent of the 8,810 animal collision-related claims it logged over the past year.
Most roos struck by cars are a “euth”. Occasionally there’s a chance to save a joey from the pouch, says Round.
“Kangaroos are so powerfully strong but so fragile.”
So tough that they will hop around with bone exposed. So highly strung that they can die from sheer terror even after escaping danger.
“You look at that beautifully designed leg, that strong muscular leg,” Round continues. “But it all hinges upon a thin bone and a little tendon.”
The couple have seen animals with arrows through their heads, their backs. Still-alive roos with their noses and jaws shot off.
“There’s nothing like seeing fearful eyes above a meaty hole where their face should have been.
“Farmers like to hate them, motorists run them down, shooters kill them.”
Dog bites, unless treated immediately, are an almost guaranteed slow and painful death from massive infection. Even grass can be fatal. Phalaris — a poisonous, introduced plant — causes neurological meltdown: ataxia, collapse and eventual death. “Lumpy jaw” is an infection of the bone that leads to starvation. Then there are the “fence hangers”, entangled as they try to move across the landscape. If roos have dislocated hips or suffered ringbark injuries from the wire it’s all over.
All this is to say nothing of the as-yet uninjured roos caught up in diabolical situations.
Down disused mine shafts. Stuck in irrigation channels. Trapped in backyards, schools, car parks. On the roof of a two-storey house in Eltham. Inside a swimming pool in Healesville. Once Zabinskas was called to a kangaroo found in a high-rise car park in the Melbourne CBD. Another he rescued from a suburban shopping centre, three storeys up on a ledge and ready to jump. In situations like this, stress and overexertion can trigger a massive release of lactic acid that damages muscle fibres, leading to paralysis. The animal succumbs later to what’s called myopathy, usually in the form of a heart attack.
What you see as a wildlife rescuer keeps you up at night.
“You find yourself getting up early because you can’t lie there with your thoughts,” says Round.
The wildlife shelter is an essential counterweight to all the death and destruction.
“What keeps us going,” says Zabinskas, “is that we come home, grab a joey and do bottle feeds and laugh at their antics. Have a glass of wine, stick a bottle in a mouth, watch something funny on TV and tomorrow’s another day.”
From engineer to roo rescuer
Before Manfred Zabinskas had a calling, he had a career. A whole urban life. A job as a design engineer. A house in Yarraville in Melbourne’s gentrifying inner west. A wife and kids.
“We were living in a not-bad spot but there ended up being drug runs in the street and there was violence and people’s houses were getting burgled every day. I wanted to provide a better lifestyle for my family and so we made the decision to pack up and move to the country, get out into the fresh air. Somewhere those problems, I hoped, weren’t going to exist.”
That place was Greendale, 80 kilometres north-west of Melbourne on the edge of a state park.
Ensconced in the country, one day in the local paper Zabinskas read an article about a lady who ran the local wildlife shelter.
“I didn’t know that shelters existed at that stage, that people did this sort of thing. I’d never gotten up close and personal to somebody who was a bit crazy like that.”
I can say that,is the subtext.I’m crazy too.
At the end of the newspaper article was the woman’s number, to contact in case of finding injured wildlife. Zabinskas tore it out, put it under the phone. Months later, at home alone with his leg in plaster after breaking an ankle, Zabinskas looked out the lounge room window and saw an owl-like bird floundering around in his yard. He didn’t know it at the time, but it was a tawny frogmouth that had most likely eaten a baited mouse and was suffering secondary poisoning.
“All I knew was I had a weird-looking bird that was flapping around, obviously very unwell. And I remembered the story about this woman. So I got the piece of paper out, I rang her up and she said she could certainly help but she was stuck at home with too many animals and couldn’t pick the bird up. So I basically put it in a half nelson under my arm and hobbled to my car — plaster on my leg, crutches everywhere — and I drove over.”
Walking into her house was like entering a menagerie.
“Oh my god, there were just animals everywhere.
“There were kangaroos spread out sleeping on the floor in front of the open fire, wombats on the couch. A bird of prey on her kitchen table.
“Every room in the entire house was just animals and animals and animals.”
For Zabinskas, it was an epiphany.
“Joeys were hopping up wanting a bottle and I just looked around and something clicked at that stage and I realised this is what I needed to do for the rest of my life. I had to do this.”
A tin shed in the middle of nowhere
Two years later Zabinskas and his then-wife Donna, having trained to become wildlife foster carers, sold their house and bought a bush block to establish a shelter.
“So now we were living on 20 acres in the middle of nowhere in a tin shed with no windows and three children.
“We’d all sit around the heater and have animals on our laps and do bottle feeds and it was the best existence ever.”
The very first animal the family took into care was an eastern grey joey that they christened Orphan Annie.
That was all decades ago now. At 58, separated and re-partnered, kangaroos have been the constant thread. This is Zabinskas’s third shelter. There’s a tawny frogmouth perched in the living room and a roo sprawled in a dog bed by the fire, having displaced its rightful owner, a ramshackle mutt called Dad. A blue-tongued lizard recuperates on a heating pad in the back room, along with a tiger snake almost ready for release.
The snake, and his very specific diet, is the reason for a pre-dinner conversation that goes something like this:
“What’s for tea?”
“Oh, have a look in the fridge. I think there’s some pasta beneath the dead mice.”
Clipped to the couch are two fleece pouches wherein joeys strike rakish postures, all gigantic feet and tail, yogic flexibility.
Life has come full circle.
The children are grown, an environmental scientist-turned-vet nurse, a threatened species zoologist and a wildlife rescuer among them. Zabinskas’s ex-wife Donna still runs one of the biggest wildlife shelters in Victoria.
Helen Round, Zabinskas’s partner of five years, is a walking compendium of kangaroo facts and figures.
A bottomless source of names for the stream of roos that come into her care.I’m a mother againshe texts one Sunday afternoon, with a picture.Meet DJ Hansel.There’s also Gretel, who was found all alone in the forest without her mum. Mr Ripper who, as a joey, would kick out and shred your clothes. Bunnings, who had surgery to insert metal plates and other hardware. She remembers them all. Even in gum boots, on “poo patrol”, the 49-year-old exudes glamour, though she would scoff at the idea. Scarlet nails, rings on fingers. Magenta hair aflame.
When she and Zabinskas got together, Round jokes, “The Department” (of Environment, Land, Water and Planning) could just combine their files for ease of reference. They were both known to officials for their passionate wildlife advocacy.Helfredcan be their power couple name, she muses, tongue firmly in cheek. It sounds suitably formidable for their double-act as wildlife rescuers and carers.
There’s no need to ask how much of the couple’s life roos take up.
“It stops you from doing anything else in your life.”
Since fostering his first joey, Zabinskas’s CV has ballooned with obscure skills as he’s equipped himself to take on the rescues others can’t. He became the first non-vet darter in Victoria so he could tranquilise roos from a distance. Spent hundreds of hours on the rifle range, because inevitably guns are still the kindest form of euthanasia. He got accredited in tree climbing, mostly to retrieve burnt koalas after bushfires but he has since abseiled into collapsing mine shafts to rescue roos.
Way of the gun
There’s a look that comes over Zabinskas’s face when he’s nursing a joey. Tenderness? Sadness? It has to have something to do with the knowledge that he has saved a life — for now.
Somewhere along the way the national emblem lost pride of place, if it ever had it.
Kangaroos have long occupied a conflicted space in the national psyche. They are a protected species nationwide and can’t be harmed. Unless they’re on farmland when they can be shot as pests. Or if they’re deemed overabundant on public land. Or, it seems, if they’re in the path of development.
“The Wildlife Act can be overridden every single time by development,” says Round.
In Zabinskas’s experience in Victoria, developers are willing to set aside funds for relocating roos, but the state government won’t let them.
“I have a long list of developers that want to look after roos — they don’t want to get crucified by the public — but when they make requests to DELWP (the government department) to have roos relocated, it’s a categoric ‘no’. It’s not even opened for discussion. It’s ‘You need to get a cull permit, you cannot relocate.'”
“We reach for the gun every single time before we reach for more sensible alternatives.”
Victoria’s Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning says translocation of kangaroos carries risks including a lack of suitable recipient sites, stress to the animals from capture and the spread of disease between roo populations. It says there has never been a translocation proposal that addresses those risks.
The South Morang case
In 2009 Zabinskas was representing Wildlife Victoria on a working group that was preparing to relocate a group of kangaroos from a supermarket development site in the outer Melbourne suburb of South Morang — and had developed a detailed proposal fully supported by Westfield and the City of Whittlesea. The roo relocation was to be studied, with hopes it would become one of the most important research projects on the management of eastern grey kangaroos ever conducted in Victoria. But the process was de-railed when the then-Department of Sustainability and Environment, without the knowledge of any of the involved parties, took a unilateral decision to have the animals killed, making its actions public three months later.
In the eventual media release, the DSE cited “the health and safety of the kangaroos” as the basis for the cull. Today DELWP stands by the decision, saying its records indicate the animals were destroyed after an unsuccessful attempt to move them and efforts to manage the mob on-site.
The Epping case
The Australian Society for Kangaroos is awaiting a decision on a case it brought against the Victorian Government in the Supreme Court, challenging a planned cull of about 300 kangaroos trapped on government-owned land set to be developed in Epping on Melbourne’s bushy northern fringe. Documents show one government department sought permission to destroy the mob because the animals were deemed “an encumbrance on the title”, meaning their presence would make a sale more difficult and potentially lower the price the land could fetch. Such a financial motive is not one of the array of considerations relevant in making a decision to cull roos under the Wildlife Act.
In other states the official response to kangaroos in the path of development varies from a similar policy against relocation, to recommending relocation in certain circumstances. Western Australia’s Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions says roos in that state have been successfully relocated plenty of times.
From where Zabinskas and Round sit, in Victoria, it looks like an effort to avoid creating any precedent for developers to relocate roos, or deal with them in any way besides shooting.
“A lot of the land here that’s ready to be developed has kangaroos on it,” observes Round.
“At the moment when you go to develop land you only have to look after animals that are notifiable, that are threatened species. So you can go in and pretty much destroy the landscape and if there are common species there, they just get caught up in it.
“I can only assume what’s really going on is they don’t want to have another hurdle in front of development.
“If you’ve got a block of land that’s got several hundred roos on it, it’s going to be worth a lot less if you have to deal with those kangaroos.”
Round sees a built-in conflict of interest in the very creation of the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, a mega-department that both licenses wildlife shelters and approves permits for shooters and within which the interests of wildlife have to compete against the financial imperatives of agriculture and development.
“There’s the hunting fraternity. There are agricultural people. But there is no animal advocate, no one in there to argue for the kangaroo.”
These concerns were all put to DELWP, but not addressed.
Wildlife rescue involves operating in a fraught, legally grey zone.
Capturing or relocating a healthy but imperilled roo — such as one stranded on a busy road — is illegal, deemed interfering with wildlife. Furthermore, by the letter of the law, vets aren’t allowed to issue drugs to rescuers unless they sight the animal. But in practice, as wild creatures, roos have to be caught before they can be taken to a vet for assessment. And catching them requires a sedative.
“We’re in an absolute dilemma,” says Zabinskas. “The legalities contradict the necessities of responding to emergency situations.”
Round likes to joke that working with kangaroos is a fast-track to PTSD.
“There used to be more of us (wildlife rescuers),” elaborates Zabinskas. “But most have burnt out. We’ve lost lots in recent years because the demands are so great and the stress is so high.”
The phone can start ringing at 4am. It’s getting so the couple will have to turn off the mobile, just so they can get some sleep between feeds and rescues.
Though they’ve dedicated their lives to roos, it would be a mistake to dismiss them as rabid animal libbers.
“We’re not fanatics,” says Round. “We’re just people who’ve looked and who’ve seen.”
Australia has an abysmal record when it comes to biodiversity loss.
One in 10 native mammals has gone extinct since European settlement, more than in any other country. The world authority on nature protection, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, this year lambasted Australia’s blueprint to save flora and fauna from extinction as “fundamentally deficient”.
Combine that with a persistent sense that wildlife rescuers are working against a system intent on demonising the roo rather than protecting it, and Zabinskas admits he’s sceptical of the notion of kangaroo management.
“I’m so nervous about so-called evidence and statistics that people present.”
Assertions about kangaroo numbers are a case in point.
“The conclusions people are drawing is that they’re seeing larger numbers when it’s actually about movement of kangaroos. You’ve got to look at the entire ecology.
“It’s really difficult science and then you’ve got departments and organisations with vested interests and multi-billion-dollar industries at stake.
“We haven’t even gone down the road of managing kangaroos. We need education and we need the government to lead.”
There are more ideas at this kitchen table than you frequently hear in the public discourse around kangaroos.
“We’re not out there protesting against every farmer if they make an effort to cleanly shoot roos,” says Zabinskas.
“I would love to think we’d end up in a society that will never kill a kangaroo but we’re realists. I know we’ve got this conundrum. The problem is the mentality that people believe they have the right to eradicate roos with no compromise.”
He says there ought to be room for native animals, farming and development to coexist.
“There’s no discussion of how many kangaroos we should accommodate in combination with rural activities. Any number of roos justifies getting rid of them. Technically you’re supposed to try non-lethal methods to control roos before you’re granted a cull permit. But, in practice, the exploration of that is inappropriate before people have an easy solution. You can do things with sound canons and do things with lights.”
“We need to have some cull-free areas. If people are living in high-conservation areas bounding national parks they shouldn’t be allowed to shoot roos without any consideration for the adjoining land.
“When people are buying property in places where large numbers of roos live, there should be something up front as part of the zoning and the environmental overlay.”
“One potential solution would be to put up true kangaroo-proof fencing and leave corridors where roos can hop through,” offers Round.
“Wildlife-friendly fencing is not hard to do. It’s done for dog proofing but I don’t see that there’s a genuine effort made when it comes to roos. Why pay for management when you can get your mates with rifles to shoot them? If a population is causing a problem on one person’s land and not on another’s, the project is to make sure they live on the area where they’re not problematic. Management can be approached as anarea,incorporating other owners, not just one property. You can use exclusion fencing like at Tullamarine Airport which adjoins a box forest with large numbers of roos.
“What are acceptable numbers will differ between areas. Conservation areas will allow more than if it’s a centre of farming. There is no one-size-fits-all. We need a balanced plan that covers the whole landscape.”
Follow that which is goodsays a plaque on a wall in the couple’s back room, the one with the reptiles. They are trying.
Standing up for wildlife, it turns out, can earn you enemies. There has been intimidation, bullying. At one low point an intervention order was necessary. In her typically dry fashion, Round remarks that for their next anniversary she and Zabinskas are planning to share a cyanide and champagne cocktail together.
But in seriousness, they are keeping the faith. They have to.
“I’m not convinced we can’t almost abolish the need to shoot roos through a management strategy,” says Zabinskas. “I’m not naive enough to say never ever, but we’ve got so much work to do before I’m prepared to concede that.”
The conversation is cut short when the phone buzzes with a call-out, another roo hit by another car. They’re on their feet and out the door.
July 25, 2018 05:13:42