The kitchen at Gayle Chappell and Jon Rowdon’s animal shelter north of Melbourne is a hive of activity.
A volunteer prepares meals and bottles for the 150-odd animals in their care. John plans the afternoon round of feeding while his partner Gayle administers a liquid meal to an injured cockatoo. All the while, a baby wombat scurries around the floor nibbling shoes and generally getting in the way.
At first, seeing native wildlife up close is novel, the young are undeniably adorable, but it doesn’t take long to realise that this work is demanding, gruelling and sometimes soul-destroying. John and Gayle work a 24-hour roster and – on a good day spend a couple of over-lapping hours together. Sometimes they go days without spending quality time together, and it’s been 6-years since they last holidayed together. The strain of constant arrivals, a relentless feeding regime and the trauma of seeing the badly injured animals; which often need to be euthanased, compounds the problem.
“I’m currently under treatment for depression for and post-traumatic stress disorder – it’s really hard. It’s very, very hard. Most of the wildlife shelters the carers are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorders because of the constant non-stop stress of dealing with these animals,” Gayle said.
The couple – both environmental scientists – have been in the cycle of providing animal care for 12-years, and Gayle says it’s taking a toll.
“There’s another side of things – it’s just exhausting – it’s relentless – it never stops and some days we just get animal after animal coming in. You’re dealing with some awful injuries on animals – you have to euthanase a lot of animals and even those that you try to heal, it’s not always successful,” she said.
Barbara Morrow runs a smaller but similar shelter, also in Central Victoria. She works a couple of days a week as the local GP, and has experience delivering aid in Rwanda during the 1990’s.
Ms Morrow sees similarities between the mayhem of running the shelter with the confronting aftermath of conflict.
“I think at the most difficult times I think it feels like I’m running an orphanage and a hospital in the middle of a war zone when there’s casualties arriving all the time,” she said.
She’s staggered at the sheer volume of native Australian animals requiring help. Last year alone Wildlife Victoria took 75-thousand calls for assistance – the majority of those were for sick, injured or orphaned kangaroos. But that doesn’t include calls made to shelters or carers themselves.
A strained system
Each Australian state administers volunteer wildlife care differently. In Victoria, the government licences shelters, offers grants and regulates conduct. In New South Wales licenced organisations like WIRES NSW Wildlife Information, Rescue and Education Service) oversee accreditation, training and volunteer support.
Some carers who struggle with the confronting and relentless nature of the work present symptoms of an anecdotal condition known as “Compassion Fatigue.”
Dr Rebekah Scotney from the University of Queensland School of Veterinary Science is completing a PHD exploring the complexities of Compassion Fatigue.
“It’s often a compulsion these people have that they have to do it – they don’t have a choice about that matter, regardless of the fact that they are suffering secondary to those in their care,” Dr Scotney said.
Many wildlife carers said a structured, national approach could relieve their growing burden. Jon Rowdon says it’s time a national conversation began.
“Some sort of institutional framework that we can have that will provide some external support to people who really want to keep going in the work – nobody is out there representing wildlife carers and their plight – there is no voice that can speak for us,” he said.
The suggestion is anything but selfishly motivated. The carers devote their lives to the animals – and walking away isn’t an option while there is no alternative for the sick, injured and orphaned wildlife.
“Once you open the door it’s impossible to shut and I don’t think people have any idea of how hard it is,” Gayle Chappell said.