Call me Mom

Call me Mom
an Australian wildlife carer tells her story.

How it all began

I had four children. As is the way with kids, when they or their friends came across a bird or little animal in distress, they brought it home to me, hoping that I could ‘do something’.

This probably came about because for 16 years I had raised, bred and shown pigeons. This had given me a basic knowledge of caring for birds, and the diseases and injuries that could occur. It was always my dream that, one day, I would be able to look after these little creatures and native animals.

We got the opportunity to come to this area to live, and that’s when it all started. I joined a group called BIRO (Birds Injured, Rescued, Orphaned). I started with birds because I thought that would be the easiest.

And then I got my first little possum to tend, and there I was, well and truly hooked. It’s just such a pleasure. From thereon, I went into wallabies and kangaroos. And so it went from there. Since then, there really hasn’t been a time in which there is some little creature in the house that calls me mom.

Building experience and knowledge

To work as a wildlife carer you must hold a license. A heavy fine is incurred by anyone holding wild creatures without this. It is also helpful to join a group in your area, as I did.

We have our own group for this area called FAUNA. (Fostercare of Australia’s Unique Native Animals). We meet as a group and share experience, have books available, hold workshops and equipment displays, to help all members. We try to give new members the best of our knowledge and remind them that we are but a phone call away. Help is there 24 hours of the day. Anyone, anywhere, can join FAUNA as a support member and receive a regular newsletter. Contact Monica.

The day comes for every carer when you are holding the first sick animal in your hands and the full responsibility of being a carer hits you. All moms will recall the day when you had your firstborn child in your arms and felt panic when there was a little cough, or the change in a breathing pattern. Many a carer has awoken in the night and slid a hand down to the side of the bed to feel whether the little wild one was warm and breathing normally. As with your own firstborn, you soon build upon experience. When you awake in the morning and the little one is still with you, confidence grows.

A phone call can come through at any time with a request for help for an injured or sick bird or animal. This is when we set off on a rescue mission. Most of our animals come in with injuries arising mainly from road accidents, or dog or cat attacks. Each of them has its own sad little story of what has happened to them.

Virtually every animal which comes in does so because mom is dead. At first they are traumatized, because mom has been hit by a car.

Some babies are thrown out of the mother’s pouch onto the road. Others may be bruised on impact. The older, furred ones, may be standing on the side of the road beside dead mom, helpless. If they are pinkies, that is too young to have grown fur, they have very little chance, because they are usually too badly bruised. The really bad thing is, and it has happened to me a couple of times, when you are coming up to mom you see a crow flying off with a baby in its beak. You think, If I had been a minute sooner I would have saved that little one. That is something that you have to become resigned to, but it is very sad.

When young animals are brought in, we have to weigh them. These tiny ones can only digest 10% of their body weight. We give them five feeds a day, 100 grams. We weigh them weekly so that food portions are adjusted to their requirements.We have to keep them at a certain temperature, so we need heat pads and digital thermometers, and scales to keep track of weight. It is very involved.
They each have their own little pouches which we make from warm materials. The pouches are made in different sizes to adjust to the bubby’s growth. These pouches hang in frames. Their little heads can peep out, just as in mom’s pouch.
Once they are old enough, they go outside in special pens and can be supervised there throughout the day. At night, they are brought indoors.

It is so sad when we have a phone call from an unlicensed person, who has run into difficulties simply because they were unaware of the very special needs of wild animals. Their intentions may have been good, but their lack of accurate knowledge and the specialized equipment required, all too often results in the death of the little one. There are only so many questions that we can adequately answer over the phone. Without the necessary equipment, heat pads, thermometers, correct food, it is so hard for an inexperienced person to raise one of these little fellows. In the right hands, it could have been saved, but in the wrong hands they don’t have much of a chance.

The general public

The general public is usually very good. Sometimes you get the odd person who doesn’t care. Like yesterday, when I picked up a koala on a rescue mission, the chap said, “Oh, I’m not interested in wallabies and suchlike, there are so many, the more that get hit the better.”

You just walk away from these people. They are obviously ignorant and it’s a bad world they live in if they have these attitudes. Our animals are all precious little creatures needing our love and care.

When people ring us, having found an animal, they usually sound really desperate, and particularly if they themselves have accidentally killed it. They are distraught when confronted with a dead or wounded animal with a baby in the pouch. They are so grateful when you go and rescue and help the poor little thing.

Some people phone to inquire about the animal’s progress, others like to come to see the animal, even continuing to visit as the little one grows older. Some folk like to name the bubby after their own children or their mom or dad. Yes, some people get very involved and like to continue to visit.

I’m lucky enough to have a husband who has built all my relief cages. He doesn’t do the caring himself but he’s very supportive. He comes on rescue missions with me and builds cages. With each one he says, “Is that the last one we are going to have now?” But there always seems to be a reason for yet another one. He remains supportive and that is so good.

I can handle the many varieties of birds that come in, as well as babies that have just been hatched. I deal with any sort of macropod. I’ve had gliders, kangaroos, wallabies, brush tailed possums. Carers can handle just about anything that comes in. If we cannot, we hand them to someone who can. We are not allowed to treat koalas or echidnas, unless we have the special license required for them. We can hold them for up to 72 hours until we can get help.

The Release

The hardest part for me, or any carer, is the release. That is the return of the animal to the wild. I’ve usually spent 10 months to a year on this little baby. He loves me. To him, I’m mommy.

Then I have to let him go. I open the gate and he is on his own. I have no control any more. There are cats and dogs and cars. It is so much harder for these hand- raised little ones. They haven’t been following mom for the last 6 months as they would have done in the wild. From her, they would have learned where all the trails are, where the water is to be found, the bush sounds, and the dangers to run from. Our little ones have had none of this training. Alone they will have to figure it all out for themselves. Often it’s too difficult.

We have what we call a Support Relief Site. This is the preparation and training area for the coming release. When the animals are ready, I take them to this site, positioned on our property.

There follows a period of acclimatization, from being housed indoors. When I know that they are ready, I open the gate and take them for a walk in the bush. Then they follow me back into the Site. They get used to this. Then the gate is left open so that they can come and go as they please and can feel safe in the wild. Most of them still visit me on a regular basis. They come in the morning for a feed, or at night. Then as time goes by I may only see them once a week or so. They all know where home is and will return if sick, injured, or need help.

We have had some sad ones come home with legs snapped off, broken, which have been lying somewhere for a week or more. They have come home on the bone of one leg. Septicemia has set in, but they have made it home for help. It breaks your heart because you know that there is no help at this stage, but at least they know that they are home.

There are lots of rewards as well as heartaches. When people take one of these little animals in, they must do so with the thought that they must rear it and then they must release it.

At one stage you have to start pulling away, detaching yourself from the animal so that it becomes more independent. In the beginning, they had to be totally dependent upon you. They would, in the wild, have been one-on-one in the pouch with their mother, unlike the birds, when mom comes and goes to gather food. Now they are one-on-one with you. They need all the cuddles and kisses that she would have given them. They are so trusting. You are now their only mom. They are fully attached to you. With me, at feed time, they come and put their little paws up on my knees to reach up for their feed bottle. Then this wonderful close relationship has to be gradually, and lovingly, withdrawn. And you are the one who has to do it. The little person has to learnt how to be an independent wild creature. It is going to be out of doors day and night. You cannot fully train an animal for the wild, but there are ways that you can greatly assist its passage.

Prior to release, I begin to detach from the little one. It learns from the experience gained in the release site. I make sure that it is acclimatized to outdoor life day and night for some weeks. I make sure that they become used to the natural sounds of the bush which can be quite frightening for them to begin with. They need to experience rain. Some of them are frightened by it, as with thunder and lightning. I calm them, saying, “It’s all right, it won’t hurt us.” And because they trust me they usually calm down and accept. So with the sights and sounds of the bush, the sudden shriek of a bird, the sound of the wind, and so forth. All this has to be got used to so that they do not panic. They are scared of horses. There are so many things out there to be encountered. We can only do our best to prepare them for this huge step they have to make. I never release an animal unless it is 100% fit. Less, and they stand little chance. They must be able to run from danger and get away if chased. Any weakness, and they have no chance.

To my surprise, one morning when I went to water my planter on the front balcony, I discovered a possum I had released a while back had taken up residence in it. It has become his permanent and natural home.

When you first get an animal you must evaluate its condition relative to its chance of complete recovery and its ultimate release. It may have a broken wing or limb, or an injured eye. It may be an animal that was released but has returned with a bad injury, requiring as a last resort permanent shelter. There are times when you hold a dear little fluffy creature in your hands and it looks up at you with big trusting eyes, and you know that you will have to harden your heart. You have to make a stand for its sake. When you know what should be done, then you have to be cruel to be kind. Don’t start to think, oh well, maybe… This is the worst time for temptation to set in. Better you suffer sadness now, than this poor creature later faces being mauled to a painful death, simply because it was not strong enough to make its escape.

Things we all should know
(Most applicable to Australians, but to anyone, anywhere, with essential details changed.)

Should you find a kangaroo or wallaby lying dead by the side of the road, and the baby is still alive within the pouch, it is most important not to pull it off the teat to which it may still be attached. If you do so, the baby will die 24 hours later.

You see, when the baby first climbs up into its mother’s pouch, it attaches itself to the teat, taking it in its mouth. At once the teat swells, balloon-like, within the baby’s mouth thus cementing the attachment. To pull the baby off the teat causes a brain hemorrhage, and, 24 hours later, the baby will die. A cross will appear on the top of its head.

To avoid this tragedy, we cut around the back of the teat and leave it in the baby’s mouth. Pass a safety-pin through it so that the baby cannot swallow it. Usually, the teat is released in a few hours. If it takes longer, the feed is administered by sliding the dropper (bottle) down the side of the mouth. This does no harm.

If we cannot release the bubby from the pouch, then we slit the pouch, this is not messy, and lift the little one out. At once we wrap him in something warm, a blanket, a piece of flannelette, a track suit top, a beanie, even slip it inside your shirt to get your body warmth. A drink bottle filled with lukewarm water, and wrapped in a covering to ensure that the baby is not harmed.

Do not attempt to feed the baby. Seek help from any vet, police station, local council etc, to be informed as to who to ring for help. Carers in your area, once contacted, will take over and look after the babe.

The Story of Tracy

Tracy was just a 500 gram pinkie when she was brought in to me. Like all such little ones, I took great pains to rear her. In so doing I became her mom. I raised her. She was wholly dependent upon me. I was her food provider. She trusted me implicitly, and the loving ‘maternal’ bond was formed, as it does with these little ones. She began to gain weight and before long she was old enough to leave her pouch and take her first hops on the floor. When the time came, having passed through all the stages of training for the wild, I released her from my house when she was about 16 months old, and she continued visiting me on a daily basis. Every morning, she was there on the back verandah. I knew that she had been mated and was due to have a baby very soon.

Then, one Friday morning, there was no Tracy. I went out to have a look, but I couldn’t find her. No Tracy on Saturday either. I became apprehensive. On Sunday morning, the third day, I was thinking, oh, where is she?

My sister was just going out to the gate, and there was Tracy, lying in the driveway. She’d been hit by a car. Her pelvis was smashed. She had wounds everywhere. As I picked her up to carry her inside I could smell the terrible, infected sores. Some of her wounds, I could see, went to the very bone. One of her claws was ripped off, a tooth was broken off, and oh, just so many wounds everywhere. I carried her inside crying, almost on the point of collapse from the sight of her condition, and the thought of the struggle she had made to get home in this awful state. I laid her down and she just couldn’t move.

Tracy required a great deal of veterinary treatment. There were injections of all kinds, anti-biotics, vitamin E and others. All this she had to endure. Every few hours, I had to bathe her wounds. It was 6 days before she could make her first tiny movement. Then I found a minute joey, still alive in her pouch. It was a miracle that it had survived.

The weeks passed. I nursed and nursed Tracy, determined to reward her trust and the painful journey she took to come home to mom.

Today, she is healthy once again. She comes to me and drops her pouch for me to see her baby within. A little head pops up with its bright eyes sparkling with health and vitality.

I can let Tracy out now. She can hop and walk again, although it is a special walk. Thankfully, she can manage well and is an independent wild animal once again. The gate remains open to her so that she may come and go as she pleases.

This is a special story, but most of the animals that pass through the hands of carers, have their own special stories. Each is a special little person. When you deal with them, as we do, this is how we all see them, each a little person with their own characteristics, some good and some not so good, as is the way of things, but all so independent. Like children, they need a mommy who they can trust and depend upon for all the love and care they deserve.

– Monica Allen
Cedar Grove, Queensland, Australia.

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