In 1986, shortly after I became chief guide at the Australian Museum, I was asked to meet with a couple of young women who were trying to set up a wildlife rescue charity, to be known as the Wildlife Information and Rescue Service.
The new organisation was intended to solve a problem that had been dramatised in the previous year when somebody rescued an injured ibis in Hyde Park, across the road from the Museum, and no government organisation or voluntary conservation group could be found that was willing to care for it. The RSPCA – the official animal welfare group – was basically involved only with domestic pets and livestock and its people had little experience with wildlife. The National Parks and Wildlife Service was overstretched in all directions preserving habitat and had no brief to cover thousands of cases of individual wild animals in distress, especially if they weren’t on the actual turf it controlled. Apart from that, there were scattered enthusiasts with no central direction, proper training or official recognition.
I was keen on the WIRES project and, as a wildlife enthusiast from my youth, I had had my own small successful experiences with rescue and rehabilitation. A few years earlier, my partner Lee and I pulled over near the village of Nelligan on the NSW south coast to pick up a kookaburra that had been hit by a car. It had one toe hanging by a thread, which I amputated. It was feeling very sick and sorry, but there appeared to be no broken bones.
The next day we took our kookaburra back to Sydney. We were living in an old flat on Edgecliff Road at the time. It had a small enclosed balcony, facing the road, which we hardly used, so I faked up “bars” on the windows with black electrical tape and installed our patient there. When I put a big plastic basin with a few centimetres of water on the floor, I was astounded by the reaction. Kooka fluttered over to the bowl, perched on the rim, dived in head-first, and bathed with a delight I’ll never forget. After that, Kooka wolfed down some worms I’d dug up in the garden and settled in for the night. In the morning we were woken by a ragged chorus of laughter. Kooka was obviously on the mend.
A couple of days later, a note appeared under the door. It was from the local RSPCA inspector. Somebody had spotted Kooka, on the window sill, imprisoned behind glass. I explained my position to the inspector and shortly thereafter received a very official letter permitting me to hold, for the purpose of rehabilitation, “One (1) Kookaburra, being the property of the Crown”.
A few days later we took Kooka back down the coast and left him with the people at Batemans Bay Birdland, a small commercial wildlife park. This, I was to learn, was one of the usual ways in which zoos, private and public, acquired “exhibits”. Some were animals that would no doubt never fend for themselves again, but many others really should have been returned to the wild. Birdland had spacious enclosures and I’m sure Kooka made a go of it there, but these days WIRES would ensure he was released where we’d picked him up, to return to his family group.
At the museum we had discussions with the two young ladies about the WIRES project and it was agreed the institution would raise funds by hosting an exhibition of wildlife art. It was a great success and was, I think, repeated at least once.
The next year, the museum also hosted a seminar on wildlife rescue. Pioneer practitioners from the new movement expounded on the rehabilitation techniques they’d developed and their successes in returning their charges to the wild. Quite a few museum scientists attended but I observed a curious note of rejection of the new movement from some among the older generation of wildlife boffins. It was epitomised by the sarcasm of one eminent male zoologist, responding to a female amateur wildlife rescuer, who opined that all this had nothing to do with “real” science. “The animals wouldn’t do the same for you”, he added, fatuously.
I was shocked by this pathetic display of pseudo tough guy objectivism which reflected the fear so many older scientists had of being seen to be sentimental do-gooders.
The response was dignified and crushing. The speaker observed that, apart from the undesirability of suppressing human empathy for animals, on which the future of wild ecosystems depends, the need to save individual species from extinction certainly hinges at times on our ability to save individual animals. Her judgement was true even then and ominously prophetic for the new century.