The catastrophic bushfires are out, but, veterinarians and carers on the front line of the bushfire recovery are still providing emergency treatment and tireless care to scores of native animals, including possums, wallabies and hundreds of orphaned and fruit bats (also known as flying foxes). These modest creatures are remarkable forest gardeners that disperse seed and pollinate trees, playing a vital role in maintaining biodiversity.
But what happens when they lose both their daytime roosts and food sources? South Coast vet Dr Carrie Hawthorn and wildlife carer Anne Cherry explain.
Dr Carrie Hawthorn, of Milton Village Vet:
Dr Carrie Hawthorn has been treating a plethora of animals impacted by the bushfires, including Hissy the brushtail possum.
"Hissy the possum has been having treatment with us for close to a month now. All his feet were badly burnt; I'd class them as third-degree burns. He had very open wounds and they were mucky because he'd been walking around in ash on the ground. The wounds were incredibly painful, so he was anesthetised each day so we could soak, clean and bandage his feet. We went from treating him virtually every day to every second day and then every third day. And now it's every fourth day. He's eaten a lot of mango, and we've had lots of members of the public finding flowering gum and flowers for him.”
Wildlife that has seen less attention than our iconic species like possums and wallabies are bats.
“Bats have been seriously threatened by the temperatures they've had to deal with. On the fire-affected days, it was over 40 degrees, which led to a huge loss of bats.
Now, more animals like bats are moving closer to residential areas looking for food. They're trying to feed in people's backyards, which is obviously not ideal because people have dogs, and they're getting injured by cars. We also treated a bat that got caught in some tree netting. They're taking risks because they haven't got the forested habitat to feed in. It's absolutely devastating.
The care we give wildlife is quite time-consuming. We don't mind doing it, but the cost of things like daily anaesthetising also adds up. The AVA (Australian Veterinary Association) has been amazing and has supported us with products, bandaging, some medicine, antibiotics, things like that."
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Volunteer wildlife carer Anne Cherry:
"One of the significant impacts of the bushfires is the loss of habitat and food. And flying foxes have been seriously affected. You see them flying out earlier and earlier each day in search of food.
And then you add the heat on top of that and a lot of the young males that are the key to breeding don't survive. Without food, they're not strong enough to withstand several hot days. Even one hot day can bring a lot of them down.
The mothers are also abandoning their babies because they just don't have the milk to feed them. We received 200 babies in two days due to this. And that was on top of 200 a couple of days before that. And for the 400 that did come into care, there'd be thousands that didn't make it, and that's just in our area. This is happening all the way up the east coast of Australia. It's tragic.
We first take the flying foxes we rescue up to the Shoalhaven Bat Clinic, where they're stabilised, checked, hydrated and then sent out to carers to raise. I received one that was hanging off the exhaust pipe of a car, but I've had my latest two for three weeks now; they're 64 and 66 days old.
Flying foxes are one of the main pollinators of our eucalypt forests. So while the koala slogan is 'No Tree, No Me', I think the flying fox's slogan should be 'No Me, No Tree'. They are critical. We really don't know what the ecological impact will be on the loss of bats and trees, but it's got to be significant.
Deforestation, drought, bushfires, netting and barbed wire are the biggest threats to flying foxes. Drought means there is no blossom for them to eat, and the effects of deforestation have been massive. We like to live where bats live, so I know who comes off second best.
We are called out many, many times to flying foxes entangled in nasty netting. It would be great if everyone just took the netting off their fruit trees. These animals are starving; let them eat for a while and then next year, if things improve, you can cover your fruit trees again, but with wildlife-friendly netting, which means you can't put your finger through the holes. It would be great if people found an alternative to barbed wire, too.
Over the past 10 years, I've spoken to a lot of experienced carers about the changes they've seen to breeding among native species. We shouldn't just force these creatures to adapt. They need to be looked after.
I think bats need protective status. I would love to see the government establish a series of bat clinics, fully funded and staffed so that if there ever is a heat stress event, they can just kick into gear and you're not relying on volunteers who have full-time jobs, other animals to care for, and families. Our carers are quite often only getting two to three hours' sleep a night during these crises, and that's not good for anyone.
These animals are gorgeous and critical to our ecosystems, so please everyone watch out for our wonderful flying foxes."
Your donations are enabling WWF to support the kind efforts of veterinarians in fire-affected communities, through the Australian Veterinary Association. Thank you for continuing to invest in the recovery of our native species.
You can continue to support WWF-Australia's ongoing bushfire recovery work: