As It Happens

What it's like working with wildlife rescued from Australia's deadly fires

Tracy Burgess has 15 possums living in her home, including one with paws so badly burned, she has to bandage them nightly.

The University of Sydney estimates 480 million animals have died in the wildfires

This ringtail possum was found hiding in a house. (Tracy Burgess/Australia Wildlife Rescue Organization)

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Tracy Burgess has 15 possums living in her home, including one with paws so badly burned, she has to bandage them nightly.

She's a volunteer with Australia's Wildlife Information, Rescue and Education Services, which is working to help creatures caught in the country's deadly infernos.

Ecologists at the University of Sydney estimate 480 million animals have died in the fires in New South Wales since September. The wildfires have destroyed about five million hectares of land in Australia.

Burgess spoke with As It Happens guest host Helen Mann about the animal rescue effort. Here is part of their conversation.

This estimate of half a billion animals dead is just ... heartbreaking. You are close to the fires. Does the number reflect the kind of thing you are seeing there?

Yeah, absolutely. So we're not getting in very many animals that are injured. It's because they're mostly dead, I think.

I'm hearing stories from the [New South Wales] Rural Fire Service about hundreds of wallabies just seen in piles dead in the bush areas that have been burnt.

Oh my goodness. And, you know, this is a country that's so famous for its wildlife, which is often very unique. You mentioned wallabies. What other species are you talking about?

We're talking possums, echidnas are being injured, wombats, lots of birds, kookaburras, cockatoos.

Is it both the flames and the smoke that is getting these animals?

Yeah, both of those — and the heat.

Burgess holds an orphaned brushtail possum. (Submitted by Tracy Burgess)

It has to be risky for you to get into these fire zones to look for the animals. Tell us what it's like for you as you head into these affected areas.

I certainly went into an active fire zone for a wombat. It was a little girl. I don't know where her mother went.

Luckily, she wasn't burnt, but a branch had fallen on her and fractured her nose and jaw. ... The Rural Fire Service had to escort me in through locked areas to get into the fire zone, and then escort me back out once I rescued her.

There was smoke everywhere, there was [fire]trucks everywhere. I just wanted to get in and get out, obviously, because I'm not fire-trained. I'm not a firefighter.

You have some of these animals actually in your home, is that right?

They come into care, we look after them, and then we put them back into the wild. The most important thing is they're native animals, so we want to get them back into their native environment as soon as possible. None of these animals are meant to be pets.

That's our biggest concern at the moment is we're reluctant to put any back into any areas while there's active fires going on. And the longer they stay in care, the harder it is to put them back to be wild animals.

At the moment, I have 14 orphaned possums, juveniles. I have an adult female brushtail possum that was burnt, severely burnt. 

Tracy Burgess holds a severely burned brushtail possum rescued from fires near Australia’s Blue Mountains. (Jill Gralow/Reuters)

How are you treating their injuries? 

The female brushtail ... all four paws are burnt and her nose is burnt and half her ears have been burnt off.

So it's wound solution, and then a wound soothing gel across all of that, and then ... a burn cream. And then I have to bandage all the areas, because otherwise she'll lick it off, leave the bandages on for an hour and then take them off so that fresh air can get into them.

That's every morning and every night.

I hear she was pregnant.

Yes, she has pinkie in the pouch. They're called pinkies before they have fur on them.

And the baby's still OK?

Yep, so far. Potentially, she could lose it with stress. But we'll see.

A wombat rescued from the flames gets some veterinary care. (Tracy Burgess/Australian Wildlife Rescue Organization)

These are wild animals and you're treating them, you know, very much hands on. How are they responding to that?

The badly burnt one is very placid at this point. She was up the burnt tree for three days, and then they thought she was dead, so nobody went up to get her. And then she came down on the fourth day and went and sat on the doorstep of a house that was still standing in Clarence. 

In my experience, a lot of animals know when they're in trouble and will seek out humans for some reason. They just seem to know that that's where they can get help.

So I think she's understanding that I'm helping. She doesn't particularly like the treatment, and so she does struggle a little bit, but she's not tried to bite me, she's not tried to scratch me, she doesn't scream at me like sometimes a possum will when it's injured.

Wildlife Information, Rescue and Education Services volunteer Tracy Dodd holds a kangaroo with burnt feet pads. (Jill Gralow/Reuters)

Normally, we tell people to not interact with animals in the wild, for both the good of the humans and the animals themselves. But you are asking people who live near the fire zones to help them. What is that about? What you want them to do?

We want them to feed them. We have had, and other wildlife groups across Australia, have always had very strict rules that you do not feed native animals because we don't want them to get used to humans feeding them, and we want them to live the lives that they were meant to live.

However, there is no food left. Over 85 per cent of the Blue Mountains National Park is burnt and gone. 

In broad terms, what is at stake for the animals and the habitats in Australia if these fires continue?

Obviously, yes, the bush can grow back ... but my concern is that an ecosystem is a very fine balance. It's not just the trees. It's the animals as well. They work together. And I think we've lost so many animals that I don't know how this ecosystem is going to balance itself.

It's so difficult to see animals suffer. I just wonder if you can tell me a little bit about the emotional toll this kind of work takes on you and on other people who are helping?

Look, it is very hard. When they come into care, the vets are great, and the vets will give me pain medications for them. 

But it's when you're out and about, putting down food stations, and you see joey wallabies hopping off in the distance and we can't catch it, and it's clearly got burnt feet. It's heartbreaking, really. It must be terrifying for them.


Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from The Associated Press. Interview produced by Samantha Lui. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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