Tasmania’s wildlife carers invest savings in new wildlife charity

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A year after experienced wildlife carers Jess O’Connor and Duncan McInney moved to Tasmania, they had spent their bail on injured animals.

Ms O’Connor says after seeing the “huge” need for more carers in the state, choosing needy wild animals rather than buying their own place seemed like the right thing to do.

“We kind of said to ourselves, ‘Well, house prices are going up, our chances of getting a loan are pretty low – we might as well spend [the deposit money] on something that matters,” she says.

One of 12 orphan pademelon joeys currently in care.(Provided: Jess O’Connor)

A leap of faith and lives on the line

Ms O’Connor and Mr McInney had worked as carers for the WIRES Wildlife Service in New South Wales for 15 years before moving with their five children to Legana in northern Tasmania.

Lured to the area by a special school that could take in their autistic daughter, Bonnie, the couple hadn’t planned on being full-time carers once they settled in.

“We sort of naturally fell into the role of caring for wildlife once we were here because that was what we knew,” says Ms O’Connor.

“And it snowballed from there.”

The couple established the Kanamaluka Wildlife Rehabilitation Center shortly after arriving in Legana and recently registered the organization as a nonprofit.

Ms O’Connor said the decision to rely on donations from the public while working as full-time carers was “absolutely a leap of faith”.

Cute little bird with white around the eye staring at the camera while gently being held in one hand.
Birds and reptiles are also cared for at the center.(Provided: Jess O’Connor)

“It was a ridiculous decision, as well as many ridiculous decisions we’ve made,” she says.

“What are you going to do, let them die?”

Ms O’Connor says there are not enough wildlife carers in Tasmania.

“Take one or two [of us] far makes a huge dent in what can be done,” she says.

“There are lives at stake, so we keep going.”

24 hour care

The Kanamaluka Wildlife Rehabilitation Center is home to 12 pademelons, three wombats and a possum, but will be home to many more creatures after winter.

“Bennett’s wallabies are coming soon… [and] it’s a pretty intense time, Joey season,” she said.

This is largely due to young joeys’ need to be fed frequently, says Ms O’Conner.

Some need three, four or even five meals a day.

“So you’re up most of the night feeding yourself.”

Young pink joey wallaby with big dark eyes staring at the camera while cuddled up in a pillowcase.
Feeding Joey is a big part of caring for wildlife.(Provided: Jess O’Connor)

Ms O’Connor says she and Mr McInney sort the joeys into different “classes” based on their age to make the task of feeding them more manageable.

“You have your big joeys and your little joeys and your tiny little joeys,” she says.

“And between Duncan and me, we arrange, we take turns.”

Community to the rescue

Ms. O’Connor and Mr. McInney recently found they needed an extra hand to help build a new wombat enclosure.

Ms O’Connor says they have been “racing against time” to build the enclosure for Claire, an 18-month-old wombat in their care who now has to be outdoors full time.

A girl with long hair in a ponytail leaning against a spade while smiling at the camera.
The new wombat enclosure was built with lots of community help.(Provided: Jess O’Connor)

She says that shortly after the couple received permission from their landlord to build the compound and began building, they realized they had underestimated the size of the project.

But they also knew they couldn’t afford the $8,000 expense of hiring a professional construction crew.

Ms O’Connor says she then decided to post a message on their community’s Facebook page asking locals for help.

“I didn’t really expect anyone to be interested,” she says.

“[But] we had this incredible turnout – people just showed up and helped out.

“They dug a lot and moved tin… [and] the guy who made it [machine] digging was great – did it for the price of diesel.

Extra hands and education

The couple also receive regular extra help from students at Launceston Big Picture School, who are working to complete one of their subjects.

Students participate in activities of their choosing, including building enclosures, caring for animals, designing websites, fundraising, and making pouches.

“There are many areas where we can use them,” says Ms O’Connor.

Another local girl volunteers at the wildlife rehabilitation center every Friday, helping with chores like chopping vegetables and raking the enclosures.

A man with glasses smiling as he looks at a wrapped baby wombat he is holding
Mr. McInney and Ms. O’Connor know that their wildlife protection expertise makes a difference.(ABC Northern Tasmania: Sarah Abbott)

A whole team of extra helpers will soon also be coming to the bridge on a regular basis, due to the recent engagement of a community corrections group to help out with duties outside the center once a fortnight.

Ms O’Connor and Mr McInney will also soon be contributing to lessons in Tasmanian schools, through a wildlife education program they are developing in conjunction with a children’s education service.

The program is designed, Ms O’Connor says, to teach children that animals have feelings, have social structure and are “not just things”.

Caregivers who need care

The main job right in front of Ms O’Connor and Mr McInney is to raise funds for all wildlife carers across Tasmania.

Ms. O’Connor says the state’s wildlife sector is underfunded, underfunded and understaffed.

“The number of wildlife in need compared to the number of caregivers available is quite astronomical,” she says.

“[And] caregivers across the state are about to be bombarded with lots of joeys.”

Ms O’Connor wants to see more funding, recognition and training for Tasmanian wildlife carers from the state government.

And she asks members of the public to help too, if they can.

“Take care of your local wildlife caregivers – they need it,” she says.

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