The winner of the 2019 Horne Prize is a quietly devastating account from the front line of the extinction crisis. By Rachael Lebeter.

The Horne Prize: Diary of a wildlife carer

October – I move into a one-room shack. In the morning, I sit on the verandah drinking coffee and watching light filter through the gum trees on the ridge. Reminded suddenly of Richard Morecroft, who read the Sydney news on the ABC with orphaned bats under his jacket, I join the local wildlife carers. I spend my time writing in the morning sun; there is room for animals.

November – My first rescue. I hold the ladder while a baby tawny frogmouth is retrieved, no parents in sight. It opens its tiny mouth, pink inside with opalesque green mottling. “Stay away, I’m dangerous!” or “Feed me!” It is light as air despite the puff of feathers.

The bird is covered in big black flat flies. They sidle sideways, like crabs, under the feathers. A few seek shelter in my hair and I spin, trying to shake them off. Flat flies are hard to catch. When you finally squish them between your nails like ticks, they pop a vibrant, poisonous green. The last one stays under my clothes for hours, undiscovered. My skin creeps.

December – A baby platypus, curled in a ball, eyes closed. It is precious and I feel lucky; most carers have never handled a platypus.

The platypus has been found on a creek bank, but nothing is ever so simple. In truth, the baby has been without its mother’s milk for three days before we are called. People want to do the right thing but there is such a wealth of misinformation online.

The baby is so depleted that it dies within hours of my touching it.

I care for a buff-banded rail chick. I spend my days writing and searching for insects. Worms, beetles, slaters and grubs. Being a mother bird is hard work.

The rail hates me – true odium. Every time I go near, it throws itself at the walls and roof of its prison. A couple of times it escapes in the house, fleeing in circles. I am afraid to hurt it, afraid it will hurt itself. I start spending less time at home: I do my work at cafes or put the bird in the shower.

When I pass the rail on for release, I am told that I did a good job, it isn’t humanised. They need to hate us, just not so much that it kills them.

January – My first release. A welcome swallow, so light that it was caught in a spider’s web over the river. The bird owes its life to passing kayakers.

I hold the swallow perched on my fingers. When I release my grip, it flutters a few metres to a nearby fence and preens, removing the last gossamer vestige of trauma. Then, it is gone, soaring in giant loops, speeding away from the river. I watch until it is out of sight.

February – A baby crow. We attempt a reunion but the parents cannot be found. I never really liked birds, but the crow has the most exquisite eyes, iridescent blue. While it sleeps, I examine tiny downy blue and black feathers on its eyelids, beautiful in their delicacy. By some wonder of evolution, it looks as though it sleeps with its eyes open, the ultimate protection.

The crow thinks I am its mother. I make the mistake of eye contact. I should have fed it while wearing a head covering. Instead, I looked at it, aiming tweezers of mince down its throat, and it looked at me.

I have to start weaning the crow off eye contact. I have been told that it is necessary. Every time I feed it or go near its cage, it caws and looks at me. It is as distressed by the loss of connection as I am.

I move the crow outside. How do I provide the training of six months with parents? I give it whole food – zucchini, eggs, chicken wings. I could teach it to open bags and lunch boxes, like crows at schools. I consider picking up roadkill but worry about imparting bad habits; I imagine the crow being hit by a car.

My crow gets what we call a soft release: it is free but fed. For a few months it returns, waiting in a tall gum and gliding down to dinner when I am safely distant. Then, one day, it is gone.

I finish my lyssavirus vaccinations so that I can handle flying foxes. The bats are smart, their eyes bright and watchful even when they have been caught on a barbed-wire fence all night. I transport one to the wildlife hospital. Even with my small experience, I can see that its eyes are glazed. When I return for my cage, I ask about the bat. “I’m sorry,” says the vet nurse. “It was dead when you got here.” I vacillate between embarrassed and horrified.

March – I release a barn owl. We try to get her to perch but it is awkward, two of us in the dark with a poorly closed cardboard box. The owl pushes out and clumsily flutters onto the road. Her eyes mirror my torchlight. No cars. A few seconds later she is gone, silent. Sometimes I see her – I think it is her – hovering above the cane fields in the late afternoon, hunting.

I catch my first bird, a corella. I see it sitting on the fence, puffed up, on my way to work. It could be normal behaviour. Three hours later, the bird is still there. Okay. To my surprise, it is an easy catch. I am unprepared; I have to hold the struggling parrot against my hip with one hand while I fight with keys, boot, cage. Coracoid fracture. The bone, essential to flight, is unlikely to heal – the bird is euthanised.

April – A cageful of possums makes my one-room house seem even smaller. Juvenile ringtails, they spend the day curled up together in their flannelette pouch. They are more rat-like than I’d expected, with brown bear fur. I name them: Flora, Blossom and Bear.

The possums are all orphans. Blossom is friendlier than the others and crawls up my arm during feedings. Initially, it takes a lot of deep breathing to let her climb – arm, shoulder, tickling the hairs on my neck. Something in me wants to fling her away. She likes to ride on my head, as if I were a mother possum.

The possums wake up about 5pm. They have possum milk, and fruit and leaves, that I forage daily. My floor is carpeted in leaves and pellets of possum poo. Sometimes I sweep, but there is no vacuuming. No music. I try not to acclimatise my house guests to human sounds and smells. I cook nothing more complicated than eggs. I eat a lot of wraps and salads.

A paralysed currawong. Birds are growing on me. I hold this one so it can eat and drink; I clean its bottom with baby wipes. We have an understanding. Every time the possums see it, they softly make their warning sound. Chuck-chuck-chuck. The currawong seems to be improving, then one day it is dead.

May – The United Nations Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services releases a global assessment which states that one million species are at risk of extinction in our lifetime. “Nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history.”

The report backs up what wildlife carers already know: last year we saw 2500 rescues in our area; each month sees more rescues than in previous years. About 50 per cent of the animals we rescue die or are euthanised.

The UN report captures news and social media attention for a few weeks. We get 20 new members at the next wildlife carers’ orientation, but after that it is business as usual. I care for my possums, grow vegetables, write, teach. When I can’t sleep, I wonder what else I can do. I worry: Are my possums normal? Do they sleep too much? Is Flora losing fur? Are they supposed to eat bark?

I am ready for the possums to go, to live without having to constantly think of my house guests. I want to vacuum. Have friends over. Cook. Listen to music.

The possums are adolescents, bold. I have to feed them in daylight or they escape, scaling the cage quickly, eyeing the top of the wardrobe. They need more space. The male, Bear, attacks me when I give them new leaves. He bites and scratches as hard as he possibly can, yet rarely breaks skin.

I lie in bed, listening to them. They don’t make a lot of noise. The chucking as a warning, purring when they are content. But all night I can hear them foraging, rustling branches, knocking their dishes over, drinking, climbing the cage, playing.

One night, I lean out to turn off the light just in time to see a tail sliding under my bed. I panic. Lights on, I corner one, two possums. Bear is under the stove near a cockroach bait. Has he eaten any dead bugs? Has he eaten the bait? For three nights, I wake up every couple of hours to monitor behaviour. Did they always pee that much? Are they drinking too much water? Every door on the cage is secured with a clothes peg. I bag up the baits and swear never to buy them again.

At the end of the month, the possums move outside. I watch them play in the twilight; they tightrope walk and hang upside down by their tails. I sleep better. Soon they will go to their release site.

I find a dead ringtail on the side of the road. It is huge, compared with my babies, and has a tiny hairless pinkie in its pouch. Eyes closed, ears unformed, the joey is too small to survive. My work colleague wants to bury them. She admires that I have picked the possum up, checked its pouch. She is horrified when I put it in a bag and into the school bin.

I often think I should put them all under my roses; but between wild dogs and foxes, nothing stays buried for long. Besides, I haven’t enough roses. It feels like defiling something sacred though, to put these animals in landfill. When I find roadkill, I leave it in a leafy roadside bower so at least it can nourish the soil or some other animal.

June – I do an Advanced First Aid course. Practising crop feeding and subcutaneous fluid injections on dead birds turns my stomach. I go home and vomit all night. I am not sure if it is the birds or something I ate.

We discuss an article on The Conversation that argues animals raised in care are not suitable for release. I read it, and I wrestle with it, but I can’t agree. Other carers share stories of animals released on their properties; the animals come back as adults, with families of their own.

July – I bring home a noisy miner with a head injury. In the morning, I know something is wrong. It is all puffed up and far too compliant when I dose it up on meloxicam. Do I take it back to the vet or give it a chance? Maybe it just needs the painkiller. Pre-coffee euthanasia seems too hasty.

All day at work I worry. I pick a few beautiful grevillea blossoms before I go home. Pinks and yellows. Food for the recovering bird.

It is not recovered.

I wrap the bird in newspaper, together with the blossoms. This one, for some reason, I bury. I wonder what time it died, whether it was suffering. I never ask anyone if I should have taken it back to the vet that morning. I know that I should have.

August – I check the call logs. The carnage horrifies me. Nine times the number of flying fox rescues compared with this time last year, most of them on barbed-wire fences. Many are called in late, too late, after they’ve been there for hours, even days… “I was waiting to see if it would fly away at night.”

A flying fox caught on a barbed-wire fence has a less than 50 per cent chance of survival. The bats are a keystone species, essential to the health of our eucalypts and rainforests. Able to carry seeds great distances, bats spread genes and maintain biodiversity.

I heard Trish Wimberley speak once in 2015, before the Australian Bat Clinic closed. She said the pollen receptors on many eucalypt species are only open between 10pm and 2am. It stayed with me, how these plants have evolved to be pollinated largely by bats.

Simply put, no flying foxes means no forests. No forests, no koalas. From an ecological perspective, koalas don’t carry the same weight as bats, but to lose the animal that is the face of the Australian environmental movement is to lose hope. The UN also puts it simply: Loss of biodiversity means the erosion of “the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life”.

One flying fox rescue is a pregnant female, caught of course on a fence. She is having a miscarriage when the rescuer gets there. She has done so much damage to her mouth, trying to chew herself free, that her teeth are halfway down her throat.

Another bat on a fence has its wings cut with scissors to free it and is put in a tree. When the bat hasn’t moved by the next day, we are called. It has extensive mouth damage and a broken bone, not to mention the wings. The bat is euthanised.

I worry that I don’t have the stomach to be a wildlife carer. I can kill, pluck and gut roosters for the freezer because I know they have had a good life and a quick death. This pointless carnage is different: the number of deaths that could have been avoided if we’d been more mindful, kept our cats in, called sooner; the pain, fear and suffering involved.

We are all responsible for bearing witness to our age. But to be a true witness today is a stretch. It is only in the vaguest statistical sense that most people even know there is a problem. You can’t see the scope of it unless you are on the ground. I have my hands in it, in the form of pulsing, squirming, living, dying wildlife.

September – It is warming up, unseasonably of course. In the smoke haze from the bushfires, the mountains are faded watercolours.

I listen to For the Wild podcasts on my way to work as a teacher – missing and murdered Indigenous women, Extinction Rebellion, Mauna a Wakea, fossil fuels. Listeners are encouraged to help by calling their representatives, donating. It is hopeful to hear the activists, to know that someone, somewhere, is doing something.

The more I learn about the state of the world – natural and human – the more I embody an angry-sad dichotomy. A student asks about my day. I tell her about the podcast, about the “insect apocalypse”, the potential losses. She replies, “Maybe you shouldn’t listen to any more podcasts, Miss.”

She is right. I feel the hopelessness in my chest all day, the same as when I handle a dying animal. But it’s like watching a horror movie; I can’t stop. This time: Tahlequah, the orca. In 2018, she completes a 1000-mile, 17-day tour of mourning, carrying her dead calf. Driving through the early morning streets of my small town, as they put the plants outside the hardware shop and stock the bakery shelves, I cry. Later, at school, I tell my student that she is right, I need to stop.

Now, I am angry. Most of us carry the world in our pocket; ignorance is wilful. I am angered by the soft-stomached inability to witness. I am angry at my own inability to watch a miscarrying bat, and at the societal inability to acknowledge the losses as statistics, let alone living, breathing animals.

I hear Jackie French speak. She is encouraging. She sees our “she’ll be right” attitude as hope for an uncertain future. We are uniquely willing to roll up our sleeves and help out in a crisis. In that moment, I feel better.

“Don’t make a fuss, don’t complain.” The Australian way. The fortitude the Anzacs were so celebrated for. Keep it light, be easygoing, cheerful. But at what cost? Our mythology cultivates silence. I don’t know where to put my difficult emotions, my difficult thoughts.

My anger returns, a productive kind. I apply for grants for the wildlife group, kill roosters and leave the heads for a crow that is no longer there, ask my neighbours to keep their cat in at night. We all do what we can. It’s all we can do.

The month rolls on, dry. From the verandah, I watch a pair of nesting rosellas. The smoke brings stunningly orange sunsets with bruised purple clouds. People call the wildlife group to donate towels and ask if they can help with the fires. Visible crises bring momentary witnesses.

Grey-headed flying foxes, a vulnerable species, are falling out of trees, dead. Plants aren’t flowering, and those that do bear little pollen or nectar. Tahlequah, the orca, likely lost her baby to starvation because of the decline of the Chinook salmon. I wonder about the flying foxes and the birds. I wonder about my baby possums, probably adults now. Someone tells me that this is just the beginning. I focus on the ash-smudged horizon, determined not to look away.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 21, 2019 as "Diary of a wildlife carer".

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