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Donations to Australia’s largest wildlife rescue service surged during the Black Summer bushfires, but only a fraction has been spent since, as volunteers complain they are under-resourced and unable to save animals. By Kurt Johnson.

WIRES’ unspent bushfire donations

Kangaroos shrouded in smoke.
Kangaroos shrouded in smoke near Cooma during the Black Summer bushfires.
Credit: Saeed Khan / AFP

During the Black Summer bushfires, images of injured and charred wildlife flashed across international news. Australia’s largest animal rescue service, WIRES, raised $91 million through its bushfire appeal. In the four years since, less than a quarter of that money has been spent.

Critics complain the funds are not evenly distributed. Frontline volunteers say they are under-resourced and forced into onerous compliance procedures. In some instances, they are paying vet bills themselves. They say the systems in place limit the number of animals they can help, especially when demand spikes, as during bushfires.

The Saturday Paper spoke to more than a dozen WIRES volunteer members and former members, across five branches, in regional, metro and remote areas. Collectively, accounts describe an organisation where under-resourced volunteer members have local initiatives stifled by a head office intent on centralising control.

Many volunteer members declined to speak on the record, fearing retribution that may include legal action. Letters from various law firms representing WIRES addressed to members were sighted by The Saturday Paper. At least one letter threatened defamation action against a former volunteer. As one current member said: “I think the culture in the organisation is run by fear.”

The latest WIRES public financial statement from more than a year ago reports nearly $80 million in retained earnings. A spokesperson said, “Over $20 million of the emergency fund has been expended with the balance of funding committed and allocated to multi-year programs.”

The organisation says it has expanded its emergency response capabilities into Queensland and Tasmania, with a fleet of seven wildlife ambulances. Three more are planned for New South Wales. A Rescue 101 program has added hundreds of casual volunteers, while emergency response teams receive specialised training for bushfires and floods. There is also a new, centralised communications system to streamline coordination.

These projects have critics. Some say the new communications system strips autonomy from local networks. They say Rescue 101 volunteers are underprepared, receiving only four hours of training, while ambulances simply transport wildlife to vets, adding pressure to an under-resourced sector.

One volunteer, on condition of anonymity, says their branch must continue to fundraise to meet basic operating costs: “We have managed to fundraise but it’s exhausting, everybody is exhausted.” Volunteers must pay for training courses, uniforms and promotional material. Where reimbursements are available, for vet bills and medicines, proof and justification are onerous, sometimes leaving volunteers out of pocket. WIRES has begun providing some food but purchased meat requires an accompanying spreadsheet where volunteers weigh and record each feed for every animal, adding a bureaucratic load to rehabilitation.

Where funds have been raised by branches, plans to increase capacity are constrained by centralised control. “The money we fundraised in order to expand the branch capacity is locked away from us,” explains Simone Clarke, formerly of WIRES’ North Shore branch in Sydney, “because if it’s more than $500, we can’t use it.”

Following the Black Summer fires, Clarke tried to get approval for aviaries and a kangaroo enclosure. Clarke initiated the process in September 2021 but eventually gave up. After so long a period, the cost of materials had increased. “We had the land, the lease agreement and the money to pay for it and even the person ready to build,” she says.

Another test for Clarke’s branch came during the 2022 NSW floods, which “created a massive overload”. Clarke says the poor handling of the event by WIRES and the impact on animals led her to resign. “We didn’t have enough facilities to care for them. We were overcrowded. They didn’t want to talk to us. They didn’t want to work with us. What they wanted was for us to go away.”

Wildlife rescue and rehabilitation requires a complex matrix of specialised skills, with knowledge of biology and behaviour across species. Volunteers need experience in treating injuries and rehabilitation, together with understanding of guidelines and legislation. Experience is vital to correctly caring for wildlife.

In March, Renata Phelps, a former WIRES member, made a submission to the NSW Volunteer Wildlife Rehabilitation Sector Strategy, detailing seven issues with WIRES, including “perceived dispensability of members” and “centralisation over localisation”.

Phelps and her husband, Don Metcalfe, volunteered for the Northern Rivers branch for 11 years. In that time, she says, they cared for 400 joeys. They both left the organisation in August.

Phelps points to a critical incident plan developed by their branch to explain the effectiveness of locally organised responses – and the issue with WIRES’ centralised approach. In November 2014, Phelps’s branch cared for 400 baby flying foxes over five days during a heatwave. The branch used its own incident plan, collaborating with volunteers in Queensland and managing a room of 30 people to feed the bats. WIRES was critical of the response and asked an organisation involved to destroy copies of the incident plan.

“WIRES came down on us because they realised they weren’t controlling it,” Phelps says.

Frances Carleton, who started WildTalk during the Black Summer bushfires as a counselling service for wildlife carers, says there is a mental health problem in the sector. Carleton says WIRES members have been told not to contact her service, but of the 379 calls she took in the past financial year, 276 were from WIRES volunteers.

“You have them telling their members they can’t contact organisations like us and they do a deal with a generic service who don’t have the language that wildlife carers speak,” she says. “They’re stressing about what’s going to happen coming up. They’re all leaving because they’re all jack shit of it.”

The Black Summer fires saw a surge in new WIRES volunteers. Yet member numbers decreased in the past year, while total volunteers, which includes non-members, have remained largely static since 2021. A September member vote put numbers close to 2800, but this aggregation obscures any loss of experience.

In May, WIRES commissioned Courageous Consulting to undertake a member-wide survey. Designed to “understand general trends in the volunteer experience and to identify how things can be improved”, it was managed by a subcommittee dedicated to retention and recruitment. WIRES has declined to indicate when or if the results will be released. An Instagram post this month was headlined “Volunteers Urgently Needed: We are looking for people keen to actively rescue sick, injured and orphaned wildlife”.

NSW Greens politician and former environmental lawyer Sue Higginson is critical of WIRES and its operation. “It is a circular, opaque and closed-loop system,” she says. Higginson says she has “received numerous contacts from current and former wildlife carers that are concerned that the administration of the organisation is failing, and that the caring capacity of volunteers is being reduced”.

One WIRES member, Gary Henderson, says that earlier this month he used his own equipment to rescue 12 kangaroos affected by fires. He spent $600 of his own money and doubts it will be reimbursed. He says WIRES head office “offer nothing but a list of questions”. There were more animals that needed saving, he says, but he didn’t have the resources to do it.

After providing answers and clarification on general questions regarding projects and volunteer numbers, WIRES stated it “had no comment” on questions about “infrastructure and internal operations”.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 28, 2023 as "Exposed WIRES".

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