Vickii Lett, 64, knows firsthand the effects of the Australian bushfire crisis. The devastating fires, which have been raging since September, have killed at least 27 people, damaged thousands of homes, and killed an estimated 1 billion animals, as well as destroying 30 percent of the koalas’ “key habitat” in New South Wales.
Lett currently volunteers at WIRES, a wildlife rescue organization in Australia that focuses on rescuing and caring for animals, and educating the community about living with wildlife. This December, in the midst of the fires, WIRES volunteers attended over 3,300 rescues for sick, injured, and orphaned wildlife, and its rescue line received over 20,000 calls, a 14 percent increase from last year.
“For over 30 years WIRES has been rescuing and caring for wildlife and never before has the organisation experienced emergency conditions like these,” WIRES wrote in a recent update on its website. Lett has been a volunteer since 1988, and now, as the New South Wales koala coordinator, she helps manage the koalas that come into WIRES’s care. She also worked for the New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service for more than 20 years before retiring in 2016. Below, Lett explains what it means to care for wildlife during such a chaotic time—and why we need to start tackling climate change right now.
The thing about being a WIRES rescuer and carer is that you can’t predict your day. Our core business is to rescue and rehabilitate orphaned and injured animals, and normally, a day starts with looking after whatever animals we have. Mostly members of the public will call the animals in through our hotline, and then we have volunteers who go out and rescue them.
At the moment, we have two wallabies whose feet have been burned from the fires, and we’re also caring for kangaroos, a powerful owl, a flying fox, and an osprey. We just released a koala who had chlamydia, a terrible disease they get.
Where I’m located, in the last few months we’ve cared for about 20 animals that were hurt by the fires. Of those animals, we have three surviving. It’s not just the burns on their bodies; their lungs are affected, too.
I started volunteering back in 1988. I felt like I needed to learn more about Australian wildlife and the environments they live in. I saw an ad in the paper—WIRES was quite young then—and I joined and did some training courses. I’ve been doing it ever since.
Since the fires started, we’ve been working pretty much all day, until quite late at night. It’s all about general care, organizing volunteers, and talking to other people about what’s happening, including vets about how they can help and how we can help them. There have been lots of calls from people wanting to know what they can do.
For me, the most frightening thing—apart from the scale of death and destruction—is the planning. How can we adequately respond to what has gone on and treat animals humanely? How do we respond to the threat of climate change and get our government to take it seriously? Beyond the general caring and trying to figure out how to rescue animals, it’s about what can we do to protect them in the future. And that’s a whole of community response, not just wildlife carers.
Koalas are just one example. They’re on the edge. Their leaf quality is poor because we haven’t had enough rain. We’re knocking down their habitat. They’re suffering from disease and being hit by cars and attacked by dogs because they have to come to the ground so much.
The fires are really polarizing for people. All the footage and when you drive through the burnt areas, it’s quite soul-destroying. But the other thing is the drought is so serious that animals are starving. Native animals are starving. If I were talking to a doctor, and he asked me if I had something that was chronic or acute, I would say the fires are acute. That’s what’s happening, that’s what’s attracting attention. What’s chronic is the climatic changes and what that’s doing to our landscape and, by default, what it’s doing to the bushland and the animals that live in it. We’re looking at some really frightening times, and I really feel empathy for those people who are young, who have to deal with our poor decisions.
We need to go beyond what’s happening now. People can give money, and they can send things. They can send thoughts, which is really nice. But if we don’t turn around the governments on this planet who are irresponsible, then it’ll sort of be for nothing. This will be a Band-Aid, and long-term, those animals will not be able to cope with these extreme changes.
I’m angry quite often. It’s stressful to watch what’s happening to our landscape and feel powerless to really do anything meaningful to change it. We have to stop and regroup and think on a global level about what we need to do. These animals, they’re innocent. Our young people are innocent. If we don’t react, we will all be very, very negatively affected.