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Australian Wildfires - Hope, Help and Sustainability

Friday, February 14, 2020  
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A Letter from Dr. Todd Driggers


In 2018, I spoke at the AAVAC (AAV Australasian Committee) and UPAV conferences in Adelaide, Australia. During the visit, I enjoyed the company and collegiate nature of our Aussie colleagues. In December 2019, through world news sources reporting on the Australia wildfires, I became aware of how significant the crisis was and felt despair for both the wildlife and my colleagues.

 

By the new year, January 2020, I was challenged by a friend to do something more. I started with a Facebook Fundraiser called: “For My Aussie Colleagues and Carers”. My intention was to raise two-thousand dollars and send it to a colleague in South Australia who was volunteering at a wildlife rescue. In just twelve hours the two-thousand dollars had been donated so I raised the goal a thousand dollars, and it kept climbing from there. My Aussie colleagues invited me over to lend a hand and instructed me on how to obtain a temporary license and register with Vets Beyond Borders. The despair had an action plan.

 

The local news media were referred to my page by a client. After a couple of segments had aired, the fund began to grow by donations and shares. I elected to accept that invitation to help in person, obtained a license, and collected items from all over the US that would help the injured wildlife. Some of the amazing items that we were able to bring with us from all of our supporters across the country were handmade marsupial pouches, bat wraps, VSP surgical drapes, lots of Coban from blood banks, eye drops, and burn creams. Sentier even sent us with two brand new ECG pulse oximeter monitors.

 

With a small self-paying team of technicians, a medical student, and a talented photographer, we joined a Canadian Aussie veterinarian, Kathryn Loughlin, who co-lead this adventure as we laid a ground plan for the best way to add value to the tragedy. Our goals were two-fold. Goal one was to identify caregivers in need of immediate medical and financial assistance for food, gas, and supplies to be able to continue ground searches for live but compromised wildlife. Goal two was to connect those caregivers with local veterinarians by providing the needed funding, and working alongside both to create sustainable working relationships and wildlife funding for the veterinarians. By the first week of February we had collected over $73,000 and we are currently dispersing those funds to those whom we have identified as carrying out the mission of this fundraiser.

 

The assembled team spent the last two weeks of January volunteering, observing, and encouraging our colleagues and caregivers in New South Wales, South Australia, and the Australian Capital Territory. Sometimes the encouragement was providing dinner for a tired band of caregivers and vets. Other times we lent a hand medically, surgically, or cleaning up after the patients. Documenting the struggles of the disaster in both the short and long term by listening, assessing, and asking questions was a necessary part of understanding funding directives. We encouraged the caregivers to start social media and sustainable fundraising endeavors to help DVM's to have a more active role in wildlife medicine for the long-term. This education about sustainable fundraising is fundamental because veterinarians both here and there never recoup the cost of their time and rarely defray the expenses they incur on non-owned but biologically and intrinsically important beings. Fitting wildlife medicine into private practice when you are struggling to see the paying clients and patients can be taxing on veterinarians over time.

 

Vets Beyond Borders (An Australian-based, not-for-profit, incorporated organization that responds to such disasters) is making some excellent response plans now amid the changing fire crisis and also in the future for education and preparation. Along with the Australian government's deployment of the military and firefighters, VBB has been instrumental at funding regional wildlife caring stations and staffing it with veterinarians. Fires are still burning in the first week of February. With population density studies, it has been projected that over one billion deaths have occurred nationwide. Koalas are particularly sensitive due to the destruction of local eucalyptus trees they select from and recognize as edible. Movement out of their home ranges and separating them from this recognizable food source often compromises their health. With many habitats destroyed, short term funding is necessary to locally house and resource native eucalyptus for them if we are to save them. Sending supplies such as bandaging materials make us feel good. However, they are inundated with bandages and short on housing with staffing solutions.

 

Renal failure and starvation are not uncommon in Koalas along the fire lines if they are lucky enough to escape the burn. Animals that can move away from the fire or tunnel underground can attempt to avoid some, but not the extraordinarily rapid and hot flames. Because the fire is creating its own weather pattern, the hotter drier fires move forward and don't regress into their burned ashes, which is what is so particularly devastating. Birds that try to escape and fly over the top of the flames and smoke are met with extreme heat and respiratory distress. They literally fall from the skies onto the fire line. The survivors of the fires then put more pressure on the natural habitats' limited resources. Competition causes dispersion resulting in increased wildlife to human contact. Cases of wildlife being hit by cars or bitten by domesticated animals such as dogs and cats are occurring at alarmingly increased rates across the species spectrum. When the entire food chain is disrupted, everything suffers.

 

Conservation efforts should incorporate the short term relief and the long term infrastructure to be effective. Bats may be one of the most significant solutions as fruit bats can pollinate and spread seeds. Intentional funding for the long term conservation projects is directed to help with these niche functioning beautiful mammals. Critical niches burned for particular species have been destroyed. Those niche-specific birds, such as the Black Glossy Cockatoo, are particularly vulnerable and require assistance.  Direct money to conservation organizations have been awarded to these specific cockatoos and fruit bats. 

 

Lastly, the remaining funds will be utilized to give awards for the next several years to veterinary practitioners in the AAVAC and UPAV who demonstrate a passion for wildlife care. Both a title and a monetary value will be awarded. These types of awards will encourage practice owners to allow wildlife to be given proper medical attention when it is requested.  

 

Big credits go out to my team that volunteered and to the Australian people that are still making things happen (firefighters, army, vets, caregivers, and govt. officials). I want to thank each and every one of them for their attention, concern, and finances that they gave, and the trust that they demonstrated in my stewardship. It has been a learning process and a great honor. I feel we have achieved our objectives and continue to mold our perspectives of our experience and the event. And of course, none of this would have been possible without the support of my generous clients, the avian and exotic animal community, and the hard-working, compassionate Americans, Canadians, and Aussies who wanted to help heal themselves, heal the animals, and do a common good for humanity.

 

Donations may be made to the Facebook Fundraiser through this link: For my Aussie Colleagues and Wildlife Carers. Donations to the fundraiser will be applied 100% to the care of wildlife for both medical services and services provided by the caregivers incurred by finding, feeding, and rehabilitating native wildlife". Also, donations may be made through the Arizona Veterinary Medical Foundation (AzVMF). Indicate in the “Donor Comments” section to apply the donation for the “Wildlife Relief Fund”. All proceeds to the AzVMF for the Australian wildlife relief fund will go directly toward veterinary care and no administrative expenses will be taken from donations.

 

Thanks,

Todd Driggers, DVM
Avian and Exotic Animal Clinic of Arizona