Living in Australia has given me a new perspective on many things. I love Australia. It has been a wonderful home for me over the past seven years just as it was when I also lived here as a little girl. As a wildlife advocate and environmentalist, though, Australia has become a challenging place to call home. I know that so many of us in the animal industry are embarrassed by what is going on in this country. There seems to be almost no respect for wildlife or for the environment in general. It’s tempting to blame this in on Tony Abbott (the new conservative Australian prime minister) but I know that the issue runs much deeper than politics and his rise to leadership was simply the effect of a larger issue.
Within the past week I have heard in the news about shark culls in Western Australia and of deeply unethical relocations of bat colonies (of even threatened bat species) in Queensland, New South Wales, and Canberra. I have seen photos of a kangaroo that was non-fatally shot with arrows earlier this week in Brisbane and then left to die a slow, agonizing, death (see above photo). And perhaps most troubling is the government’s newly publicized plan to dredge pathways through the Great Barrier Reef to make way for shipping vessels. It has got to the point where I have to severely limit my Facebook use because there are just so many people posting photos and posts about the damage that is being done that I sometimes become very depressed.
I first came to understand the way that Australians tend to vilianize their wildlife when I was living in Canberra. Kangaroos were treated as vermin and regularly referred to as “pests”. Their numbers had become high in some areas due to the conversion of forest to pasture and the isolation of some populations during a couple of wet seasons. The population booms were obviously by no fault of the kangaroos themselves but people treat them as though they are descended from demons or something – mostly due to the fact that when roo populations are high, vehicle collisions increase. I used to notice that when someone would tell me they had hit a roo, rarely did they show any kind of compassion for the animal and almost never did they consider ringing the wildlife authorities to let them know a collision had occurred. As a result many roos would be struck by cars but not immediately die and end up lying along the sides of roads in the upmost of agony for hours or days at a time. And of course many of the affected animals were females with joeys in which case the joeys would become orphaned and trapped in their mother’s rotting bodies. At a former job I watched as a colleague arrived late and announced he had hit a kangaroo on the way to work. He then proceeded to walk around the office, hi-fiving everyone for his tremendous effort. I was so disgusted by this that I left the building and walked around the block a few times while my boyfriend attempted to calm me down over the phone.
Right now we are experiencing very similar – and very often worse – attitudes toward bats. Australia has some of the most impressive bats on earth, flying foxes (or fruit bats) with wing spans in excess of three feet. These animals play a crucial role in the ecology of Australian forests as seed dispersers. Studies have demonstrated that most eucalypus seed is dispersed over night which means that it is not the birds, bees, or wind that is most responsible for seeding Australian forests – it’s the bats. I regularly tell this to people and remind them that if they love koalas they have to love bats too because without bats there would be no trees for the koalas to live in and eat. Despite all this, bats are completely vilianized by the Australian public and referred to as a “nuisance” for being noisy and pooping. This attitude has amplified recently because bats are now in high numbers in many suburban areas where they didn’t use to inhabit, as a result of de-forestation. When natural habitat is lost, animals tend to come into suburban areas where there is food and water available. It’s not an ideal situation but they have nowhere else to go. The UN doesn’t build refugee camps for animals.
I just heard a lady on the radio say that she is so upset by the noise and smell of the bats that have recently moved into her neighbourhood that she is seeking counseling. Give me a break. Really, people? Serioulsy? Do you really have so little to worry about in life that a colony of bats is enough to push you over the edge? I’m sorry if I’m coming across as unsympathetic but I am seriously tired of hearing about this! It is time that we start to see things from another perspective. All around the country bats are being “moved on” to other areas in unethical ways causing further hardship to the colonys and enough stress for many of the mothers to drop their babies. As someone who has worked with wildlife for a long time I can tell you there are few things more heart breaking than hearing a baby fruit bat cry out in obvious distress for its mother. It’s needless and the fact that this is becoming so regular of a practice is really pissing me off.
Part of the mayhem surrounding bats has to do with fear of lyssavirus, a rabies-like zoonotic disease that affected bats can pass onto people. I can certainly understand being concerned about this but the truth is that bats are extremely unlikely to ever bite or scratch a human and most of them are not infected with a disease anyway. Bats will also never seek out a person and attack. Dracula was a storybook character. Real bats don’t do that. And even if despite all the odds you do somehow become bitten or scratched by a bat, Lyssavirus is completely preventable with a free post-exposure vaccine that is readily available. You can also take the vaccine as a preventative treatment if you want to. This is what I do because I work with bats on a regular basis so I need a little bit of extra protection. There is also another disease, Hendra Virus, which can be transmitted to horses by affected flying foxes but this can be completely avoided with a vaccine for horses which costs less than a western saddle.
Australia has also recently started culling sharks despite major outcry from the Australian public as well as the international animal advocacy community. The culls were intended as a safety measure to remove large sharks from Australia’s coasts in the lead up to peak swimming season but at a result of the practice many small sharks and dolphins are also being killed. And let’s not ignore the fact that the whole practice is ridiculous anyway considering that more people die every year from coke machines falling on their heads than from shark attack. Maybe we should just leave all the sharks alone and get rid of the fucking coke machines!
And then there is the Great Barrier Reef. It has recently been announced that pathways through the reef will be dredged in order to make way for gas and coal shipping vessels and that the resulting dredge spoil will be dumped in another part of the reef. Industry leaders are trying to say that its ok to do this because in this part of the reef there are no actual corals but come on people, it’s gotta be obvious to more than just me that if you dump a huge shitload of crap into the water, it will be carried to other places. And just because there are no corals in that part of the reef does not make it useless. This issue is really getting to me at the moment. I mean is there nothing sacred left? The Great Barrier Reef is a world heritage area and hugely important to the Australian tourism industry. If we are allowed to carry on this way in the reef, just imagine what is going on everywhere else.
I could go on about this all day long because there are so many other issues to talk about but I won’t. Thanks for reading and I would appreciate comments on this one. I know I have a lot of readers but I never seem to have many commenters. Who else is feeling fatigued by the state of wildlife and the environment in Australia?