'War for public opinion': Vet furious as government announces duck hunt amid wildlife crisis

WARNING – DISTURBING CONTENT: A Victorian vet has slammed a government decision to approve duck hunting season this year after bushfires decimated Australia’s native birds and animals. 

Speaking from the fire zone, where she has been volunteering her services to assist wildlife, Dr Natasha Bassett said the decision had left her “deeply disappointed” with the government.

Delays in the announcement this year had left Dr Bassett hopeful the annual hunt would be cancelled, but instead the Game Management Authority (GMA) announced on Thursday there would be a short five-week season and a daily bag limit.

Wildlife carers are becoming increasingly vocal about the need for increased animal protections as the shooting of birds, kangaroos and other native species continues despite predictions more than a billion animals died in the bushfires. 

Dr Natasha Bassett who has been treating bushfire affected animals was left angered by a government decision to allow duck hunting season. Source: Supplied

“I’ve lost all respect for a government that has failed to use their current strength to move forward on protecting our wildlife especially after drought and mega fires,” Dr Bassett told Yahoo News Australia. 

“(Victorian Premier) Dan Andrews made much of the fact that he is introducing a progressive new coloured bin system to all Victorian households. 

“I really want to ask him face to face which colour bin we are supposed to be putting the bodies of our waterbirds in?”

Dr Bassett treats a grey teal duck which was riddled in shot and left to die. Source: Supplied

‘When the opening shots come I always cry’

Each duck season, Dr Bassett volunteers her services alongside her colleague, Dr Belinda Oppenheimer, in a triage tent where they treat water birds that have been shot, but not retrieved by hunters. 

“It is very confronting work and when we go up there, when the opening shots come I always cry,” Dr Bassett said.

“It’s a shock – you’re in this really beautiful wetland in the early morning and the ducks are peacefully doing their thing and then there’s just this crack of shots ringing out.

“Rescuers are obviously watching the sky, waiting for injured birds to fall and flap around the water but I can never watch that.

“I always go back inside the tent because it just makes me feel sick.”

Vets treat injured ducks inside a triage tent in 2018. Source: Supplied

Dr Bassett describes the birds coming into care as being terrified, wet and freezing, so she covers their faces with a soft cloth to calm them.

The vets sedate all birds and place them on a hot water bottle and then give them a medical inspection.

Those that are too injured to treat are euthanised. 

It is not just ducks that require the team’s attention, they frequently see birds that are not game species like endangered freckled ducks, swans, coots and grebes that are riddled with shot.

“They’re usually hit with this spray of tiny (shotgun) pellets,” she said.

“You might see something that looks promising, but if you part the feathers and look at the skin there’s usually evidence of shot penetrating the thorax or the abdomen.

“If there is a bird that we think has some potential to make it through we do everything we can, especially with highly threatened species.”

A pink-eared duck, grey teal, wood duck killed by hunters during duck season. Source: Supplied

Birds that have some prospect of rehabilitation are sent to local vets or the clinic at Melbourne Zoo. 

The vets often don’t have the resources to continue through the week after the opening weekend and they cannot attend all areas that hunters shoot in. 

This year’s season is due to commence on May 2 and will run through to June 8 and despite the trauma she experiences attending, Dr Bassett plans to return to treat injured birds and and document the deaths. 

“It’s really a war for public opinion and trying to educate the public about what happens,” she said.

“Before I started doing this I actually had no idea about what happens on the wetlands - I was spectacularly uninformed about duck hunting.

“Once people realise then the average Victorian isn’t going to support it.”

Ducks impacted by ongoing dry conditions

A spokesperson for GMA issued a statement to Yahoo News Australia, acknowledging dry conditions had impacted duck numbers.

Drought and bushfires have severely affected wildlife numbers of wildlife across. Source: Michael Dahlstrom / Yahoo News Australia
Smoke billows from a fire burning at East Gippsland, Victoria. AAP Image/DALE APPLETON for DELWP Gippsland

“The arrangements for the 2020 duck season are based on analysis of habitat and waterbird surveys conducted across eastern Australia and other data relating to game duck abundance, habitat distribution and climate,” the statement read.

“The Eastern Australian Waterbird Survey (EAWS) collects data on waterbird numbers and the extent and distribution of habitat.

“The Game Management Authority uses this survey to help form advice on sustainable duck season arrangements in Victoria.

“Prolonged dry conditions that have led to low duck numbers and reduced habitat necessitates a heavily modified season, including reducing the length of the season and reducing the bag limit.

“The bushfires have had a minimal direct impact on current duck populations and habitat.”

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