A Victorian kangaroo rescuer has opened up about becoming increasingly traumatised after 30 years of volunteering.
Car strikes, fence entanglements, dog attacks and shootings leave many roos with horrifying injuries, and these are the sad memories that haunt Manfred Zabinskas from Five Freedoms Animal Rescue.
While wildlife carers often share the joy of rescuing to social media, dealing with death is an everyday occurrence that many internalise and only speak about with other volunteers.
Despite the best efforts of first-responders to give care to sick and injured animals, not every creature can be saved.
Feelings of loss, guilt and sadness build up and this leads many to retire.
Kangaroo carers need to carry guns to end suffering
While wildlife rescuers are often able take smaller animals and birds to a vet, the most humane option for unrecoverable kangaroos is often to shoot them.
For this reason, many macropod volunteers need to carry a rifle, and this is an aspect of the work Mr Zabinskas is particularly struggling with.
The rescuer estimates he’s been called out to assist over 25,000 macropods, of which 15,000 needed to be put to sleep.
Ending the suffering of kangaroos is taking a toll on his own well-being.
At 61 years of age, Mr Zabinskas doesn’t know how many shots he has left in him.
“Back in the old days, we didn't get this many rescues,” he said.
“Often if I went out with friends and we had to put something down, we'd end in a positive way; we might grab a wine and talk about it.
“But life is so fast now, you feel like you're just going from one to another.
“There are many days I put down three kangaroos before I have my breakfast.”
How a kangaroo carer deals with death
With animal welfare central to Mr Zabinskas’s work, he will often spend hours getting close to a kangaroo to make sure that he can get the cleanest shot possible.
Having used the same guns for nearly 15 years, he is confident in his tools, but practices regularly to ensure his own skills are up to the task of making a clean headshot at 70 metres.
“I sit at rifle ranges for hours, or go into the forest and just put dozens of bullets through the gun,” he said.
“I do that regularly to site the gun and make sure everything's perfect; the scopes still in position and all the rest of it.
“I don't go home until I can hit a bull’s eye the size of a 20 cent piece at whatever distance I’m practicing for.”
Like many rescuers, Mr Zabinskas leaves the bodies of the kangaroos who don’t make it on the side of the road, spray painted with a cross to advise other rescuers that the pouch has been checked.
Animals which he has brought into care, but don’t survive, he lays to rest on his 20 acre property. Process is key for dealing with the sadness of losing individual animals.
“I don't move or touch an animal until its heart has finished beating,” he said.
“If I've had to euthanise a joey as well, I always put it back in its mother’s pouch and put them into the forest together.
“We all have our way that we need to deal with death.”
Kangaroos not understood by many in the community
Wildlife Victoria CEO Lisa Palma believes that kangaroos are subjected to a “disproportionate amount of cruelty” and volunteers who deal with the animals are hit “particularly hard”.
This month, Ms Palma, a former wildlife volunteer herself, said she would organise psychological support for a number of wildlife carers exposed to particularly gruesome rescues at a golf course in Melbourne’s east.
Because many within the community regard kangaroos as pests, she believes there is a “lack understanding and sympathy for the species” and this can compound the emotional pressure carers and rescuers feel.
She recognises that ensuring the health and welfare of volunteers is a key part of coordinating wildlife care.
Despite the ongoing sadness of the work, Mr Zabinskas will continue attending rescue call-outs for now.
While he may have euthanised close to 15,000 animals, there are many thousands of kangaroos and their offspring alive today because of his dedication to their care.
"We're not sure we can keep going and then of course the joeys roll up," he said.
"They want their bottles, you stick them in their mouths and they go into the zone and that just reminds us that we can't stop."
The author, Michael Dahlstrom, is a registered native bird rescuer in NSW.
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