Molly the magpie decision labelled a ‘kick in the face’ for wildlife carers

An announcement by Queensland's premier that Molly the magpie will be returned has split the community.

“A kick in the face” is how one wildlife advocate has described a decision to return Molly the magpie to a couple who allegedly took the bird from a park without a permit and turned it into a social media sensation.

The announcement by Queensland Premier Steven Miles, a former environment minister, has infuriated many of Australia’s wildlife volunteers, who fear it could lead to copycats thinking it’s okay to take animals from the wild, introduce them to pets, and document the interactions on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.

But despite their concerns, the premier’s decision is set to be popular with the wider public, and comes during an election year. It was made amid widespread calls on social media for the magpie to be returned to Juliette Wells and Reece Mortensen who run the Peggy and Molly social media pages which have over two million followers. Miles’ post on Facebook has received over 1300 likes and hearts, with one person calling Molly’s return “amazing news!”.

Left - Molly on Peggy's back. Right - Molly, Peggy and Ruby posing in front of sunflower wallpaper. Inset - Premier Miles' Facebook announcement
Queensland Premier Steven Miles announced on Facebook that Molly the magpie would be returned to the family that had taken it home. Source: Peggyandmolly/Facebook

Others questioned why it took the Premier so long to release the magpie back to Wells and Mortensen. “Such a cruel thing to do by the department. Some people love power and rush in,” one person wrote. “Should never have happened but I’m glad the [department] is now acting in the best interest of this bird and returning it home,” another said.

Miles made the announcement a day after Wells took to social media to claim the premier had not been “answering my emails or phone calls”. That post received over 37,000 likes on Instagram alone, with one follower calling on others to bombard the Instagram pages of Miles and Environment Minister Leanne Linard with messages.

Can Molly fly like a normal magpie?

Molly the magpie became an internet sensation after it was taken home from a Gold Coast park in September, 2020. Social media viewers delighted in images of the wild magpie posing alongside Peggy the staffy and her daughter Ruby which were dressed up in fancy-dress costumes for Christmas, Halloween and birthdays.

Left - the Peggy and Molly Halloween shoot. Right - Peggy and Ruby dressed up. Molly in the foreground.
Molly was photographed beside Peggy and Ruby who were dressed in costumes. Source: Peggyandmolly

The Molly the magpie saga erupted after Yahoo News exclusively reported the bird had been surrendered to DESI on March 1. The story captivated the nation, with some calling the separation of Peggy and Molly bureaucracy gone mad — despite DESI claiming the bird was simply surrendered because it was kept without a licence. The story made news across the United States, United Kingdom and India, and as community outrage swelled online petitions amassed over 250,000 signatures.

The conclusion to the ordeal comes two weeks after Miles said he believed a “common sense” solution should be found so the bird could be returned, but the decision was ultimately up to DESI. Those statements are understood to have frustrated some within the department, whose staff were facing public pressure over its decision to take the bird, with one staff member saying they felt like they’d been “thrown under a bus”.

On Wednesday, DESI directed questions about the return of the magpie to the premier’s office, however its understood the decision was ultimately made by the department's own Director-General who DESI said is unavailable to be interviewed. It remains unclear if under the license he has granted whether Molly will be allowed to interact with Peggy and Ruby, or appear in social media videos.

After the magpie came into care, DESI alleged Molly was unable to fly like a normal magpie or feed itself properly due to human habituation. It provided the bird with specialist veterinary attention and concluded it could never be released into the wild.

Prior to Molly’s surrender, Wells had insisted to Yahoo she had taught the bird to forage for food in the garden, and how to fly and be independent. She denied the bird was “cared” for in the way people keep pet parrots in cages.

“We thought we were doing the right thing at the time, just two animal loving humans who found a lost abandoned bird and wanted to nurture this little one and get it back into the wild,” she said.

Is it OK for dogs to play with wildlife?

Wells had denied intentionally introducing Molly to her pet staffy and she didn’t realise she needed a licence because the bird was allowed to live a “wild” existence. “Animal behaviour is a curious thing, our female staffy took on nurturer role for this magpie which started a bond naturally, we never forced this to happen, it just happened. Mother nature at work,” she claimed.

After the bird’s surrender, DESI warned Queenslanders not to let their pets associate with wild animals. “Animals in rehabilitation must not associate with domestic animals due to the potential for them to be subjected to stress and the risks of behavioural imprinting and transmission of diseases. Animals from the wild, must stay wild,” it said.

Last month, Environment Minister Leanne Linard told Yahoo she was "passionate" about the protection of native animals and that magpies are protected by law. "To keep a wild native animal, a person must have a licence. Sick or orphaned animals must be cared for by someone with a rehabilitation permit so they can be returned to the wild," she said.

DESI staff who spoke to Yahoo on the condition of anonymity after the premier advocated for Molly's return had previously indicated they could see no clear pathway to send it home to Wells and Mortensen. On Tuesday, in an official statement DESI said, “The department is continuing to explore what options are currently available to ensure the magpie receives the appropriate life-long care that it needs”.

Wildlife rescuers label premier's decision 'catastrophic'

One veteran wildlife rescuer who advocated for Molly to be seized by authorities, received thousands of abuse messages, including death and rape threats. In recent weeks Wells urged her followers not to be aggressive to those they have a difference of opinion with. Linard acknowledged Molly's case was an "emotive one" and also called for calm, saying abuse of wildlife rescuers and DESI staff was "unacceptable".

Amid heightened tension about the case, Yahoo News has decided to withhold the names of those critical of the decision to return Molly.

“Molly is a four-year-old magpie who should be mated, nesting and raising young, not living part-time in a suburban home and plastered on social media,” one high-profile rescuer told Yahoo. “The premier’s decision to obstruct wildlife legislation and reunite Molly… sets a dangerous precedent that native wildlife is for keeps,” they said.

Another rescuer noted the Peggy and Molly pages had been profitable because they resulted in a book deal and GoFundMe drive. “(The decision) is catastrophic for wildlife now, a kick in the face for all dedicated wildlife rescuers and carers,” they said.

Prior to Molly’s surrender, wildlife carers had been urging DESI to crack down on social media accounts that feature wildlife.

In a separate and unconnected case on the Gold Coast in January, a wallaby was kept by a member of the public for 48 hours and not taken to a vet. Instead it was taken into a school for “show and tell”. That animal was ultimately euthanised due to kidney failure caused by uninformed attempts to feed it.

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