'Go back home': NZ vet turned away from helping fire-affected Aussie wildlife

A New Zealand vet who flew to Australia to help treat wildlife says she has gone home disappointed that authorities prevented her from entering fire-affected areas.

Veterinarian Dr Rebecca Penman is just one of a growing list of wildlife carers who have expressed frustration, alleging that the Victorian department of environment (DELWP) has blocked their access to burnt out forests.

While DELWP has sent its own teams into the forests, with 1.5 million hectares scorched and countless animals likely dying of burns and starvation, wildlife professionals are questioning why they are not being allowed to assist in what they believe should be a massive medical operation.

“They’re saying we don’t need any volunteers, we don’t need anyone helping,” Dr Penman told Yahoo News Australia.

“But there’s plenty of wildlife out there, the government is just pushing back.”

Split screen. Left - a red circle highlights a wombat on the ground which Dr Penman is reaching down to assist. Right Dr Penman and another woman assess the wombat as it lies on a blanket.
New Zealand vet Dr Rebecca Penman assesses a wombat that was found to have been affected by bushfires. Source: Supplied

Dr Penman joined a Wildlife Victoria animal rescue team led by experienced darter Ian Slattery and travelled through fire affected East Gippsland from Orbost to Buchan.

“We heard that the government were doing food drops over Buchan, so we figured there must be animals being sighted,” Mr Slattery said.

“We obtained the required permit to get access to Buchan Road, off the Princes Highway, so we got through the police road block.

“But when we got down to Buchan we were told that we basically had to turn around and go back home.”

Shot through the windscreen, a road runs through a burnt out forest in East Gippsland
Ian Slattery and his team drove through burnt out forests to get to Buchan but allege they were then turned away. Source: Supplied

Dr Penman and Mr Slattery allege they were told by an official based at the CFA control centre that the order to leave was coming from DELWP.

The team were led to believe that the nearest triage centre manned by a vet was 60km away in Bairnsdale, but despite having medical supplies they were instructed to go.

“They had heard that we were coming - they actually said that, ‘we heard you were coming but you’re to go back’”, Mr Slattery alleges.

“I had the whole team there, two experienced rescuers, a vet, a vet nurse, medical supplies, everything and we were turned away.

“The reasons given were that there are safety issues, there are other teams there, they basically hadn’t planned for us to be around.

“I made it clear to them that we had a vet with us, but none of that made any difference, we were just told to go back.”

Survivors rescued in NSW and South Australia

Sources told Yahoo News Australia that ongoing tension between animal welfare groups and the department led to a meeting last Wednesday that included veterinarians along with representatives of Animals Australia and Wildlife Victoria.

Those privy to the details of the meeting have privately expressed frustration, saying that DELWP has not offered them a timeline as to when access to state parks and national parks will be granted.

A joey in NSW is treated. It is in a blanket with animals on it. Two hands hold up its burnt paw.
A kangaroo is treated by an American volunteer vet in NSW. Source: Michael Dahlstrom / Yahoo News

They note that wildlife rescue teams have been allowed into many fire affected areas in NSW and South Australia, and a number of survivors have been rescued and treated.

During the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires, which had similar fire conditions to the current season, Victorian carers were allowed onto state government controlled land and they recovered and treated numerous animals.

With access restricted this fire season, carers say the majority of animals brought into care are coming from private property.

‘Government’s own plan hasn’t been implemented’

Wildlife Victoria CEO Megan Davidson said wildlife professionals are not getting permission to help animals on government land unless they are part of the official response which includes members of a DELWP approved incident control team or the defence force.

“Our team was turned back from Buchan when they attempted to go through up there,” she told Yahoo News Australia.

“I guess I was disappointed because we know there was a wildlife assessment team in that area and we know they didn’t have a vet with them.

Ms Davidson said she finds it “distressing” that registered carers and vets are not getting the access they would like.

“Certainly we believe that the government’s own plan hasn’t been implemented,” she said.

“There was a plan that was developed and published a couple of years ago, it’s called the Victorian response plan for wildlife impacted by fire.

“Certainly in that plan it has a structure that allows volunteer vet nurses, and vets and wildlife carers to be part of the response team, but basically no vets and no carers have been part of the response teams.”

A red circle highlights a joey up a tree in East Gippsland.
Ian Slattery and his team spotted this goanna as well as two healthy wallabies and a raven as they drove to Buchan. Source: Supplied

Ms Davidson said she would like to see vets and darters attached to wildlife assessment teams as a matter of urgency and systematic searches of the fire grounds.

“The losses (to wildlife) are just so enormous,” she said.

“I think people are struggling to get their head around just how much habitat has been lost and how many animals have been lost.

“It would be prudent of the government to cease issuing any permits to kill wildlife and certainly any things like duck season should be off the table.

“We’ve lost so much - at the moment we have to take the precautionary approach and say every living animal counts and we need to stop killing wildlife.”

‘Disappointed’: Vet flying back to New Zealand

Dr Penman flew back to New Zealand on Sunday morning, disappointed that she couldn’t help more wildlife, but she does not regret her time in Australia.

Before returning home, she volunteered at a wildlife sanctuary that had taken in animals found on private land.

Close up of Dr Penman wearing a hat and a blue T-shirt with a koala which is in a box and looks unwell.
New Zealand vet Dr Rebecca Penman was able to volunteer her skills at a sanctuary. Source: Supplied

“I am leaving disappointed in many ways, but I am glad I came because I helped,” she said.

“I brought over a whole bunch of supplies which got given to people on the ground who actually needed them, rather than them going to big organisations.

“I learnt a lot and to be honest I’ll probably be back because there’s just a need for people to be out here and be on the ground helping.”

DELWP did not respond to specific questions about access to fire affected areas but a spokesperson issued a written statement.

“The Victorian Government is taking immediate action to protect and conserve our precious wildlife and plants that have been affected by the bushfires,” the statement read.

“The government is working with a range of agencies and wildlife experts to deliver the best outcomes.

“We are providing $17.5 million to fund on-ground actions for bushfire affected flora and fauna.”

Following publication of this article a spokesperson responded with further information.

“State Forests and National Parks remain closed during and after a fire for safety reasons,” it read.

“Roads and tracks into the area remain closed following a bushfire until they are re-assessed as being safe to re-open.

“DELWP has trained wildlife assessment teams that can be deployed on the fire ground to lead accredited volunteers to help with the assessment of wildlife when it is deemed safe to do so.”

The author, Michael Dahlstrom, is a registered wildlife carer in NSW.

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