Tracy Burgess is fighting tears as she describes a recent experience as a wildlife rescuer during Australia’s catastrophic fire season.
A badly burned possum that she took into her home and tended to around the clock for two weeks, she explains, had been unable to overcome its injuries.
“That was probably the hardest one I’ve ever had,” she says, her voice breaking. “I cry every time I have to get an animal euthanized, and I cry on the way home from the vet. But I also think when I stop crying, when it stops bothering me, I’ll stop the work.”
Burgess, 48, possesses a balance of practicality and sentimentality. She has volunteered her entire adult life — including 25 years assisting vulnerable adults in Sydney’s outer suburbs who struggle with homelessness and substance abuse issues.
Following a move in 2016 to the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, she was looking for new place to put her energy outside of her office job and signed up for training with WIRES, Australia’s largest wildlife rescue organization. Within four years, that fateful decision had placed her at the front lines of one of the country’s most destructive forest fires on record.
A conservative estimate puts the loss of animals in this year’s unprecedented wildfire season at more than a billion, with some species being pushed to extinction through sudden population loss and destruction of habitat. In January, as the fires peaked, the government committed an initial $50 million Australian dollars ($33.5 million U.S. dollars) to wildlife protection, with Australian treasurer Josh Frydenberg calling the events an unfolding “ecological disaster.” Half of the funding, it was announced, would be immediately made available to wildlife carers, hospitals, zoos and natural resource management bodies.
A lot of the animals Burgess has found herself caring for this summer were not burn victims but creatures that had lost their homes.
“It’s awful — we didn’t actually get that many possums injured from the fire, because the fires just moved too fast,” she says. “The problem with arboreal animals is, when they’re stressed or think they’re in danger, they go further up the tree.”
As a result, possums and koalas fell victim to crown fires, which tear through the forest canopy faster than the flames advancing on the ground.
“I think I got the last possum standing from the town of Clarence,” she says, of the one she worked so hard to rehabilitate.
In fact, the possum had sat 20 yards up a burned tree for three days, presumed dead by nearby residents who were themselves overwhelmed with protecting their property. Ordinarily, Burgess takes care not to interact with her charges too much, so as not to become too attached.
“They’re wild animals and they have to go back where they came from, and I don’t want them to trust humans, because not all humans are kind,” she says.
But this unexpected survivor from Clarence was an exception. Burgess would get up at 5 a.m., clean the possum’s wounds, apply bandages on her paws, ears and nose so she wouldn’t lick off the medicine, and then hand-feed her because she couldn’t hold food. At lunchtime, Burgess would come home from her job as an executive in local government, remove the bandages to expose the wounds to air, and hand-feed her again. The morning routine would be repeated in the evening after work, and the bandages taken off again at midnight.
“I was spending way too much time with this animal and I got way too attached,” says Burgess.
At the other end of the spectrum, sometimes best practice means assessing that an animal is beyond rehabilitation and immediately ending its suffering. “A handful of us have bushfire awareness training, which allows us to go into the fire zone — not while it’s burning but straight after, before it’s reopened to the public,” she explains.
“WIRES head office will provide armed shooters, because none of us are qualified to shoot — mainly for the macropods [kangaroos and wallabies].” Sometimes the rescuers are also accompanied by a darter, to sedate an injured animal that has a chance of survival if taken into care.
The greatest risk Burgess has ever taken also came during the recent fires, when she responded to an early call-out for someone to collect an injured wombat from an active fire zone.
“There was smoke everywhere and it was quite frightening,” says Burgess of navigating the mountain passes. “If you go in the wrong direction and you’re not on the trail anymore, there can be huge cliff faces you can fall off. It was about a half-hour to get down and another half-hour to get back up, so it was quite frightening.”
As for day-to-day life, Burgess has enough to keep her busy. Currently, she has 14 possums in her home — mostly orphans — plus her four pet cats and a dog. When the fires were at their peak she had even more possums staying with her. The most vulnerable animals — infants and those with open wounds — reside in her study, while the rest are accommodated in a larger enclosure that was once her front porch.
While she mostly specializes in possums, gliders, flying foxes and microbats, Burgess is also trained to rescue and care for birds, wombats, echidnas, wallabies and kangaroos.
“The only thing I’m not qualified for is snakes,” she says. “And raptors.”
Aside from all the orphaned possums — which will live with her until they are old enough to be released by increments to the wild — Burgess has a soft spot for flying foxes, the “comedians of the Australian native world.”
“Everyone seems to hate them, but they’re a threatened species and I think they’ve just had bad PR,” she says of the megabats. “I think they’re basically meerkats upside-down. And everyone loves meerkats.”
Unlike possums, flying foxes will flee before they get caught in fires, but because they are evolved for efficiency and don’t carry extra fluid with them, they can fall victim to mass die-offs due to heat stress. “[They’re] our most prolific spreader of native seed,” says Burgess, “so I don’t know how the ecosystem will survive without them.”
Earlier this month, officials in Burgess’s home state of New South Wales announced that heavy rainfall had allowed them finally to extinguish or bring under control all of the region’s fires. While the news is welcome, active fires are not the only threat to wildlife. Without the intervention of rescuers like Burgess, animals will continue to die in the aftermath from starvation, predation by feral cats or foxes, or loss of habitat.
In addition to her hands-on rehabilitation, Burgess has put together a disaster management plan for the Blue Mountains, in anticipation of the carers themselves having to escape from fires. “Having spent the time to heal and care for these animals, we don’t want to leave them behind,” she says. “So a lot of the equipment we’ve purchased is about temporary storage; cages to put them in if we need to evacuate carers; plans on how we get carers out and other volunteers in to help them move. If you’ve got more than three animals, they’re not going to be able to put them in a car.”
In the case of Burgess’s animals, they all have numbered boxes that are easy to relocate. “My biggest fear was that I’d transport them all and then I wouldn’t know who was who at the other end and they couldn’t get back to where they came from,” she says. “So, they had call sheet numbers, I knew who they were, we were sorted, we were ready.”
At one point, the fires were just six miles from her home, before a change in wind direction gave the town a reprieve. Incorporating so many possums into your evacuation plans is a rare commitment, not to mention the rigors of taking specialist courses, maintaining skills and having regular vaccinations. But all that gets weighed against addressing an environmental crisis, and the personal pleasure of close contact with our native fauna.
When asked to share photos, she has no shortage. The heartwarming photos of her shiny-eyed clients: possums nestled in boxes, dining on native flowers, or swaddled like babies in blankets; a post-operative wombat serenely passed out in a veterinary clinic; a tightly furled echidna; a possum being retrieved from a joy ride on a commuter train; and several of her comical flying foxes.