Wildlife Rescue

Word by Clare Nolan

Photo by Ross Spirou

Narelle Thompson is a local wildlife rescuer, based in Eltham. She is part of a network of wildlife volunteers who dedicate their lives responding to Indigenous animal rescue callouts 365 days of the year. When I meet with Narelle at Eltham library to interview her for Copperline news, her phone buzzes every couple of minutes. Curiously, I ask if they are text messages from a friend, but she tells me they are all rescue jobs. So, with that in mind, I thought I had better not dilly-dally with my questions. I start by asking her what skills does a person need to be an animal rescuer?

“Anyone can help injured animals, however, to actually receive and respond to calls from organisations like Wildlife Rescuers or Wildlife VIC, you need to be registered and complete their training sessions. It also helps to have physical strength, particularly when you are dealing with larger animals. Earlier today I posted about a rescue on my Facebook page where it took seven of us to carry a roo that had been sedated,” she says. 

As a wildlife rescuer no two days are the same for Narelle. If the rescue is for a displaced kangaroo who has been spotted on a busy road, she will always call the police and ask them to come down and conduct traffic control. The priority in that situation is to avoid the animal causing a car accident or getting injured themselves. Another callout might occur when someone has hit a kangaroo with their car. In that situation, Narelle is conscious of looking after both the animal and the human. “It’s upsetting to see an animal with a broken leg, so with the driver, I’ll pay attention to them and reassure them it’s not actually their fault,” she tells me, revealing another side to the job. 

Narelle works closely with the founders of Vets For Compassion, Dr. Elaine Ong and Dr. Chris Barton. The role they play in Narelle’s rescue work makes a huge difference. “They will drop anything to help us – they’re incredible,” she says. Often, they will be required to tranquilise and treat an animal at the side of the road, assessing them for injuries, before determining whether it can survive or not. 

Broken legs are the most common injury when kangaroos are hit by cars, and sadly, the majority of these animals have to be euthanised. This is because a broken leg will take up to eight weeks to heal. It is very difficult to contain an adult roo for that long without there being consequences. For example, regular check ups can be extremely stressful for a wild animal. However, if the kangaroo has treatable injuries, it might get a second chance. If it can be saved, the vets will administer antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, and multivitamins to help it with its recovery. 

Narelle tells me a kangaroo who has been sedated might take two or three hours to wake up, which means she must sit with him until it’s eating again, standing up and is capable of hopping away. Even if this is at one or two o’clock in the morning, Narelle cannot leave until the animal is strong enough to return to its mob. 

Narelle has an extraordinary insight into kangaroo behaviour. In her early years, she would spend hours on end sitting in the bush watching how they interact with each other, learning the language, and learning the different noises they make. This knowledge has proven incredibly useful in rescues. She says, “A joey will make a clucking noise to its mum.” So, if a mother kangaroo has been found deceased and she needs to take the joey into care, Narelle will make the clucking noise and instantly it’s a calming and familiar sound to the little animal. But it’s the same with the big males. “When they have injuries and know they’re not going to survive, they will revert back to clucking to their mums,” she says.

Whilst Narelle has been doing this work for nearly three decades, and considers it her passion, understandably there are days where she feels heartbroken and deflated from what she’s seen. “I try to be professional on site, but I’ll cry on the way home. Sometimes I feel that they’ve had to go through so much pain and agony,” she confesses.

If you’ve ever wondered why a deceased animal on the side of the road has been spray painted, it’s a signal to other animal rescuers to let them know that the animal is deceased and it has been checked for babies. Most rescuers will paint a cross on the animal but Narelle prefers to spray all parts of the animal to stop people from taking souvenirs. “Unfortunately,” she says, “that does happen.” 

When she’s not responding to the call outs from her phone, Narelle likes to spend time with family – her two adult daughters, and her elderly mum. However, she admits she doesn’t allow herself much time for a social life. “I don’t drink and I don’t go out much. All of my money goes to rescuing. But it’s something that I’ve chosen to do,” Narelle explains. 

The financial aspect of rescuing and caring for our Indigenous wildlife puts a great strain on rescue volunteers as they are not paid for the work they do. Occasionally Narelle will receive a donation on her Facebook page, which she is always grateful for as it helps to pay for things like feeding formula, medical supplies, and fuel to get to rescues. And whilst she doesn’t feel comfortable asking for donations, anyone is welcome to visit her Facebook page to find out more about the work that she does – and if they wish, they can contribute. 

As residents of Eltham and the surrounding suburbs, we are fortunate to share our home with unique Australian wildlife such as kangaroos, possums, birds, wombats, echidnas, and sugar gliders, so it is incumbent on us to help where we can. If you see an injured animal, please call Wildlife Victoria on (03) 8400 7300. It is a free service and volunteers like Narelle, and her colleague Kim, are available seven days a week. 

As we come to the end of the interview, I ask Narelle what she loves about living in Eltham. She says, “It’s just so beautiful. You don’t have to walk far and you’re at the river or the bush surrounded by trees and amazing animals. I am blessed to live here.” And with that, I thank Narelle for sharing her stories with me. But before we say goodbye, I ask her a rhetorical question, “Will you be heading home now or going out to a rescue?” She checks her phone, and tells me, it looks like it’s going to be a long night. 

If you would like to read more about Narelle’s animal rescues, she regularly updates her Facebook page, Walk On The Wildside VIC

The websites mentioned in this article are: