Over the 2019/2020 New Year, Mallacoota, a small town six hours east of Melbourne, was under siege from fire along with other towns in the East Gippsland area. The Vets For Compassion team together with Animals Australia were first responders as the fires ripped through the area, leaving tragedy in their wake.

Dr Carly Cheung, who has family in Mallacoota, called Dr Elaine in distress. Her extended family were all in the thick of the fires and her cousin Jack Bruce was among locals frantically trying to rescue the stricken koalas. Dr Elaine contacted Lyn White from Animals Australia and within 24 hours Dr Elaine and Dr Chris were flown into Mallacoota.

What awaited them were hundreds of injured animals including kangaroos, wallabies, koalas and other wildlife. They met with the Bruce family and quickly recruited experienced locals to form a rescue team, equipping them with fire boots, hard hats and tree climbing gear. The locals were key to the success of the mission as they could guide the team to the stricken animals. Thanks to local rescuer Jack Bruce ,arborist and tree climber Sandy Duthie, rescuers Maryann Buchanan, Alyx Burges and others, over 66 koalas were plucked from trees or from the ground and taken to the triage centre managed by Zoos Victoria teams who expertly treated the koalas.

After a week they were joined by Dr Adam Williams of Wangaratta Veterinary Clinic and Dr Andrew Padula of Bairnsdale. Together they managed to capture over 200 macropods. Sadly, most had to be euthanised. We were grateful to Canva and their pilot Marc Van Hoof who donated a helicopter flight over the entire Gippsland area to see where food drops for the wildlife (thanks to supplies flown in by Animals Australia) should go.

The response included more than just capture and triage, treatment at triage centre and food drops. We also distributed feeding guide leaflets around the town with help from the workers in the local pub and property owners.

A year after the disaster struck Dr Chris and Dr Elaine revisited the site to gauge the wildlife and habitat restoration. Unfortunately, Victoria’s five-day snap lockdown cut the visit short but they managed to squeeze in a catch up with local Sandy and visited the Mallacoota golf course where many of the animals took refuge as the tragedy unfolded.

As first responders for the animals at the time and having to euthanise so many severely burnt kangaroos and wallabies, the visit a year later was cathartic and relieving to witness healthy roos back to snacking on lush grass on the golf course and being told of the birth of many new joeys. The population around Mallacoota is still recovering from being significantly reduced which indicates just how devastating the fires were to the inhabiting wildlife.