2.1. Emergency Governance
The Victorian Department of Environment, Land, Water, and Planning (DELWP) has responsibility for the state’s wildlife and leads the official response to the wildlife health and welfare impacts of environmental emergencies, including bushfires. However, the sheer scale of the fires of 2019–2020 required a response that was larger and broader than ever before. Consequently, the role of Zoos Victoria in the state-led response was also substantially greater than in previous emergencies.
In early January 2020, DELWP invited collaboration from Victoria’s environment sector to respond to the growing bushfires. Zoos Victoria was asked to lead programs extracting threatened terrestrial animal species identified as at risk and to participate in a forum to develop a comprehensive Bushfire Biodiversity Response and Recovery Plan (BBRRP) [15
]. This forum saw participants from conservation NGOs; specialists from universities and research centres; and state agencies such as Zoos Victoria, the Royal Botanic Gardens (RBG; Melbourne and Sydney, Australia), and Taronga Conservation Society (Taronga CS) develop a plan and present it to the State’s Environment Minister on the day. The Minister responded by committing over AUD17 million as a down payment to allow the plan’s immediate implementation. This was an unprecedented financial commitment to wildlife and the environment affected by bushfires in Victoria. A second forum in late February 2020 consolidated the BBRRP. Zoos Victoria’s role was to co-lead and act in three of the seven themes in the plan (see Appendix A
). Additionally, a Zoos Victoria Director was embedded in the Victorian State Control Centre (SCC; the emergency response-coordinating entity) to assist and advise in the high-level coordination of wildlife protection and welfare within these themes (see Figure 1
for a simplified flow chart of the wildlife elements of the state-led emergency response).
A series of national initiatives were instigated as the scale of the bushfire emergency became apparent. The Australian Threatened Species Commissioner, at the request of the Australian Minister for the Environment, formed a Wildlife and Threatened Species Bushfire Recovery Expert Panel to help ensure a national coordinated response to the growing threat to Australia’s biodiversity. Zoos Victoria’s Chief Executive Officer contributed expertise in ex situ conservation in recognition of the increasingly significant role zoos are playing in the care, protection, and conservation of rare and endangered species. This group identified 119 species, whose vulnerability was exacerbated by the fires, as requiring attention. Following the fires, this helped direct Australian Commonwealth government funding to areas and species of greatest need. The Australasian Zoo and Aquarium Association (ZAA) conducted a prioritisation workshop for species that would benefit from ex situ conservation, and funding was provided to zoos and sanctuaries around Australia to support the ex situ conservation of 12 threatened species.
In NSW and South Australia (SA), zoo-based conservation organisations, Taronga CS and Zoos South Australia (Zoos SA), assisted the wildlife response in their respective states. Weekly briefings were convened across Taronga CS, Zoos SA, and Zoos Victoria during the height of the fires to provide support to one another and facilitate consistency of messaging around the capability of Australia’s zoos in responding to the bushfire emergency.
Following the fires, the DELWP convened two further forums: one for wildlife welfare and a second for broader environmental recovery. Zoos Victoria is involved in, or in the case of amphibians, leading the DELWP specialist taxon group assessments to investigate the status of species and recovery actions needed to promote future resilience. A multi-state New Holland mouse (Pseudomys novaehollandiae) two-day workshop was held by Zoos Victoria (facilitated remotely due to a COVID-19 lockdown in Victoria) in February 2021, with plans for a smoky mouse (P. fumeus) workshop at Melbourne Zoo under development. Zoos Victoria’s contribution within the seven DELWP-led bushfire themes are as follows below.
2.2. Theme 2—Wildlife Welfare
During the Black Summer, immediate emergency response was required in the veterinary assessment and care of native wildlife impacted by the fires. Under the guidance of DELWP procedures and policies, wildlife in areas directly affected by, or close to, bushfires were initially assessed in the field by trained assessment teams. Animals were euthanased immediately on humane grounds if this was warranted due to the severity of their injuries; left in place if the habitat was considered safe with adequate carrying capacity; translocated by DELWP wildlife officers to nearby unburnt habitat (following processes prescribed in Victoria’s Koala Management Strategy [16
]); or transferred to triage units for further assessment by wildlife veterinary teams. Zoos Victoria’s veterinary teams, in collaboration with other veterinary partners including the Australian Veterinary Association (AVA), worked alongside DELWP to establish four emergency triage units under the management of the regional Incident Management Team (IMT), which sits under the SCC (Figure 1
). In Victoria, triage units were established at a local community hall in Mallacoota (Mud Hut Pavilion), a church hall in Corryong, and as part of a formal partnership with the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) Victoria, in a purpose-built mobile veterinary truck, the RSPCA MAC (Mobile Animal Care Unit) at Bairnsdale and Gelantipy [17
]. Of close to 3000 animals assessed in the field, 259 were sent to wildlife triage units for full assessment under anaesthesia by wildlife veterinary teams (unpublished data, Zoos Victoria and DELWP). The bushfires were so intense and widespread that billions of animals perished in the flames, leaving a relatively small number of survivors encountered.
A DELWP Wildlife Triage Coordinator oversaw the operations of the triage units and DELWP Triage Team Leaders oversaw daily management and logistics support of the triage unit. Wildlife-experienced veterinarians and veterinary nurses from Zoos Victoria, Ballarat Wildlife Park, and Taronga CS provided the mainstay of veterinary expertise, with husbandry support by experienced zookeepers on site. The AVA, RSPCA Victoria, the University of Melbourne, Vets for Compassion, and other independent, experienced veterinarians also formed part of the coordinated response. Zoos Victoria developed and collated 10 triage unit response kits with support from the AVA at the request of DELWP. Each kit contained all necessary equipment, consumables, and drugs to establish a triage unit ‘field clinic’ for rapid deployment to treat injured and fire-affected native wildlife. Each kit contained examination tables, temporary animal enclosures, anaesthetic equipment, veterinary consumables necessary for managing burns, drugs, intravenous fluid therapy supplies, supplementary feeding equipment, and stationery supplies to ensure teams were well prepared. Kits were packed into tough tubs for transport, with each containing instructions for triage staff in set up and in-triage operations, ensuring streamlined systems for uninterrupted operations during the response. The development of the triage kits has provided an invaluable resource and ensures preparedness to respond at short notice to events where wildlife has been impacted.
While most of the animals presenting to triage units were koalas (75%, unpublished data, Zoos Victoria and DELWP), a variety of species were seen, including the tiny feathertail glider (Acrobates pygmaeus
) (1.9%, unpublished data, Zoos Victoria and DELWP), grey-headed flying fox (2.7%, unpublished data, Zoos Victoria and DELWP), and eastern grey kangaroo (5%, unpublished data, Zoos Victoria and DELWP), with the remaining 15.4% made up of 34 species, including the superb lyrebird (Menura novaehollandiae
), tawny frogmouth (Podargus strigoides
), lace monitor (Varanus varius
), and a red-bellied black snake (Pseudechis porphyriacus
). The prognosis for successful treatment and rehabilitation was carefully assessed considering the location and severity of burns and other fire-related injuries (including smoke inhalation, heat stress, and dehydration), other health issues or injuries (including fractures or bite wounds), and the age and body condition of the animal. As a result, 20% of animals presented to triage units were euthanased after initial veterinary examination. However, close to half (42%) were released back to the wild within 24 h of presentation, following emergency first aid and supportive care, such as intravenous fluid therapy to correct dehydration, treatment for minor wounds, and for koalas, feeding with a special critical care paste made by blending eucalyptus leaves in water. These animals were released either directly back to their original location or as close to it as possible, as outlined in Victoria’s Wildlife Rehabilitation Authorization Guide (VWRAG) [18
]). Some 35% of animals presenting to triage required hospitalisation or ongoing care for greater than 24 h. Zoos Victoria veterinarians transferred a smaller number of koalas into longer-term care. These included six juveniles that were uninjured but orphaned, who were subsequently hand-raised by DELWP registered wildlife carers. Twenty-seven more severely affected koalas required hospitalisation and ongoing veterinary care not possible in a field triage unit. These koalas were transferred to purpose-built wildlife hospitals at Melbourne Zoo and Healesville Sanctuary, with some of them evacuated with veterinary teams on airplanes via the Royal Australian Air Force.
2.2.1. Case Study—Veterinary Care, Rehabilitation, and Return of East Gippsland’s Koalas
The koalas discussed above that were initially stabilised in triage units before being transferred out of fire zones were critically injured. However, Zoos Victoria veterinarians assessed these animals as having a good prognosis for release back into the wild, provided they were able to receive the level of intensive, specialised veterinary and husbandry care available at both Healesville Sanctuary and Melbourne Zoo. The koalas underwent regular burn debridement and wound care under general anaesthesia to manage their wounds and promote healing. This period of intensive care of burns was completed within three weeks in the majority of animals, but some individuals with the most severe injuries required procedures for up to eight weeks. Pain was proactively and intensively managed; high-quality, specialized nutrition was provided to meet increased energy needs for healing and koala-specific hospital enclosures were provided, which allowed the animals space to move and forage in quiet surroundings. Experienced veterinary nurses and zookeepers closely monitored their behaviour, appetite, and faecal output. Health status and response to treatment were closely monitored using diagnostic pathology tests, including blood bio-chemistry and haematology assessments; and imaging, including radiographs, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and detailed ultrasonography. Once burns and other fire-related injuries had healed and the koalas were assessed by veterinary staff as no longer requiring intensive veterinary management, they were transferred to large, purpose-built pre-release enclosures at Healesville Sanctuary and to partners at Phillip Island Nature Parks (PINP) for their next phase of rehabilitation.
While in these naturalistic enclosures, koalas were given the space and time to recuperate mentally, while building the climbing strength, fitness, and vitality required to survive release to the wild. Behaviour, dietary intake, and faecal output were closely monitored, with regular updates provided to veterinarians to ensure all koalas were displaying health and behaviours appropriate for successful integration into wild populations. In October 2020, koalas in care at Healesville Sanctuary and PINP, as well as hand-raised orphans in the care of registered wildlife carers, received a detailed pre-release health assessment under general anaesthesia, including disease screening for Chlamydia
spp. and Herpesvirus
, assessment of kidney function, and weight and body condition scoring. Following this, 14 koalas were fitted with radiotelemetry and global positioning system (GPS) collars (Lotek Lite Track 60 RF GPS Pinpoint collar, Lotek, New Zealand), and between November and December 2020, close to 11 months after they had first presented during the fires, were released into regenerating bushland in East Gippsland, as close as possible to their origin. Release locations were determined after consideration of VWRAG [18
] and the translocation site criteria outlined in the state’s Koala Management Strategy [16
], and included an assessment of habitat suitability for koalas, as well as the long-term sustainability of pre-existing koala populations already resident at the site.
As part of a collaborative project with Zoos Victoria, DELWP, Parks Victoria, Federation University, ecologists from EcoPlan Australia, and local communities who live near the release locations, we are now carefully monitoring koalas to better understand their health, habitat use, and behaviour following release to the wild (see monitoring section below). Non-invasive faecal samples allow greater understanding of the genetics and disease status of the resident koalas at release locations and will enable the team to monitor released koalas into the future. Information gained from this unique project will help wildlife agencies to better understand the welfare implications of the release of rehabilitated, fire-affected koalas (and other species); provide information to enable evaluation of existing veterinary care, rehabilitation, and pre-release assessment protocols; and will result in significantly better decision making during wildlife emergency responses in the future.
2.2.2. Supplementary Food and Water
Following habitat destruction by bushfires, the provision of food and water to surviving animals is often suggested, however this comes with inherent risks [19
]. The area must be surveyed to determine which species survived and in what number; the extent of the fire and impacts on vegetation and clean water; the distance to the nearest suitable food and water source; and other key threats. Only nutritionally suitable foods should be provided, which must be in a hygienic and safe manner for any species present. The area needs to be monitored for safety and efficacy of the feed stations, as well as risk of threats such as gastrointestinal illness, aggression, or predation. There must be a planned exit strategy for the reduction of supplementary food as natural foods become available. Care must be taken to not negatively affect the burnt area, as weeds (e.g., from the provision of unsterilized hay) can outcompete regenerating native flora [20
]. The safety of staff and volunteers in the area must be considered and monitored during food provisioning. Following the Black Summer fires, Zoos Victoria collated tables of suitable food and availability, plus other key considerations, threats, and risks for DELWP to consider regarding the feeding of threatened, and more commonly, fire-affected native species. For critically endangered species in particular, food shortages can preclude recovery or even result in local extinctions. Zoos Victoria staff later joined other members of the Food and Water Working Group of Wildlife Health Australia (WHA) to develop national guidelines for supplementary food and water during and after the fires [20
]. We provided advice and food and water stations to assist key macropod species, such as brush-tailed rock wallabies (Petrogale penicillata
), with DELWP, Parks Victoria, and Wildlife Victoria managing staff and volunteers keen to assist wildlife. Zoos Victoria staff members continue to contribute to this work as members of the ongoing WHA supplementary feeding subgroup to refine guidelines and public messaging in preparation for future emergencies or catastrophic events.
2.2.3. Case Study—Feeding Mountain Pygmy-Possums Nutritionally Suitable ‘Bogong Bikkies’ after the Fires
In spring 2017 and 2018, the billions of Bogong moths (Agrotis infusa
) that migrate annually to alpine areas of Victoria and NSW largely failed to arrive. Bogong moths are the key food source for the critically endangered mountain pygmy-possum (Burramys parvus
; MPP) during their spring–summer breeding period. In all Victorian monitored MPP populations, 50–95% of females lost their litters of pouch young by the end of December 2018 [21
]. The mothers were in poor body condition, often no longer lactating, and post-mortem examination of pouch young indicated that starvation was the most likely cause of death (Zoos Victoria, unpublished data). In 2019, as part of a state-wide MPP contingency plan [21
], Zoos Victoria, working with world experts in veterinary nutrition, including Professor Ellen Dierenfeld (Nottingham Trent University) and Dr Michelle Shaw (Taronga CS), developed a novel, shelf-stable supplementary biscuit-like food source, named ‘Bogong Bikkies’. The formulation was based on our previous analysis of the macro- and micro-nutrient analysis of the Bogong moth and was commercially developed as a human-grade food product through Zoos Victoria’s partners, Wombaroo (Wombaroo Passwell, Australia) [19
]. The food and various types of feeders were successfully tested with MPPs in our care at Healesville Sanctuary for safety, efficacy, palatability, and stability. Working with Parks Victoria, we then trialed the food and three types of feeders under field conditions from November 2019 to April 2020. This work had to be halted for two weeks during the height of the nearby Black Summer fires due to dangerous fire conditions. However, it was then able to continue in the publicly closed and evacuated alpine parks under special permission from emergency services, following additional safety measures (including pre-field fire meetings and frequent radio safety check-ins). The MPPs and other small mammals readily consumed the supplementary food. We saw no changes in predator activity in the area and no evidence of intra- or inter-specific competition around the supplementary food stations.
While we developed this food in response to the collapse in Bogong moth numbers, this forethought proved crucial following the Black Summer fires. In NSW, populations of MPPs in northern Mt Kosciusko National Park were badly affected by fires, leaving no food or vegetation for surviving MPPs and other local species. Zoos Victoria was able to package the ‘Bogong Bikkies’ and the most successful feeder prototypes to send to our partners in the NSW Department of Planning, Industry, and Environment’s (DPIE) Saving our Species team, for their wide-scale, intensive program to feed the MPPs, as well as other surviving species (including native rodents, marsupials, and lizards) impacted by the fires [19
]. Animals readily consumed the food and gained weight prior to their hibernation period (DPIE pers comm). This case study highlights a model for, and the importance of, a proactive approach to protection and recovery of species following emergencies.
2.3. Theme 3—Threatened Species Extractions
Zoos Victoria, in conjunction with DELWP and Melbourne’s RBG, co-led the activities in Theme 3 [15
]. The Arthur Rylah Institute (ARI), DELWP’s biological research arm, led the extraction of threatened freshwater animals from fire-affected waterways (see similar examples following the 2009 Black Saturday fires in Hames [22
]). The RBG led the extraction of plants and fungi from fire areas in Victoria, and Zoos Victoria was asked to lead the rescue of terrestrial animals where required. In December 2019, as fires spread across NSW and continued to grow in Victoria, Zoos Victoria began collating the emergency holding capacity, dietary requirements, and transport box availability across our three zoos, in case rescue and housing became necessary. This included quarantine considerations; availability of appropriate veterinary resources (including sufficient experienced veterinary staff, hospital and rehabilitation housing, and the ability to provide sufficient food for the expected number of animals during the intensive care and rehabilitation phases); species-specific holding facilities (for those species requiring specific temperatures, aquatic housing, or other key considerations); and enclosures that could house a variety of species depending on the areas of fire impact. Across the three zoos, staff reviewed and prepared enclosures, food stores, and built new transport boxes and holding areas. As the fires grew in size and intensity, Zoos Victoria employed additional staff to conduct a regional institutional capacity audit to determine enclosure and housing ability with partners across Victoria, including other zoos, wildlife parks, and government partners, such as Parks Victoria and PINP. A comprehensive document detailing enclosure, transport box, and equipment capacities now exists to prepare for future rescues of threatened and other species where needed. Prior to each bushfire season, we will ensure our preparedness by confirming institutional contacts, capacity, and willingness to support wildlife rescue work.
2.3.1. Case Study—The Rescue and Release of the Endangered Eastern Bristlebird
In February 2020, as fires threatened Cape Howe in Victoria, growing concern was raised for a tiny endangered bird, the eastern bristlebird (Dasyornis brachypterus
). With fewer than 2500 birds remaining in Australia, and around 400 of these in a population across the Victorian–NSW border, losing these animals would be a massive blow to the survival of the species. Following an alert from ARI fire modelers, in a novel operation, Zoos Victoria worked with DELWP, a team of specialists from Monash and Wollongong Universities, and government agencies to retrieve up to 20 eastern bristlebirds from Howe Flat, Victoria, ahead of the fire front and transport them to Melbourne Zoo for safekeeping. The birds would serve as founders for a captive breeding population should their habitat be destroyed [23
]. Due to increasing fire threat, the operation was called short after a few days and the team was evacuated. However, in that time the team was able to successfully collect 15 birds and transport them to Melbourne Zoo. As Zoos Victoria had not held this species previously, advice from partners at Monash and Wollongong Universities and Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary was crucial to the birds’ ex situ management.
Despite best-practice care provided by experienced keeping and veterinary staff, and considerable planning and efforts to mitigate the stress of capture, transport, and captivity, six of the birds died due to the stress-induced respiratory illness, aspergillosis, in their initial days in captivity. Aspergillosis is an infectious, non-contagious disease caused by the globally ubiquitous, saprophytic fungi Aspergillus
]. Reported for a wide range of vertebrates, including humans, aspergillosis is a known health risk in the translocation of threatened birds [25
spp. act opportunistically as pathogens in immunocompromised hosts, with infection in humans and animals most commonly occurring via inhalation of spores from the environment. Once clinical signs are shown in birds, mortality rates are high [26
]. Birds were not initially placed on prophylactic treatment for Aspergillus
spp. as it was judged that the stress of catching the birds in order to reliably medicate them would outweigh the benefits of medication. However, following the diagnosis of aspergillosis on necropsy investigation (gross and histological evaluation of tissues), the remaining birds were treated prophylactically, as best as possible, by medicating food items. This, and likely reduced stress following acclimatisation to their new environment, prevented further mortality. The zoonotic potential of the Aspergillus
infections in the birds was assessed and judged to be insignificant for staff managing these animals. This was based on the ubiquitous nature of this fungus in the environment and assessment that the birds would be shedding negligible spores. One bird had sustained a broken leg during capture, so Zoos Victoria provided veterinary care at Healesville Sanctuary. While the fracture repair was successful, residual nerve damage left it unfit for release, thus it has been retained in care. Fortunately, the eastern bristlebird habitat at Howe Flat did not burn. We cared for the remaining birds at Melbourne Zoo and prepared them for release.
Despite looming restrictions due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, a flock of seven birds was returned to Howe Flat in April 2020. Another bird, which was unwell in April, was returned in October that year. An operation that would normally take months was planned and executed in less than a week [23
]. This was possible due to an existing proposed translocation plan developed by DELWP; availability of expertise from universities, DELWP, and Parks Victoria to work alongside Zoos Victoria staff; the ready issuing of emergency permits to collect and move birds; and an exemption from the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) to collect the animals. Another critical aspect was the logistics arrangements undertaken by the IMT (see Figure 1
), which saw Australian and Singaporean Defence Force aircraft deployed to transport teams and birds to and from Melbourne, and Victorian Fisheries Authority vessels available to transport staff and birds across the adjacent Mallacoota estuary. There was also a considerable effort by zookeepers at Melbourne Zoo to modify empty eastern barred bandicoot (Perameles gunnii
) enclosures to receive the birds. Fortuitously, the enclosures were available due to a large recent release of bandicoots to French Island, Victoria [27
]. While the Victorian endangered eastern bristlebird habitat was spared and birds were able to be released back to their original locations, fires tore through the habitat in NSW. Many of the 250 birds in that habitat are presumed dead, underlining the importance of the rescue and work to help this species [23
We have incorporated the experiences gained during this extraction event into Zoos Victoria response plans so that disease risk mitigation steps are pre-planned, and future extractions will result in better health and welfare outcomes for wildlife threatened by environmental emergencies. This rescue and release program can serve as a baseline from which improved models for future interventions can be developed to prevent extinction of species during bushfires and other catastrophic events.
2.3.2. Case Study—Evacuating Brush-Tailed Rock Wallabies from the ACT
It is not only wild animals that may need to be evacuated (as above), but also animals from zoos and sanctuaries under bushfire threat. The critically endangered southern brush-tailed rock wallaby is one of Zoos Victoria’s 27 Fighting Extinction species. We work with partners at Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve (TNR) in the ACT to recover this species, and are supporting their new free-range, introduced-predator-free wallaby enclosure. Fires threatened TNR in January 2020 and emergency enclosures at Healesville Sanctuary were prepared, including work by horticulture, operations, zookeeper, and veterinary teams. Zoos Victoria instated new biosecurity measures and zookeepers had a new temporary quarantine changing room retrofitted nearby to separate the wallabies from other species on site.
The evacuation to Healesville was not needed in January, however in February the bushfire threatened TNR from a different direction and evacuation was necessary. Due to the prior preparation, we were ready to receive four important breeding males, with zookeepers, veterinarians, and conservation staff meeting TNR staff with the wallabies late the following night. In an example of the non-stop nature of the work undertaken by many partners at this time, the call for evacuation came on a Sunday afternoon, with all Victorian and ACT permits for the wallabies to cross state borders in place by Monday morning. In all, two wallabies were evacuated to Taronga Zoo, 17 to Mt Rothwell, and four to Healesville Sanctuary, thus highlighting the willingness of zoos and sanctuaries to assist each other at such times. Thankfully, TNR was not burnt in the fires. The wallabies stayed at Healesville Sanctuary for five weeks until they were able to be transferred safely back home.
2.4. Theme 7—Nature-Led Community Recovery
Catastrophic events, such as bushfires, can have a significant impact on people’s relationship with the natural environment. Applying psychological principles of working with trauma-affected communities, in conjunction with biodiversity recovery work, is an effective way to develop a paired-recovery feedback loop, in which evidence and stories about natural recovery support human recovery [28
]. Zoos Victoria has linked with the ARI (see Hames [22
]) to co-lead a nature-based Community Recovery Theme and has received support from an extended cohort of government agencies and NGOs. This program aims to enable social, economic, and environmental recovery of fire-impacted communities, while assisting the recovery of nature. Fire-impacted communities are supported to learn about how nature is responding and to design and deliver projects that benefit local plants, wildlife, and habitats. Participating in these projects, witnessing natural recovery, and gaining a sense of hope can actively support the recovery of fire-affected communities. The community recovery theme includes a small grants program for fire-affected communities, initially funded by Zoos Victoria and administered by the newly created Victorian government agency, Bushfire Recovery Victoria (BRV) [29
]. It will provide access to biologists and ecological experts for advice and guidance, develop citizen science platforms for suitable projects, and elicit stories of shared recovery through multi-media storytelling opportunities. An evaluation of this novel program is being implemented.
Zoos Victoria has also developed a community-wide ‘Summer for Wildlife’ campaign to help Victorians understand how they might assist wildlife conservation and welfare during and after fires, heat wave events, and other summertime emergencies, including how to avoid animal collisions and assist wildlife on roads [30
]. Such activities service the goal in Victoria’s Biodiversity 2037 Plan of ‘Victorians Value Nature’ [31
], to increase the number of Victorians connecting with nature and acting to protect or enhance biodiversity. This work also aligns with modern zoo goals of connecting people with nature. There is increased focus across many zoos around the world to employ behavioural science methods to drive wildlife-friendly behaviours in zoo visitors and surrounding communities. It recognises the inextricable link between human wellbeing and environmental wellbeing.
2.5. Public Communications and Zoos Victoria’s Bushfire Emergency Wildlife Fund
During and after the fires, effective communication and transparency with media and the public were crucial. There was huge global interest in the Black Summer fires, the plight of Australia’s biodiversity, and response to injured and displaced wildlife. In particular, koalas became the face of the disaster, with offers of help arriving from around the world. In the first 10 weeks of 2020, the Zoos Victoria media team produced 3200 separate media stories across TV, radio, and print and online media. This helped to connect people with the koalas, Zoos Victoria’s Fighting Extinction species, and human communities impacted by the fires. Social media allowed proactive dissemination of information regarding the bushfires and our triage work, while also providing a platform to respond to enquiries from concerned and often distressed members of the public. Media ranged from articles on biodiversity loss and increasing threats to endangered species, to personal stories of koalas evacuated by military aircraft for emergency care following the devastating fires near Mallacoota and Croajingolong National Park, Victoria. We also published articles to assist communities in helping, rather than harming, native wildlife after fires [32
Zoos Victoria seconded additional staff to answer phone calls as an influx of assistance was offered. However, we can only use specialised assistance and equipment for wildlife emergencies. In the case of an emergency with the magnitude of the Black Summer, the most useful offer was of funds to support immediate and long-term wildlife care and recovery. In early January 2020, Zoos Victoria provided a means for the community to assist during the disaster, through the establishment of the Bushfire Emergency Wildlife Fund (BEW Fund) [33
]. This generated much needed funds to assist the immediate needs of wildlife triage, longer-term veterinary and rehabilitation care leading to animal releases back to the wild, as well as the ongoing longer-term recovery work required for threatened species. Importantly, these funds were quarantined to assist bushfire-affected wildlife and communities, and are available over the coming years. Many other external grants and funds available to assist wildlife come with a condition of spending all money within the following financial year (by June 2021). However, the recovery of species from catastrophic events is akin to a marathon, rather than a sprint—funds for recovery from the Black Summer will be required for decades.
Money was generously donated from a variety of sectors, including state, territory and Commonwealth governments; international zoos and wildlife agencies; philanthropic groups; Zoos Victoria members; and the public. In one notable case, Prague Zoo raised significant funds from their community in its appeal to assist Australia’s wildlife, even sending a delegation of staff members to fire-affected communities in early February 2020 to see how they could best help. Prague Zoo is now supporting key work to assist the recovery of a number of frog species and brush-tailed rock wallabies at Zoos Victoria. Schoolchildren set up lemonade stalls outside Healesville Sanctuary to raise funds and others emptied their piggy banks at our front desks. The outpouring of support from Victorian, Australian, and global communities was important not only to the fire fund, but to the staff who were working tirelessly across the fires—a symbol that we were not in this on our own, but had a global community backing our efforts.
The Zoos Victoria Customer Engagement Team (CET) provided a crucial service, fielding enquiries from a distressed Victorian community wanting to help the wildlife crisis. In January alone, the CET answered over 15,000 calls, of which 35% related to the BEW Fund. The CET was the first point of contact for often emotional and distressed callers. Staff provided a sympathetic ear for what had happened to callers directly, and how their families were coping throughout the crisis. At the end of each shift, team members shared the powerful and sometimes graphic stories they had heard and debriefed about the conversations. This allowed team members to best support one another, as well as the distressed community. During and after the Black Summer, our staff members were offered post-event debriefs and ongoing counselling support.
We developed a Zoos Victoria Response and Recovery Plan (ZVRRP) to ensure that Zoos Victoria use the funding entrusted to our organisation wisely and to communicate how we will spend the funds. The ZVRRP, prepared as a prospectus, is designed to nest within the larger Victorian BBRRP [15
]. Our plan, in part, draws on the current five-year Wildlife Conservation Master Plan 2019–2024 [6
], which outlines key actions required to prevent 27 highly endangered Victorian species from becoming extinct. Currently, the response plan includes the sections outlined below.
2.5.1. Future-Proofing Wildlife Health and Welfare
This involves the employment of an emergency management specialist, the up-skilling of veterinary professionals in the assessment and care of bushfire-affected wildlife, the purchase of specialist equipment and machinery, additional veterinary costs, and building additional facilities to hold evacuated populations of native wild species from threatened habitats.
2.5.2. Threatened Species Recovery
This is for projects specifically related to threatened species within bushfire areas, in addition to the 35 threatened species already on Zoos Victoria’s Fighting Extinction and Watch Lists.
2.5.3. Nature-Based Community Recovery
This will assist in rebuilding local communities devastated by the bushfires, along with associated partners, as part of a larger recovery effort.
In addition, a number of NGO and not-for-profit organisations, including the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), Wildlife Victoria, and the Victorian Branch of the RSPCA, are supporting and partnering with the Zoos Victoria recovery efforts.