'Rednecks on power trip': culture of bullying and conflict in wildlife rescue
When Prue Bamford moved to a seaside town north of Sydney, one of the first things she did was join her local wildlife rescue group.
Bamford has been a wildlife carer for 25 years in NSW, Victoria and Queensland, with a lot of experience in caring for kangaroos. But problems with her local group that peaked during the bushfires last summer drove her to resign to protect her mental health, leaving her unlicensed and unable to care for wildlife.
"I'm just so exhausted and it's so emotionally hard," Bamford says. "It was so bad. They were the nastiest people – like rednecks on a power trip."
Most wildlife volunteers are hard-working and dedicated to animals, yet bullying and conflict is a longstanding problem in the wildlife rescue sector. The stress and trauma of the 2019-2020 bushfires and jealous rivalries over fundraising brought simmering tensions to boiling point for many groups.
There are 31 organisations licensed for wildlife rescue and care in NSW, from local volunteer groups to institutions such as Taronga Zoo and Sydney's SEA LIFE Aquarium. The biggest volunteer group is Sydney-headquartered WIRES, which has 28 branches across much of the state and raised more than $90 million during the bushfires.
All wildlife carers had their work cut out for them last summer, as the final report of the NSW Bushfire Inquiry handed to the state government at the end of July and published this week, makes clear.
The report says the 2019-2020 bushfires burned 5.5 million hectares in NSW, killing at least 800 million animals. The report points out that many of the surviving animals returned to burnt-out areas without food and shelter or were hunted by feral animals such as foxes and cats that tend to proliferate after fire.
The animal suffering was the backdrop for human drama.
For example, Animal Rescue Cooperative (ARC) co-ordinator Derek Knox says he and his team received death threats and vile abuse from wildlife carers angry they were not getting funding. This masthead has copies of emails and voice mails sent to ARC staff, calling them "c--ts" and threatening to "bash their f--ken skulls in".
ARC is based in Sydney but played a key role during the bushfires distributing donations of money, animal feed and formula, equipment such as humidicribs and bandages and vast volumes of handcrafted pouches, wraps and mittens for injured wildlife. Knox says this put ARC in the firing line if it tried to do due diligence before handing over money and supplies or if it refused a request.
In another example, a man was expelled from his local group in northern NSW during the height of the summer fires and another member later successfully took out an apprehended personal violence order against him. He claims he ruffled feathers by trying to organise volunteers to comb the blackened forest for wildlife survivors, while the group says it was because of concerns over the welfare of animals in his care.
It brings out the absolute best in people and the absolute worst and nothing in the middle.
James Fitzgerald, Two Thumbs Wildlife Trust.
In Bamford's case the conflict came to a head in February when, she says, a committee member publicly accused her of stealing all the supplies donated to them during the bushfires, leaving the animals to starve. In fact, Bamford says she was acting as a hub for ARC to collect donations for groups in fire zones along the eastern seaboard – a fact Knox confirms. Bamford is still deeply hurt by the allegations and says people continued to ask about it, even after Knox tried to clear her name. A letter from Community Justice Centres dated June and obtained by this masthead confirms Bamford tried to organise mediation with an executive member who never responded.
While the bushfires brought the conflict to a head, the tension had been building over time. Another member, who requested her name be withheld in order not to invite the same treatment, says she attended the AGM last year and saw Bamford try to raise issues – while members of the executive spoke over her, tried to have her removed from the meeting and openly said they wouldn't take her calls because they didn't like her. The member says Bamford was not threatening or abusive and while she was persistent, she was not unreasonable. This masthead has also seen screenshots of chat messages describing Bamford as "paranoid" and talking "crap" for asking questions about a rumoured accident with a bolt gun.
Knox says it was one of the worst examples of bullying he has ever seen. Bamford's friend Jessika Behnecke, an art therapist who has been giving her weekly counselling over the phone, says it was classic bullying and gaslighting, where the victim is manipulated to doubt themselves.
A spokesperson for the charity says it has been "legally advised not to comment about internal issues" but agrees that bullying is a problem in wildlife care in general. However, the spokesperson says no group should be held accountable for things out of their control or when people refuse to follow policies or procedures.
There have been problems with bullying and conflict in wildlife care for some time.
Take the problems of any volunteer organisation, add the emotionally charged environment of animals suffering and dying, and compound it by the monopoly held by wildlife groups over their local area.
Last year the NSW Office of the Environment and Heritage, in its review of the NSW Volunteer Wildlife Rehabilitation Sector, cited conflict and bullying within groups as one of the reasons why volunteer numbers fluctuate by as much as 25 per cent.
In 2018, charity WildTalk conducted an international survey that included Australia and found two out of five respondents identified bullying as a problem within wildlife organisations.
Meanwhile, a report from the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission in 2017 noted that animal welfare organisations have more concerns reported to the charity regulator than any other charity type.
For every 100 animal welfare charities, there were 9.4 concerns raised, compared with an average of 2.1 for general charities, the report said. Some organisations had multiple complaints, including accusations of bullying and other bad behaviour, especially on social media.
The bigger groups may have a more professional approach to conflict resolution but are not immune to issues. This masthead has spoken to wildlife carers from as far afield as the Blue Mountains, Central West and South Coast who have left WIRES because of interpersonal conflict and alleged unfair treatment.
A spokesman for WIRES says the charity "takes any bullying issues very seriously" and all volunteers must agree to a code of conduct. The charity has policies to require and encourage respectful conduct in the workplace and prevent or address bullying, as well as a multi-step grievance management process implemented in all branches whereby members can raise concerns in a confidential manner.
"[It has] been a particularly difficult year for the wildlife sector and many volunteers are feeling quite fragile right now and still recovering from the impacts of the bushfires, which is entirely understandable," the WIRES spokesman says.
The ACNC report focused on organisations dealing with domesticated animals and pets and the regulator was unable to provide figures for wildlife care. However, Knox, who is also involved in a cat rescue charity, says the issues are very similar across all animal rescue groups.
"Volunteers come from all walks of life with minimal checks and balances," Knox says. "You get people who are affected by life and death in their hands and seeing all the stuff that is happening around them, and that causes emotions that then come out in other ways."
Knox says social media is a big forum for arguments, with many wildlife carers passionate about various ideologies from coronavirus conspiracy theories to vegetarianism.
James Fitzgerald, a former senior public servant who now runs Two Thumbs Wildlife Trust about 100 kilometres from Canberra, says the amount of bullying in wildlife care is "horrific".
"It brings out the absolute best in people and the absolute worst and nothing in the middle," Fitzgerald says. "Because there's power there to get on the committee it actually attracts people who in their professional careers would never be given authority."
Frances Carleton, founder of WildTalk, which provides free counselling to wildlife carers, said bullying in wildlife care is often about a persistent need for control and micro-management.
Nowhere to go
A big problem for carers is that any conflicts are resolved internally and the executive team can manipulate the outcome. The charity regulator does not mediate internal disputes, while the National Parks and Wildlife Service only licenses groups on the basis of their skill with animals rather than their treatment of humans.
"You have nobody to go to to complain," Carleton says. "For most organisations, you'll have a HR department, you might have a union that you can go and talk to about your rights, but there isn't any of that in wildlife organisations. These organisations are run by volunteers and invariably they are run by people who have set them up and have surrounded themselves with like-minded people on a committee and nobody new wants to go into the committee because they know what it's going to be like."
Knox says the government should take greater interest in what's happening with wildlife care. "They basically just give it to the charities and the public to look after," he says.
Many, like Bamford, are calling for the establishment of a volunteer watchdog.
Animal Justice Party MP Mark Pearson notes similar issues came up in the recent parliamentary committee into the enforcement of animal cruelty laws. "There needs to be accountability to a body, whatever that might be," he says.
A spokesperson for the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment says the government is developing training opportunities for leaders of groups to improve their communication, teamwork and conflict resolution skills.
The department also intends introducing a scheme of accreditation for the wildlife rehabilitation sector requiring organisations to meet standards of service delivery including criteria for conflict resolution, anti-bullying and harassment and the work health and safety of its members.
In any other volunteering endeavour, a person can avoid a toxic environment by simply joining a different organisation. But in wildlife care, that's not always possible.
Wildlife rescue groups are licensed for particular geographic boundaries. This gives them a monopoly over their area unless they have a memorandum of understanding with a neighbouring group, and therefore power over any carers in the catchment.
Tanya Odonoghue, who lives in the Central West, says she knows many cases where carers have animals taken off them because of interpersonal conflict rather than concerns over welfare.
"Our Achilles heel is the animal," Odonoghue says. "You just know you're going to get the animals taken off you if you don't do what you're told, and that's how they control the masses of members."
Odonoghue left her local WIRES group because of conflict and is now licensed through another group but is hoping to get her own organisation, Warrumbungle Wildlife Shelter, independently registered.
The department spokesperson confirms anyone can join any wildlife organisation if they are contributing on the administrative side but active carers can only join a group operating in the area where they live. In most parts of the state, there is just one group.
However, this could change.
"[The department] found conflict does arise occasionally and in its Volunteer Wildlife Rehabilitation Strategy is proposing a range of measures to help groups improve the management of conflict including providing more flexibility for members to join other groups," the spokesperson says.
The proposal is widely welcomed, though Meredith Ryan, the long-serving president of FAWNA on the Mid-North Coast, says it could create management problems
"We currently have a defined boundary area, we'll have records based on that boundary area and phone operators are based on working within that boundary, and the public knows what the boundary is," Ryan says.
"And quite frankly, if I had someone wanting to join our group, because they were disaffected by another group, I would actually look at that person a little bit with more scrutiny because I don't know why they can't get on with their group."
Ryan says co-ordinating hundreds of volunteers and ensuring they follow the correct procedures when caring for animals and keeping records and so on is not easy. "If it requires being dictatorial to make that happen then so be it."
Pearson supports the proposal to allow wildlife carers to join other groups and is also calling on Premier Gladys Berejiklian and Environment Minister Matt Kean to fund mental health services for wildlife carers.
"It's the duty of the government to ensure that these people are properly looked after just like the people who were on the front line dealing with the other crises, like the bushfire fighters and those working in emergency wards," Pearson says.
The WIRES spokesman says the charity takes mental health and wellbeing of carers seriously and contacted every member over the summer bushfire period to check on their welfare and if they needed any assistance, as well as partnering with People Sense to provide free counselling and webinars.
There are charities dedicated to the mental health of wildlife carers, including Two Green Threads and WildTalk.
Carleton says wildlife carers witness "horrendous" trauma. “Sixty per cent of every rescue that they do, don't make it; they either die on the way to help or they have to be euthanised," she says.
Despite only advertising her services on Facebook, Carleton says she has taken 250 calls from 81 people since setting up WildTalk at the start of the year, with 60 per cent of calls coming from WIRES volunteers.
Rae Harvey, who lives on the South Coast, has used the service and would like to see funding for mental health specifically for wildlife carers. She also sees a psychologist for other concerns but would rather talk to Carleton about the wildlife trauma. "She's the only person I can talk to that understands," she says. "The kangaroos are like my family."
Harvey is dealing with the aftermath of the recent bushfires, which destroyed her property and many animals, and a dispute over money her kangaroo sanctuary raised through crowdfunding. She is also traumatised from an incident a few years ago where she witnessed a kangaroo bludgeoned to death because killing the animal was the kindest thing in the circumstances and they couldn't use a gun.
Harvey says the rampant bullying in wildlife care is also linked to mental health issues and she even knows of suicides where this was a factor.
Fitzgerald has not yet had time to seek out mental health support, though he knows it would be a good idea.
The plane that crashed killing the US firefighters in January did so when it was trying to protect his property. He lost everything in the fires and he has been living in a caravan ever since, unable to abandon the animals.
"Part of what people don't understand is the pressure," he says. "We were rescuing animals out of the ground up until April and it's really hard – every animal you find you just think 'how many others are out there that need help?'. You can't stop."
Sourced from: The Sydney Morning Herald, 'Rednecks on power trip': culture of bullying and conflict in wildlife rescue, by Caitlin Fitzsimmons