When Frances Carleton started caring for the carers of Australian wildlife, she took an average of four calls a month. Since Boxing Day, she’s taken more than 70 calls.
WildTalk is Australia’s first counselling service dedicated to the wildlife carers who pour their hearts and souls into looking after sick and injured wildlife. The level of distress has catapulted during this horrific bushfire season, with carers confronted with thousands of sick, starving, scared and injured wildlife, including our national treasures like koalas. The number of animals found dead is heartbreaking.
The impact on carers—a special breed in their own right—is indescribable, says Frances, a professional counsellor with a degree in psychotherapy and a former carer herself. Most are front-line volunteers who do not get paid to do their important work. But like volunteer firefighters, they suffer trauma, grief, loss and fatigue.
“Most of us can only imagine what these carers experience when entering a fireground looking for wildlife. They not only see the most upsetting scenes of burnt carcasses, they smell the devastation and hear sounds they’ve never heard before, with animals screaming in pain,” says Frances.
“In areas wiped out by fires, there is complete silence which is equally disconcerting. There are no sounds of crickets or insects, no rustling sounds of small animals scurrying about and no soft sounds of leaves blowing in the breeze.”
Frances launched the WildTalk service knowing that the approximately 60,000 Australians volunteering in wildlife rescue and rehabilitation are at real risk of burn-out and compassion fatigue without strong emotional support.
WildTalk’s services are free. Carers can access up to six support sessions from accredited professional counsellors across Australia who understand their work. They can get safe support 24/7 by phone, Skype, Zoom or – depending on their location – in person.
“These selfless people have given up their time and money to look after our wildlife,” said Frances. “Every day they’re entering fire grounds and parched gum forests to search for animals that can be saved. When they find life, they have to decide if the animal has a chance or whether it needs to be euthanised out of kindness. For every animal that can be hospitalised and cared for about 20 are being euthanised and thousands are already dead. It’s horrific.”
Another mental health issue is a deep sense of helplessness. Wildlife carers instinctively want to get into an area quickly to save animals but are regularly forced to wait until the area is safe to enter, which could be several days after a fire has passed throughout.
“The carers know the animals are in there and they feel hopeless and anxious waiting to help,” says Frances. “They’re so committed they forego their own finances and self-care for the sake of the animals.”
Frances originally planned to launch WildTalk in August later this year at the Australian Wildlife Rehabilitation Conference in Darwin, but demand motivated her to move with lightning speed to bring everything forward, even though it meant she didn’t have as much time to raise the amount of money she originally planned for. She’s looking for donations as a result, from private and corporate organisations, especially given that the bushfire season has a long way to go and the drought will affect animal survival through winter.
One Canberra organisation that has thrown support behind WildTalk is BAL Lawyers.
“These fires have devastated the lives of many, directly and indirectly,” says Legal Director Mark Love. “Frances supports the people who care for injured wildlife; when called on, without hesitation BAL chose to support Frances, to build the structure needed to allow her to get on with co-ordinating the delivery of that support.”
In addition to donations, WildTalk is looking for additional therapists based in Australia with knowledge of wildlife caring who want to help manage the rapidly increasing number of calls. WildTalk offers professional supervision to psychologists, counsellors, social workers and other mental health allied professionals so they understand the unique pressures faced by wildlife volunteers.
“Some challenges are unique to wildlife carers and need to be approached sensitively,” says Frances. “It’s not good enough, for example, to tell them to just take a break or stop caring. It’s not in their DNA to do so.”
You can donate to WildTalk, which operates independently of any wildlife organisation, here. Wildlife carers who need support can call 1300 307 111. Therapists wanting to help or who require support can contact Frances by email firstname.lastname@example.org.