An Entangled Problem
It sits there during the day waiting until night falls to catch its first victim. It has taken thumbs, mutilated bodies, and at its worst discontinued lives. It is still and seemingly innocent, protecting what the victims want and need. The “it” is a fruit net put in place by humans who are mostly oblivious to the consequences before it’s too late and another animal needs to be euthanised. These death traps need to go, but while the autumn air continues to linger so does danger.
I remember weeks ago sitting beneath a tree in Commonwealth Park and noticing a flying fox up high in the branches. This brown-headed animal seemed content up there with its other bat friends. In recent years flying foxes have taken to roosting at Commonwealth Park. The permanent water supply there is a perfect place to make their home.
Here, confined in the backyard of Marg Peachey, president of ACT Wildlife, they are not at home. The flying foxes I see now are anything but content. Five of them hang from the roof of the little aviary scared and shaking. Their small eyes are sad, their wings are sprinkled with holes and they are red and sore all over.
These animals don’t have to be here. In fact Marg Peachy tells me that it costs us a lot of money to look after bats. Marg and I are chatting over tea in her backyard only metres from the aviary that is rehabilitating five injured bats.
“I think one of these who goes to the vet this afternoon will probably have to be euthanised,” she says.
Marg’s been caring for animals since 1992 so it has become easier for her to stay less attached to the constant flow of injured animals. There are times though where she can’t help but be attached. I ask Marg to tell me a challenging story and she doesn’t have to think for long until one comes to mind. She begins to bring to life a rescue she did last year. Marg emphasises that it was her third time to this house.
“Great house, great garden, beautiful fig tree, it was tall and had lots of figs but the netting was bad,” she says. “Three times to the same house, no offer of a donation or anything. In the same year. Weeks apart.”
Marg goes on to tell me that the bat was ruined and that it had to be euthanised.
“I just started hacking at the net … The woman got really agro.”
ACT Wildlife is a not for profit organisation, so I ask Marg if it’s difficult dealing with people like this.
“You’ve got to be patient. You’re the face of ACT Wildlife, so you just have to be,” she says. “Then you go away and scream ‘arghhh’, hit the wall, and do all of that stuff.”
This person in particular was told about the dangers of fruit netting but not everyone knows.
“It’s very hard to get it out, it’s on our website but how do you do it?” Marg says. “Everyone who calls in a bat are told and are handed a pamphlet and directed to the website. We actually have to cut the bat out so we destroy a little bit more of the net then we need to,” she laughs as she tells me this.
Even though the organisation does its best to educate the public on the dangers of netting, not everyone knows. People often buy nylon monofilament netting which is sold by most hardware stores. What they will be told is that their fruit will be protected but what they won’t be told is that it is the deadliest and cruellest netting available, responsible for the death of hundreds of flying foxes and other wildlife each year.
When I walk into the aviary and see the flying foxes up close I am shocked to see their injuries. The pamphlet that described the consequences of bad netting I read earlier on the ACT Wildlife website was not exaggerating. The netting was illustrated as a predator, noting that the net cuts off circulation, causes bruising, breaks bones, creates wounds and sometimes ends in death. It was all true. These flying foxes look as if they have been tortured. Which in a way they have.
Last year ACT Wildlife had over 72 flying foxes taken in for care because of injuries from fruit netting. Out of these, nine died and three were euthanised. This year so far there have been eight, but as long as autumn continues and figs stay ripe there will be more.
To prevent this, one of the organisation’s missions is to educate the public about sharing the urban interface with native wildlife. They successfully worked with all Bunnings Warehouses around the ACT area in order to remove dangerous netting — Bunnings now only sells netting that does not harm animals.
Flying foxes in care are expensive. The process of rehabilitating these animals costs a lot more than the rehabilitation of other animals. Flying foxes take much longer to fully recover because their injuries don’t appear straight away, instead taking weeks to show. In addition, only certain carers can handle flying foxes because there is a threat to the volunteers’ health.
“The only danger with flying foxes is that the odd one, something like 0.01% may have lyssavirus,” Marg informs me.
Australian bat lyssavirus is an infectious disease related to rabies. Lyssavirus can be transmitted to humans and can be fatal. Carers who work with bats and flying foxes have to go through a series of rabies shots before being allowed to handle them.
“Every time we talk to someone we say, don’t touch them. You can only be infected from being bitten or scratched.”
However, not all animals are in care for a long time and it’s not all bad news. ACT Wildlife’s purpose is to rescue, rehabilitate and release injured, sick and orphaned native wildlife. About 80% of its intake is birds. Marg’s favourite rescue story is about a species native to Australia, the Red Wattle bird. This noisy honeyeater, named after its reddish wattle on the side of its neck, had been caught by a cat and needed treatment quickly. The bird was put on antibiotics straight away and recovered after just a week. Marg took it back to where it had come from. She released the bird from its cage and before it had even gotten to the top of the roof the wattle bird’s partner was there, waiting.
“The partner just flew straight in and it’s been out of circulation for about a week,” Marg recalls. “It just sort of makes my heart flutter, it’s lovely. Birds know what’s happening in their little territory all the time. I don’t even think this bird made a noise in the cage but as soon as I let him out the partner was there.”
Marg tells me this story while I help her put the flying foxes in cages. Even though they are scared they are quite gentle and she handles them well. Not many people get to see flying foxes up this close and I begin to feel lucky for this opportunity. Then I remember that two of these five bats might not be returning from the vet.
The vet that the bats are about to go visit is an RSPCA vet. The RSPCA has vaccinated vets to protect them from lyssavirus, Marg tells me.
“We go there and they also supply us with medications,” she says.
Marg explains how she gives them pain relief and applies their cream every morning. Then she scoops up all of the left-over fruit that remains on the tarp from the 12 apples, 12 figs, two slices of rockmelon and the two pears that she feeds them each night.
“They chomp on fruit, and they spit out the pulp and swallow the juice,” she says. “That keeps them light for when they’re flying.”
When the flying foxes are healthy they fly up to 40 kilometres or so to feed every night.
“They’re weeing and pooing while they are out foraging. So when they come back they’re still light,” Marg says. “They get all the nutrition and they get rid of all their waste and fly back. They only have little bodies.”
For such little bodies these animals go through a lot of fruit. ACT Wildlife has only been running for 18 months and relies heavily on membership to fund the animals in care. Last year they received a government grant to buy fourteen new aviaries. With me, Marg and five bats huddled in an older aviary I can see why they would cost so much. The aviaries need stronger wire than average ones otherwise cockatoos and possums destroy it. Half the roof needs to be mesh, and then there is the problem of mice and rats getting in from beneath. The aviary is a crucial factor for animal rehabilitation.
That’s for the animals who make it to rehabilitation. Just the other day Marg went to rescue a flying fox at a house that had terrible netting.
“This poor little thing was totally wrapped up. It was just awful and dead by the time we got there,” Marg says.
This happens often. Some people will call up just to have an animal removed.
“You say, ‘is it dead?’ And they say no because they haven’t really looked closely,” Marg says. “This one had ants all over it and I took an hour to get there so you know it was dead long before.”
“I wrapped a bit of net around it and put it in the rubbish bin and I forgot to tell her [the woman who called] it was in there and their garbage must have just been collected because it was empty. She would have found out after it started smelling.”
On the topic of netting disposal I ask Marg if all this dangerous netting is hard to get rid of.
“It’s a plastic that’s bad for the environment. It’s bad to burn,” she says. “Plastic gets into the whole eco system and into the food chain, killing animals.”
This dangerous netting is still sitting in hardware stores and draped over fruit trees waiting to catch its victims. Black nets are the worst because animals can’t see them at night. Nets are dangerous to animals, they are hard to get rid of, and can be easily swapped for safer nets. One of the main things to look for when buying netting for fruit trees are ones that you can’t stick your finger through. If they are on the trees tight animals shouldn’t get anything caught in this netting.
Weeks later I begin to notice unsafe netting everywhere I go. I then wonder about the five sore and frightened flying foxes marked with injuries in Marg’s backyard. In particular, I wonder about the flying fox that Marg thought would be euthanised. I got into contact with her and was saddened to hear that three of the five were euthanised. Three flying foxes, killed by netting. Three unnecessary deaths.
By Danielle Nohra