Melinda Kerr (pronouns: she/her) is a passionate wildlife carer who co-founded Kanimbla Wombats alongside Anna Culliton, which is a volunteer organization based in the central west of New South Wales, working hard to treat Bare-nosed Wombats suffering from mange. Mange is a poorly-known and yet completely treatable disease which affects Australia’s beautiful wombats.
Before we began our conversation, Melinda wanted to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land from where she was speaking, the Wiradjuri, Gundungurra and Dharug People.
“I feel incredibly lucky to live and work in such a beautiful area, and hold huge respect for the traditional custodians of this land who do such an amazing job of taking care of it”
Especially in the context of Mange, Melinda continued:
“Mange is an introduced disease, brought over on the backs of dogs and foxes. In this way, as a white Australian, it’s an issue I feel quite responsible for as the wombats were doing just fine before we got here”.
TREATING MANGE IN WOMBATS
Bare-nosed Wombats live predominantly along the east coast of Australia into Tasmania and even eastern South Australia a little bit. These charismatic critters are vulnerable to mange, a disease caused by the sarcoptes scabiei mites which burrow into the skin causing thick crusty sores and hair loss.
“These itchy crusts often grow over the wombat’s eyes and ears, rendering them blind and deaf, so it’s pretty horrible to see as wombats will scratch the mange and cause further injury or infection”
If left untreated, mange is fatal but luckily, unlike so many of the threatening processes that affect Australian wildlife, the disease is highly treatable, and wombat deaths due to mange are entirely preventable, an area where we can make a difference for wildlife!
Treatment is in the form of a chemical, Moxidectin which is applied to the backs of wombats over a 12-week period, either in the wild (mostly!) or if they come into a wildlife rehabilitation hospital.
Melinda was always interested in wildlife and growing up on a property surrounded by nature, she learnt from a really young age to respect the environment and love the animals around.
“I was really lucky to have this regular mob of kangaroos that lived in our bottom paddock and I would sit with and make them adopt me”
When she finished school, Melinda caught the travel bug and started traveling with adventures focused around wildlife conservation.
“I wanted to see the wildlife around the world in environments where they were loved, respected and cared for because that’s so important to me.”
Melinda spent time with rescued elephants in Thailand, with bears in Romania and had just begun a placement in Malawi, Africa when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and Melinda was forced to return home quickly and isolate.
“I developed this goal of working with wildlife on all continents of the world but COVID-19 has hit pause on that for the moment”
This created the time and space for Melinda to reconnect with long-time family friend Anna who was working to treat mange-affected wombats.
“I love wombats – they’re completely charismatic… And, not really knowing what I was going to do, I started helping Anna out with her wombats and learnt about mange for the first time and got hooked from there!”
“I was obsessed with the idea that there was this horrific disease I’d never heard about as someone who loves wildlife … It was pretty much in my backyard and we could do something to fix it unlike so many threats affecting our native Australian wildlife!”
Shortly after this began, Melinda co-founded Kanimbla Wombats and enrolled to study conservation at university.
OVERCOMING “ENVIRONMENTAL OVERWHELM”
Although she can be extremely busy juggling these commitments, without Kanimbla Wombats, Melinda says she would likely feel overwhelmed by the state of the environment and responsibility for its wildlife we have inherited:
“A lot of our generation has this climate anxiety that we have inherited and feel responsible for. It’s terrifying and a big burden to carry weighing on our shoulders… for me, the wombats get me out of bed in the morning because it’s something tangible and positive I can focus on. I go out and see results, see the wombats recovering and can educate the community about this entirely preventable disease!”
“It’s so important to find that thing that you’re passionate about. And I feel really lucky that at such a young age, I have found that passion. I think people search for it for a really long time.”
So, how can we channel this eco-guilt and climate-anxiety into positive action for change? Melinda suggests it’s all about finding and following your passion to make a positive impact:
“Find the thing that you can do and you are passionate about, find that thing, however small and set yourself some goals towards achieving that.”
“When you find something you’re passionate about, everything becomes easier – the long hours or early starts instantly becomes doable because it’s an outcome you care about creating”.
FINDING YOUR PASSION
How can we go about finding that spark, that passion Melinda’s referring to?
Volunteering is a really great way to explore the world and try different experiences until you narrow your niche on something that absolutely lights you up!
“Especially in wildlife rehabilitation, every carer needs an extra set of hands – and this can be a great way to build your skills and experience working with different animals… it’s not always glamorous work but it can be so rewarding to feel part of the bigger-picture solution”
Melinda also suggests speaking to people in the field you’re interested in, and considering the time requirements and how it will fit into your lifestyle:
“Especially if you’re interested in wildlife caring, it can be so rewarding, but can take up so much of your time. Think about it and chat to people who are already carers just to make sure that it’s something that’ll work for you and fit your lifestyle”
“I started caring for wildlife during lockdown with so much time on my hands and absolutely nothing else to do… Then I had to go back to work and realized how much time caring absorbed!”
SUPPORTING KANIMBLA WOMBATS
For anyone living near wombat habitat or near Kanimbla Wombats, treating mange-affected wombats is a fantastic thing that people can do to help their wildlife because there is no at home caring requirement. Melinda explains –
“Rather than bringing them home, you’re adding it to your routine, going out each week to treat the wombats, then monitoring their recovery using camera traps – and throughout this process, you experience the beautiful behavior of these charismatic creatures”
Other ways to help out include:
• Raising awareness of mange in wombats through public education
“Spreading the word and educating people about what mange looks like in wombats and how we can prevent it is so important – both online and through conversations”
• Fundraising to support Kanimbla Wombats
“We are pushing for government and private support to treat these national icons. From a financial standpoint, it costs $200 AUD to treat one Wombat for mange. We’ve been really successful in our last year of fundraising online which has allowed us to treat over 200 wombats for mange”
Pushing for better funding for wildlife conservation is a really important part of the process because at the end of the day, this is our natural heritage that we’re talking about. And if it disappears on our watch, it affects us all. As Melinda says:
“What if we lose wombats? How am I going to explain that to future generations – what went wrong? Australia has one of the highest extinction rates for species in the world. And that’s devastating.”
Not many people realise that when we are speaking about extinctions, it isn’t just a thing of the past. The most recent mammal extinction in Australia, the Bramble Cay Melomys disappeared in 2016 – highlighting that extinction is relevant, it’s tangible and in so many cases, it is highly preventable.
“I feel so inspired when I see younger generations caring about nature conservation, and so grateful to see the positive impact we can make for wombats in the Kanimbla Valley”
KEEP IN TOUCH
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