December 21st, 2023Hepburn Wildlife Shelter under threat
The future of much-loved Hepburn Wildlife Shelter hangs in the balance with DEECA threatening to enforce the removal of all wildlife in its care from early in the new year.
The departmental threats come after the shelter, that’s been operating for more than two decades, refused to reapply to renew its authorisation (or licence) due to the imposition of conditions which the shelter’s operators say are “unrealistic, unreasonable and absurd”.
Highly experienced local wildlife carers Jon Rowdon BSc and Gayle Chappell BSc have been running the shelter just out of Daylesford for 22 years, rehabilitating hundreds of orphaned and injured wildlife annually, and say it’s the first time the department has ever attempted to enforce such conditions.
“We can’t reapply for our authorisation because we can’t operate under those conditions,” Ms Chappell says.
Their current authorisation to function as a wildlife shelter is due to expire on December 31 with tensions building for the past year and coming to a head this week.
On Wednesday amid the threats, Ms Chappell and Mr Rowdon had been expecting DEECA officers to visit and inspect the shelter that currently has some 100 animals, including some threatened species, in its care.
Anticipating the visit, on Wednesday Mr Rowdon, Ms Chappell, fellow wildlife carers, shelter operators and rescuers from across the region, and Animal Justice Party representatives, gathered at the shelter in a show of support.
But at the eleventh hour the DEECA representatives themselves cancelled their visit and failed to show.
“We’re a good shelter. They need to extend our authorisation to at least allow us to keep the animals currently in our care to the end of their rehabilitation, and essentially they need to engage with us properly,” Ms Chappell said.
She says they and a concerning number of other shelter operators have been subject to “bullying” from the Department of Energy, Environment and Climate Action (DEECA).
A letter, dated December 18, to the Hepburn Wildlife Shelter from Ash Burns, Regulatory Program Manger with the department reads:
“Please be aware that from 1 January 2024, any wildlife acquired under your authorisation must either be released or transferred to another authorised shelter or foster carer with the appropriate skills and experience to continue their care.”
Among the most experienced wildlife carers in Australia, Ms Chappell and Mr Rowdon say that forcing the relocation of animals currently in their care to other shelters would be extremely stressful for the animals and potentially risk causing some to die.
They and other shelter operators like Manfred Zabinskas OAM of the East Trentham Wildlife Shelter say there’s a critical need for wildlife shelter operators, carers and rescuers to be enabled meaningful input into the regulation of the sector which is entirely volunteer-run and unfunded yet provides a crucial service.
The brewing crisis at the Hepburn shelter highlights the far wider need for the work of the state’s wildlife carers, rehabilitators, rescuers and shelter operators to be properly valued and funded accordingly, they say.
“Wildlife rescues and calls to Wildlife Victoria have been dramatically increasing over the last couple of years, says Greendale based wildlife rescuer and foster carer Trevor Crawford.
“We’re all volunteers and we get no funding support at all,” says Mount Alexander region wildlife rescuer Glynn Jarrett, also on site on Wednesday.
“We do it because we love it and we rely on people like Gayle and Jon. If we lose this shelter we’re really going to struggle.
“We feel the department is working against us not with us.”
The Hepburn Wildlife Shelter is understood to be the largest such shelter in the state and Ms Chappell said the Animal Justice Party is now making ministerial representations on its behalf.
A Conservation Regulator spokesperson with the department has since confirmed that the Conservation Regulator had “received further communication from the authorisation holder indicating they would like to continue operating beyond the expiry date”.
“This request will be assessed with consideration of the minimum legal requirements for shelters and carers to operate under the Wildlife Act 1975 and relevant Code of Practice.” she told The Local.
She also said: “The Conservation Regulator cancelled a planned inspection at Hepburn Wildlife Shelter on 20 December 2023 due to the prioritisation of other operational matters”.
Words: Eve Lamb