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Kangaroos – The 100 Days Project: Day 95 [6]

The Bathurst Project II

The team start arriving at the shed in the orchard somewhere between 6.30 and 7.00 p.m. Someone unlocks the compound and mans (or womans) the gate, letting people in and passing a few quiet words. Setting up for the night is methodical. The layout/processing area; the medic station. A mandatory call to the police to let them know what is going on, otherwise they may think there are shooters in the orchard and come to check, disturbing the whole process. The darters prepare in silence, and take a few practice shots to make sure everything is in order and working properly. As often as not there’s a new volunteer or maybe two, and everyone needs to be introduced to each other. There’s the safety talk to the assembled volunteers, and the plan for the night is outlined. They are told about the various risks involved, allocated rolls, given equipment.

Tonight there are enough people to allow three spotters to go out with the darter; they are the darting crew, and they head out straight away for their own briefing. Luckily they’ve all done it before, so it is kept short.

There are four carers in the shed – tonight including a vet – processing the animals. The darted kangaroos need to be ear-tagged (males the left ear, females the right; the crew all hate this job, do it as quickly and efficiently as they can), and they are weighed and measured as each is brought in. They are given a head to toe examination, and their general condition is scored. They are monitored carefully, and given a top-up of sedative to prevent them waking if they start to get twitchy. The carers keep a record of all they do, and they keep the kangaroos warm while they sleep and dream, awaiting transportation. Later – it’s usually around midnight – the kangaroos are loaded into the transporters, an art in itself, and they are driven an hour and a half to the release site, with a scheduled stop around half-way for a check-up. The passenger monitors the sleeping kangaroos throughout the journey, lest some roo starts to twitch their ears or show some other sign they’re starting to wake.  The transport/unload/recovery team normally only consists of three people – two drivers and an observer – though sometimes a separate vehicle will bring additional people to help with the unload and recovery observations. Six weeks they’ve been doing this so far. The physical and mental stamina of the core team needs to be strong, if they are going to get to the end.

Last night one of the big guys had been relocated, an old buck who weighed in at just under ninety kilos. Too big to carry safely on a stretcher, through the night-orchard, even with four of them. They had to pick him up in the four-wheel-drive, load him in the dark, and drive him back to the shed. They had taken five smaller ones with him. Tonight they are aiming to take seven of the smaller ones. Not that you can plan for it with any certainty. There’s always a chance for a doe with an at-foot joey, hard enough to keep together at the best of times, so you take them if you can. The at-foot will hop off when the mum’s darted, but will almost always come back. And hopefully, when they are darted, they won’t head off too far away in the dark. The spotters find the little ones particularly hard to keep track of. If there’s any rule other than keeping the mothers and joeys together it’s to keep the male/female balance in mind.

Tonight after the brief review of the procedure and a careful checking of their head torches, they’re off. The stretcher team loiters like a gang of youths near the open door of the shed, waiting for the call.

It goes fairly well. One of the young bucks tears off into the dark when the dart hits him but he is soon found, out like a light in the south-east corner, so he doesn’t hold them up. By 11.30 they have a mother and at-foot joey and four others, the two males slightly on the larger side so they decide that’s enough. Each one stretchered in, weighed while they’re still on the stretcher, then eased off and processed. Pouches are taped up to keep small joeys from falling out; large furred joeys are put into pouches if required.

Inside the shed it’s strangely quiet; everyone is focussed and attentive. They talk softly when they have to, but try to keep it to a minimum. There’s a chance sudden sounds might stir one of the sleepers, but it’s a slim chance only. The quietness is something more and almost everyone comments on it. A reverence, as they tag and measure and check condition, cover, keep warm, keep notes. An awe. These amazing, mysterious creatures, given suddenly into their hands. What would you not promise them? They find themselves gazing at paws, feet, ears, bellies, surreptitiously stroking cheeks, foreheads…

As the last one is darted in the field the medic starts to administer their travel doses – just enough to get them to the release site; they should be starting to rouse during the unload.  While the animals are being loaded into the transport vehicles there’s a chance for a break – the spotters, the carers, the transportation crew, comparing notes on the evening’s patients. The smokers and non-smokers alike, the coffee-drinkers, the tea-drinkers, in the light from the shed door, their breath rising into the night.

The vehicles stink of urine. You won’t believe how much pee there is inside a sedated roo. In the first weeks the amount of washing and drying of the towels and rugs and blankets needed every night was another big job. To get them clean and ready for the next load of urine. But then someone discovered puppy pads! One under each end (they salivate a lot while sedated, too), and the problem was solved (well eighty percent of the problem was solved; the stink is still there).

Farewells. Some of the helpers will see each other the next night, others will come once a week, or when they can. Some of the visiting volunteers are billeted in houses in town. Hallways become obstacle courses of sleeping-bags, mattresses, back-packs, equipment. They are happy to sleep in any room; on the floor is fine. But for now it’s transportation, the four-by-fours move off carefully into the night, the roos arranged like tetris in the back. At the half-way stop two roos need to be topped up. One night, a few minutes after they’d pulled over at the rendezvous, a police car stopped to check them out – two four-by-fours pulled over in the middle of nowhere, at 1.00 a.m.: definitely worth a look!

The officers were caught almost immediately in the spell, intrigued by what was going on, and relieved that they weren’t carcases in the back. I hate having to check the roo shooters, one of them said. In fact he said more but it can’t be repeated.

And onward to the release site. There are faint solar-powered lights hanging in the trees, illuminating the scene like moonlight. Two recovery enclosures, the large enclosure for the males, with a smaller annexure for the females and joeys. Around them are thousands of acres of woodland and bushland, into which the relocated roos will eventually be released. After they have been given time to acclimatise, and when they find their friends – their mother, their sister, their playmates – they won’t be so inclined to go off searching for their old home.

The semi-conscious animals are laid out for recovery. Some of them have their head up already. They are covered with a blanket. Kangaroos come quietly out of the dark, to sniff at the new arrivals.

There are tents, left permanently set up. There is a ground sheet and a tarp. There is a cup of tea and a muffin, or a cup of soup, out of a thermos (no fires, as the smoke could panic the animals in the nearby enclosure). Sometimes there’s a beer or glass of wine for those about to head to their pillow. There is some quiet talk. Its 2.30.

One of them sits up watching. If there is any trouble as they wake, this needs to be known as soon as possible. The fairy lights shed a dim glow over the wakers.

In the misty light of dawn you can see that all of the kangaroos have made it safely through the night. Mothers and bagged joeys are re-united. They are looking around, some of them are still a bit wobbly; they are being greeted by kangaroos who are already at the release site. One of the sub-adults is boxing the wet foliage of a Yellow Box sapling. The camp and enclosures seem cocooned in the mist.

The early risers have something to eat (more muffins), some drink slightly cooler tea or coffee, they watch the kangaroos for an hour or two. By ten-thirty the recovery team is on the road again, back to their homes in the mountains or wherever; back in Bathurst by midday. There’s a meal for those who want it. The best chance for proper sleep is between two and five in the afternoon. Then it all starts again.

Night after night, after night …

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