Animal Crossing

Ben Goldfarb
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Fable came into the world climbing. After a monthlong gestation, she emerged blind and furless, an embryonic jelly bean endowed with little more than grasping claws and an instinctual map of her mother’s topography. She clambered from cloaca to pouch, found a teat in the warm dark, and latched on. Milk flowed into her. After a month she weighed as much as a quarter; after three, as much as a deck of cards. Her ears unfurled like spring leaves. Her eyes opened. She grew to the size of a human heart. She sprouted a layer of silver velvet. 

Then, in December 2017, on a rural road in Tasmania’s Central Highlands, Fable’s mother met a fate that befalls thousands of other wombats every year: she was killed by a car.

For most mammals, losing a mother means certain death. Had Fable been a baby fox concealed in a den, she would have starved. Wombats, however—like kangaroos and wallabies, koalas and quolls—are among Australia’s two hundred–odd species of marsupials, an infraclass whose young complete their development in a maternal pouch. Marsupial babies, called joeys, often survive collisions within their mothers’ bodies, the ultimate parental sacrifice. Animal-loving Tasmanians are thus trained to check the pouches of fresh roadkill and extract orphans found within.It was one such Good Samaritan who rescued Fable and delivered her, the week before Christmas, to a wildlife rehabilitator named Cory Young.

When, twenty months later, I met Fable at Young’s home, on the outskirts of Hobart, Tasmania’s capital, she’d grown into a muscly beast with the stout frame of an English bulldog.Young reached into her pool-sized outdoor pen and hoisted her out. She rested against his chest, claws splayed to reveal her belly, and stared at me placidly with small, glittering eyes. Her fur was a weave of coarse black and white hairs that transitioned from gray to mahogany when the sun struck them at the right angle. She looked as if she could run through a brick wall.

Young rearranged Fable’s bulk and encouraged me to tap her hindquarters.I rapped gently with my knuckles, expecting soft flesh, but instead met a hard surface, as though she wore Kevlar beneath her fur. “Wombats have this cartilage plate in their bums,” Young explained. “It’s basically the door to their burrow. What they do is run down and cork the entrance with their bottom to stop any dogs or dingoes from getting down there.” The plate also functions as a rear bumper in the mother, buffering her joeys against car strikes. “Babies can be perfectly fine in the pouch, Mom’s so big and robust,” Young said.

He set Fable down. She pressed her head against his leg and gummed his stylishly distressed jeans. “Bitey-bitey, are we?” said Josh Gourlay, Young’s fiancé. He pushed at her square head with his palm, riling her up as you would a rambunctious dog, then darted away. Fable followed, nipping at his high-tops. Wombats, Young said as we watched the chase, spend two years with their mother, then turn abruptly aggressive. “They become horrible,” he said affectionately. “They try to drive Mum out of her territory and take it over.”

Fable’s combativeness suggested she was approaching her own transformation, at which time she’d be ready for the wild. “There’s some sadness,” Young admitted. He had bottle-fed the wombat every four hours throughout her infancy. He’d wiped her bum, cleaned the handmade cloth pouch in which she’d slept, and taken her to his office every day, where she napped on an electric heating pad. He and Gourlay had taken one vacation in two years. Who could blame him for feeling attached? “But the emotion goes out the door,” he added, “because she wants to kill you.”

Besides, Young and Gourlay wouldn’t be alone—they’d already adopted their next wombat, an infant they’d named Archie. Roadkill orphans are everywhere in Tasmania, the island that hangs off Australia’s southeastern coast like a shark’s tooth. Scientists estimate that drivers flatten as many as three hundred thousand animals there every year, a death toll that’s earned it the moniker “roadkill capital of the world.” My time in Tasmania validated this reputation. On many two-lane highways, I could go hardly a kilometer without passing a slumped wombat or spread-eagled wallaby, some marked with spray paint to indicate that their pouches had already been cleared of joeys.

The task of managing this carnage falls to wildlife rehabbers, known throughout Australia as “carers.” It’s a charming term, one that evokes the tenderness of wildlife work better, perhaps, than the clinical rehabilitate, with its connotations of incarceration and addiction. Although every country has its animal-loving altruists, Australia’s carers are a uniquely robust force. A 2018 survey counted 15,500 registered carers in the country, Young estimates that 250 carers operate in Tasmania alone. (For comparison’s sake, my home county in Washington State has the same population as Tasmania—around a half-million people—but just one licensed rehabber, a veterinary hospital.) Australia’s carers, the survey found, collectively spend 370 million AUD (260 million USD) and devote 186 million hours to the cause every year. These unsung heroes, wrote the study’s author, “are a national asset that requires strategic nurturing with empathy, understanding, financial and psychological support.”

Wildlife work, as we commonly envision it, is the purview of government agencies, scientists, and nonprofits. In most American states, rehabbers must pass an examination or work as licensed veterinarians, and they tend to be affiliated with clinics or organizations. Tasmania’s carers, by contrast, are a scattered, under-resourced army of volunteers who don’t even need permits to house common species. Their avocation exposes them daily to death, grief, trauma, and a callous public; its outcomes are so uncertain that some of its practitioners question its utility. To care for animals is to open your heart and to harden it at once, every day. “People just don’t care about wildlife,” the Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht told me. “And then there are people who care so much that it almost kills them.”

In the annals of ecological history, Tasmania is infamous for what it has lost. When British colonists first landed on the island, in 1803, they found it inhabited by Aboriginal Tasmanians, who’d arrived some thirty-five thousand years earlier. They also found an animal that the Sydney Gazette described as a “species perfectly distinct from any of the animal creation hitherto known”: a lithe, carnivorous marsupial with powerful jaws, a stiff tail, and black stripes. The invaders called it the dog-headed opossum, the striped wolf, and, most memorably, the Tasmanian tiger. Scientists dubbed it the thylacine.

Whatever its name, the colonists agreed, it was a sheep-eating abomination. Livestock companies launched a ruthlessly effective bounty program that lasted until 1912, when there were hardly any more wild tigers left to kill. (Colonial officials also waged genocide against Aboriginal Tasmanians, dispatching soldiers and all-too-eager volunteers to imprison and kill the island’s native inhabitants.) On September 7, 1936, the world’s last known Tasmanian tiger died at the Hobart Zoo. Today the species survives only in the imaginations of obsessive thylacine truthers, who comb the bush for evidence of its survival, and in the hearts of wildlife carers, for whom the tiger is a sobering testament to humanity’s capacity for cruelty. “They’re my reminder of everything we’re fighting for, is that Tassie tiger,” a carer named Greg Irons told me.

I spoke with Irons as we wandered around Bonorong, Tasmania’s largest wildlife rescue sanctuary, located a half hour north of Hobart. In one paddock, Maria, a Tasmanian devil—a squat, fanged scavenger that is often killed by cars when they wander onto roads to eat animals who’ve already been killed by cars—trotted in dizzying circles, perhaps afflicted by brain damage from a collision. Another pen held Fry, a bettong (known also as a rat kangaroo), so named because his rescuers carried him to the sanctuary in an empty french fry box. In the clinic, a female Pacific black duck reclined on an exam table, her beak nestled in an oxygen mask as two technicians scrutinized X-rays of her wings. “You just never know what’s coming through the door,” Irons said.

Irons is fast-talking and jocular, his thick hands etched with animal-inflicted scratches and scars. He’d begun working at Bonorong when he was nineteen. At that time it was a small, run-of-the-mill zoo. In 2009, at the age of twenty-five, he scrounged up a loan and bought the place. Bonorong would no longer keep animals in cages, Irons vowed. Instead, it would become an ambulance dispatcher and emergency room: finding and rescuing animals, tending to their immediate needs, then funneling them to qualified carers for long-term rehab and release. He established a hotline through which any civilian could report an injured or orphaned creature, then began training volunteers. Rescuing is a delicate pastime, one that tests both humans and animals. Some creatures, like wombats and possums, can deliver a nasty bite; others, like wallabies, can evade capture even on broken legs. Joeys pose a special challenge in their “pink” stage, before their fur comes in: often, their lips fuse so tightly to their mother’s teat that the nipple has to be sliced off with a scalpel.

In 2010, the hotline’s first year, Irons’s team fielded 462 calls. In 2018, an estimated 9,000 calls came in, an average of around one per hour. Bonorong trained eighteen thousand rescuers during that time, perhaps eight hundred of whom remain active. His exhaustive promotion of the sanctuary has helped. At the Hobart airport, I’d been greeted by a rack of pamphlets titled “Furry Feathered Friends Alert,” on which Wendy the Wallaby proffered tips on animal-safe driving and advertised Bonorong’s number.

Bonorong’s rescue service operates out of a dilapidated trailer permanently parked at the sanctuary. I got a quick tour from one of its dispatchers, Melissa Gard, a prolific rescuer and carer who had a parrot, a lorikeet, a wombat, and a blue-tongue lizard in rehab back at home. The trailer’s interior was wallpapered with laminated affirmations: WHEN YOU FEEL LIKE QUITTING, REMEMBER WHY YOU STARTED; I AM ONLY ONE, BUT I AM ONE. A bulletin board reminded the on-duty dispatcher to caution rescuers against entering water, climbing ladders, or taking other risks in pursuit of wildlife. On an open laptop, a spreadsheet detailed one of yesterday’s cases, a pademelon—a diminutive member of the kangaroo family—that had been spotted near Glenorchy: “Broken right leg. Female. Unviable joey in the pouch.” When the hotline receives such a tip, Gard explained, the on-duty staffer sends a text to rescuers, many of whom sleep with their phones by their bedsides. “Even if it’s two o’clock in the morning, whoever is available responds,” Gard said. Bonorong claims to find rescuers for 99.4 percent of its calls.

Later, Gard introduced me to Tasmania’s most prolific rescuer, a bartender and veterinary student named Emma Lewis. Lewis is soft-spoken, with dark pupils that are permanently dilated from a snakebite she suffered years earlier, while escorting a lowland copperhead off the road. “I get headaches, but my vision’s a lot better at nighttime,” she said—not the worst outcome for a rescuer of nocturnal animals. In 2018, she conducted nearly six hundred rescues, most in the company of her then infant daughter, Ivy. Once, she scrambled down a cliff with Ivy tucked beneath one arm, then climbed back up with a broken-winged petrel in the other.

Now that Ivy was two years old, Lewis had suspended rescuing after 7:30 p.m. But she hoped to resume the practice when her daughter was older. She’d grappled with feelings of emptiness for years before she found Bonorong, she told me; saving animals filled a void. “I would give all my time if I could,” she said, her voice nearly drowned out by the sulphur-crested cockatoos screaming from a nearby tree. “I just feel like it’s given me a purpose.”

Nearly a century after the thylacine’s demise, an island notorious for extinction has been reborn as an ark. Bass Strait, the stretch of ocean that divides Tasmania from Australia, has also insulated its wildlife from the mainland’s pressures. Dingoes, likely introduced to Australia by Indonesian sailors four thousand years ago, never reached Tasmania. Invasive foxes, which have been implicated in the extinction of assorted bilbies and bandicoots, also failed to establish a presence. This means that native species like the bettong and the eastern quoll have persisted in Tasmania even as they have vanished elsewhere in Australia. The island’s most iconic species, the Tasmanian devil, was also once widespread on the mainland, until drought wiped it out there several thousand years ago.

Tasmania’s status as de facto wildlife refuge is, in large measure, what makes it a roadkill hotspot. The more animals you have, after all, the more end up crossing the road. Although collisions pose a grave threat to devils and other rare species, the most frequent victims—possums, wallabies, pademelons—are the most common, just as squirrels and white-tailed deer account for much of American roadkill. “In most cases, the species here can probably handle it,” a biologist named Alistair Hobday told me. Dead animals are so ubiquitous, Hobday added, that locals tend to be inured to them. The Tasmanian journalist Don Knowler has written that roadkill “even forms part of the local lexicon, to say nothing of the subject of jokes.” What do you call a platypus that crosses the road? You guessed it: a splatypus. When I asked a Hobart cab driver what animals he’d hit, he laughed. “Wallabies, mostly,” he said. “Got plenty of those things. No problem if you squish a few.”

Other countries plagued by roadkill have modified their infrastructure to accommodate wildlife. Two months earlier, in Brazil, I’d inspected a dirt-floored tunnel that permitted capybaras, tapirs, pumas, and other animals to cross unharmed beneath a busy highway. In the US, dozens of states have constructed roadside fencing and wildlife bridges and underpasses, fixes that reliably slash roadkill by more than 80 percent. Mainland Australia has embraced animal-friendly design as well. In the state of Victoria, poles and rope bridges coax tree-dwelling squirrel gliders across the Hume Highway. “We are a lucky country in terms of funding and political will,” Kylie Soanes, a Victoria-based ecologist, told me.

Tasmania, though, cannot boast such resources. Its small population generates paltry tax revenue for public works projects, and its fragile, logging-based economy is unstable. The state has Australia’s highest poverty and unemployment rates. “We’ve got hospitals that are in disarray here,” Irons fumed when I visited Bonorong. “There’s no proper drug rehab centers. We’ve got a 50 percent illiteracy rate.” (This seemed unfathomable to me but is borne out by a 2014 survey.) “We’re twenty years behind the rest of Australia.” Wildlife, when pitted against dire human needs, always loses. I saw little fencing and no wildlife crossings during my time on the island. Lately, Tasmania has outfitted a handful of roadsides with alarm systems, called “virtual fences,”  designed to warn animals about approaching cars. But some scientists question their efficacy. A biologist named Nick Mooney confirmed to me that the state’s efforts to prevent roadkill are “trivial overall.”

In that light, the phenomenon of wildlife carers seemed less a heartwarming example of charity than an indictment of public policy. My conversations with carers reminded me of those sappy viral stories in which a person makes a heroic personal sacrifice to patch a gaping hole in the social safety net: the son who opens a lemonade stand to fund his mother’s chemotherapy, the diabetic who crowd-funds her insulin, the couple who raises baby wombats orphaned by car culture. We force individuals to bear the weight of societal failure, then celebrate their resolve.

Among the carers shouldering the heaviest burdens is Teena Hanslow, coordinator of a carer network called Wildlife Bush Babies and Snake Rescue. The first time I stopped by Hanslow’s home, no one answered the door; I learned later that she’d been called away to deal with a female wallaby suffering from two broken and infected legs. Hanslow had swaddled the animal, who was docile with pain and shock, in a nest of blankets, bundled her into the backseat, and driven to a nearby field. Then she laid the stricken wallaby on the grass and pointed her .22 Ruger at the creature’s head. She stayed with the wallaby, as she always did, until the creature’s heart stopped.

Hanslow described this scene to me that evening in her cluttered living room, the low light filtering through floral drapes. She is in her late fifties, with a luxuriant blond mullet that would have impressed the members of Whitesnake. The discordant aromas of the barnyard and the hospital mingled in the air. Between us was a laundry basket heaped with pastel fabrics that I’d initially mistaken for dirty socks but that proved, upon closer inspection, to be hand-sewn pouches. Something rustled within the basket, and out popped the tapered pink muzzle of a baby wallaby. His head seemed several sizes too large for his scrawny torso. Hanslow pulled back the pouch to reveal his disproportionately long feet, furless and tipped with hooked black claws. They looked like they belonged to a bird of prey.

“This one’s had a broken toe—you can probably see how thick that one is there,” Hanslow said. “If it’s just a joint in the toe, they quite often can still cope. But if it was a bone in the leg, then I euthanize, because it means that animal will always be vulnerable.”

This is one paradox of caring: sanctifying life unavoidably requires dispensing death. “If you’re a wildlife carer and you’re not dealing with more dead animals than live animals, you’re not really doing it properly,” Cory Young had told me. Young keeps a sledgehammer in his truck to dispatch the mortally wounded; Hanslow prefers a gun—it’s more precise. She uses hollow-point bullets, which mushroom upon entrance. “That way it’s even more instantaneous,” she said.

Hanslow grew up detesting firearms. Her father, a former Australian Army sniper, participated in annual “roo shoots,” brutal culls of Tasmania’s kangaroos. Then, in her twenties, she started a job whose commute took her along a grisly stretch of highway. “I’d be pulling these animals off the road that were still alive, but they would be paralyzed,” she told me as she fed the wallaby formula from a shot glass–sized bottle. Their anguish became her own. “It got to a stage where I wanted to have control over the pain the animals were in,” she said. “So I thought, Well, gotta get your firearms license.” In her father’s hands, a gun had been a tool of destruction; in Hanslow’s, it was an instrument of mercy.

Through anatomical study and grisly practice, she taught herself the finer points of euthanasia. Thick-skulled wombats have to be shot through the back of the head. The brains of macropods—the family that includes kangaroos, wallabies, and pademelons—are located just behind the ears. Hanslow often caresses their furred jawlines to find the best entry point, an intimate touch in life’s final moments.

Although Hanslow radiates tough competence, mercy killings are often emotionally distressing for carers. In the 1990s, a psychologist named Charles Figley popularized the term compassion fatigue to describe a form of suffering experienced by therapists, nurses, social workers, and other professionals constantly exposed to their patients’ pain. Over time, Figley broadened the concept to encompass people who work with traumatized animals. “Animal caregivers are among the most susceptible to compassion fatigue because of the toll that performing euthanasia takes on their psyche,” he wrote in a book coauthored with the Humane Society of the United States. Studies have found that half of animal care workers face feelings of depression or hopelessness, and that American veterinarians commit suicide between 2 and 3.5 times more often than the general public. Empathy is both a gift and a vulnerability. “There is a cost,” Figley added, “to caring.”

Yet wildlife rehabilitation provides comfort as well as pain. Cory Young told me he had contemplated suicide during a period of personal crisis. Caring helped him survive. “Just that sense of responsibility—there were three or four other lives that were dependent on my life,” he said. Teena Hanslow had weathered her own trials. As a young woman, she’d been diagnosed with lupus, an autoimmune disease that attacked her brain and spine. Her vision deteriorated; she suffered a stroke. She spent nights in a wheelchair, awake and in agony.

“The animals actually kept my mind off the pain,” Hanslow recalled. “Back then I had bandicoots, devils, pademelons, potoroos—you name it, I had it. They gave me the will to keep going. I sort of feel like I owe it to them now for the rest of my life. They keep me going and vice versa.”

Hanslow is healthy enough today to work as a home aide, often for terminally ill patients. Her joeys accompany her on house calls. “I can turn up and pop them in bed with people in their pouches,” Hanslow told me, tucking the wallaby into her own sweatshirt. “They look forward to seeing me. It’s always, you know, ‘Have you got any babies at the moment?’ It gives them a glimmer.”

In recent years, Australia’s wildlife carers have become an endangered species in their own right. Mental and monetary stress are among the culprits. In a survey administered by a carer named Bruce Englefield, rehabbers reported spending an average of $3,700 annually on wildlife. More than a quarter had experienced financial hardship. Attrition takes its toll too—nearly 70 percent of Australia’s carers are older than forty-six—as does a decades-long, society-wide decline in volunteerism. “Unless we do something in the immediate future, the outlook is pretty grim,” Englefield told me. 

I met Englefield for tea at the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens one blustery afternoon. The sky was bruised, the rain fitful, and a flock of plump native-hens skittered across the grounds like billiard balls. Englefield was born in England near the end of World War II and spent his young adulthood working in television, first as a BBC engineer and then as sound director for the comedian Benny Hill. His true passion, though, was training sheepdogs, and his affinity for animals proved so natural that friends solicited his help with their own pets and livestock. At fifty-one, Englefield quit TV, earned a masters in animal behavior, and opened a counseling practice. “I got the difficult cases, you know—the dog was biting the postman, the cat was peeing on the boyfriend, all those sorts of things,” he said.

In 2001, Englefield and his wife, Maureen, visited Tasmania on a friend’s recommendation. Driving along the shoreline one day, they stumbled upon a zoo called East Coast Birdlife and Animal Park, where Englefield beheld a Tasmanian devil for the first time. He watched the glowering carnivore for an hour, enthralled. Over lunch at the park’s restaurant, Englefield, having noticed a for-sale sign, summoned its owner and asked how much he wanted for the joint. On the spur of the moment, he and Maureen bought the zoo.

He’d arrived in the nick of time. Since 1996, devil populations had been ravaged by Devil Facial Tumor Disease, a contagious cancer transmitted when the animals bite one another while mating or fighting for food. Englefield rechristened the park Natureworld and converted part of it into the flagship refuge for what he called the Devil Island Project, a collection of fifty-acre quarantine facilities throughout Tasmania where devils could thrive in a controlled simulacrum of wildness. He also began to rehabilitate other species, and gradually came to doubt the efficacy of releasing orphaned creatures into the wild. A wombat he freed in a national park fifteen kilometers from Natureworld, for instance, wandered home two weeks later. Englefield’s son-in-law found it sleeping on a dog bed.

“It was very sad for me, because after all the work I put in, that wombat should have been happy in the wild,” Englefield said. “But the wombat knew where it was best off. That triggered my thinking: Was I right to put it back?”

In 2017, with the devil population stabilizing, Englefield closed the Devil Island Project and earned a doctorate in veterinary science. This time, he decided to study the carers as well as the animals. He distributed surveys to carer networks around Australia, collecting data on their demographics, expenditures, and techniques. His findings disturbed him: Less than 5 percent of creatures received identifying tags, microchips, or collars upon release. Absent such monitoring, it was impossible to know whether rehabilitated animals were surviving their freedom. It struck him as perverse to release an orphaned wallaby in the same roadkill-strewn environment that had annihilated its mother. “The paradox here,” Englefield lamented in one paper, “is that animals are being rescued, raised for release and returned to the site of the traumatic event that brought them into care.”

The carers themselves didn’t seem to be faring much better. Englefield’s surveys revealed that more than a quarter of Australia’s rehabbers suffer from moderate to severe grief. To Englefield’s mind, this chronic compassion fatigue stems partly from the uncertain success of releasing animals—it’s a lot easier to burn out when you don’t know whether your labors are effective.

To improve outcomes for both rescuers and wildlife, Englefield has called for a dramatic overhaul of the animal rehabilitation system. Most radically, he believes that hand-reared orphans, the bread and butter of caring, shouldn’t be released directly into the wild. While rescued adult animals grow up in hardscrabble nature, learning from their own mothers how to survive predators, hunger, and drought, joeys raised by people from infancy have had no such experiential training. “It’s not a bloody rest home out there,” Englefield said. He advocates for a system resembling Devil Island, a series of enclosures where animals can learn the ropes of wildness, like a marsupial halfway house.He’s also called for improved mental health services for carers and subsidized food banks for joeys.

Those resources, though, would require significant government support. Many Australian states, including Tasmania, cull kangaroos and wallabies at the behest of farmers, who accuse the native herbivores of depleting crops and livestock fodder. The work of carers undercuts these control efforts. In 2016, the state of New South Wales issued permits for the killing of 136 wombats, 308 swamp wallabies, and an astonishing 170,290 eastern grey kangaroos. Meanwhile, New South Wales’s carers rehabilitated and released more than 14,000 marsupials. In 2018, Victoria floated a ban on rescuing species deemed “overabundant,” a proposal that critics decried as a “strategy to silence” carers.

“Their attitude is: Well, you don’t have to be a carer,” Englefield told me as we watched the native-hens scuttle through the rain. “Nobody asked you to do it. It’d be much simpler if we just shot or euthanized all the animals. But who’s going to pay for that? The carers provide one hell of a service for free.”

In January, Australia’s carers, who had toiled for so long in obscurity, suddenly became international celebrities. The continent, parched and heated by climate change, ignited; wildfires torched more than twelve million acres, mostly along the eastern seaboard. To my surprise, news coverage of the fires bemoaned not only human deaths and property loss but also the toll on wildlife. The New York Times ran a terrifying photo of a kangaroo silhouetted by orange flames. Scientists estimated that 480 million animals had died, then more than 1 billion. Stories about carers were everywhere: carers knitting mittens for koalas whose hands had burned, carers fleeing the fires with carloads of possums, carers bottle-feeding baby fruit bats. Everyday acts of empathy, now hitched to a crisis, became newsworthy.

As thrilled as I was to see carers receiving global recognition, the accolades seemed both overdue and beside the point. On one of my last evenings in Tasmania in 2019, I’d followed a dirt road up a succession of switchbacks into dense eucalyptus forest to visit Dennis and Renata Freedman, carers who had invited me to witness the release of a pademelon named Smoocho. Cold rain spattered my windshield; dead wallabies marked the route like cairns. I found the Freedmans’ single-room cabin in a clearing overrun by dozens of damp white chickens. Dennis—rangy and weathered, with a gray beard that cascaded to his sternum—cracked the door against the downpour and I slipped inside. A bed stood in one corner, a cooking range in another, an armchair in a third. Firewood was heaped by the glowing stove, beneath which crouched a pademelon named Molly, ears twitching. A floral-patterned pouch hung from a rack like a Christmas stocking, its contents stirring faintly. A cat named Barney nuzzled my leg. Dennis kicked a bulky wooden chest. “That’s full of pouches,” he said. They were donations from Helping Hands, a sewing circle of elderly volunteers.

“Might go through four or five a day if one’s got the runs,” Renata said genially from the kitchen corner, where she was heating a pot of formula.

Renata and Dennis had met in Melbourne, introduced by their mutual pot dealer, and eventually moved to Tasmania, where Dennis grew up. Upon arriving, Renata said, she’d been “gobsmacked” by the roadkill. “Everyone sort of lamented it, but no one did anything about it,” she said. “So I thought, Well, fuck it. I’m gonna do something.” They learned to care through books and began taking in orphans, as many as nine at a time. “I carried ’em around in all these sling-type things and shoulder bags. I was just laden down with joeys,” Renata said. The situation was not improved by the pademelons’ sulfuric farts. “By the end of that stint we were like the walking dead.”

After I met Cory Young and Josh Gourlay, who together spend fifteen thousand AUD on their wards each year, I’d assumed that caring required wealth—the formula, the drugs, the vet visits. The Freedmans’ modest home suggested that privilege did not hold a monopoly on rehabilitation. As a younger man, Dennis had worked in a factory, served as his union’s representative, and played guitar in a metal band called Warsore; later, I found video of him shredding in Tokyo, dreadlocks swinging. Today, though, he and Renata subsist primarily on government pensions. “Now I just sit in the bush by myself,” he said as he wiped greenish turds from a baby wallaby’s bum with a paper towel, “listening to Wagner and raising joeys with me wife.”

After a time the rain let up and blue darkness swallowed the cabin. Renata declared that it was time to release Smoocho, and we went outside. Pale mist wreathed the dripping eucalypts, rendering the glade at once funereal and magical, like the set of a Tim Burton movie. Behind the house, a pademelon the color of charcoal crouched within a canvas-sided enclosure, squatting in the curiously upright posture characteristic of the kangaroo family. He looked like a rabbit trained to stand on its hind legs.

Without ceremony, Dennis unlatched the door. “C’mon, Smoochie!” Renata called, clucking her tongue. The pademelon bounced around the pen like a Ping-Pong ball, flagrantly disregarding the open door. “Guess he’s been institutionalized,” Renata laughed. “Whoops.”

But Smoocho didn’t linger for long. Barney the cat brushed past our legs and into the pen, and Smoocho, alarmed, burst out the door and rocketed downhill, a gray streak slaloming through wet brush. He reached the forest in a few bounds and vanished.

“Barney, you’re a shithead,” Renata said.

“Smoochie hasn’t had a great deal of interaction with other paddies, but he should be OK,” Dennis said. “There’s plenty his age out there.”

Sure enough, I realized, an eerie battalion of pademelons had begun to materialize silently from the bush, as though teleported into the clearing. Two sat at my feet, obsidian eyes glittering, gazing up as though in supplication—then five, then a dozen, flocking to the site of their upbringing like salmon returning to their natal stream. Dennis cast a bucket of pellets onto the ground and the pademelons munched softly.

“These ones are so full of personality, the paddies,” Renata said fondly.

“They give as much love back as you love them,” Dennis agreed. He stooped to receive one audacious animal, rubbing the creature’s chest with his knuckles. “Floydie!”

“We’ve had him since he was pink, that one,” Renata said.

Pink Floyd leaned into Dennis’s hand, enjoying a scratch in a spot his own stubby forearms couldn’t reach. Renata opened the door and Floyd hopped over to sit in its frame, staring inscrutably into the warm, well-lit room where he’d spent his youth. Not every wildlife rehabber, I suspected, would have approved of the surreal scene: the tame pademelons appearing each night to feast on chicken feed, habituated to the couple who’d raised them. It occurred to me later, though, that the Freedmans had, intentionally or not, created one of Bruce Englefield’s proposed halfway houses—a facility where animals could acclimate to the wild while still being assured of a square meal from a couple with seemingly boundless compassion. 

Months later, back at home, I encountered an essay by the writer Tom Junod about his friendship with Fred Rogers—that’s Mister Rogers to you and me. Their correspondence, which formed the basis of the film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, had been far-reaching and free-form, encompassing family, faith, love. Once, Junod told Rogers that he’d seen five people usher an ancient snapping turtle off a highway in Atlanta. Rogers suggested he write about it. Junod, a hard-boiled author of celebrity hatchet jobs, was nonplussed. What, exactly, made that a story? Replied the world’s kindest man: “Because whenever people come together to help either another person or another creature, something has happened, and everyone wants to know about it—because we all long to know that there’s a graciousness at the heart of creation.”

We may yearn for grace, but we don’t often extend it to wild animals. They are cannon fodder—displaced by development, hunted for sport, run over on roads. Rehabilitation, in a culture that considers wildlife disposable, is not only graceful; it’s radical. A hand-reared pademelon or two won’t affect the species’ numbers one way or the other, it’s true; yet the very act of caring affirms their inherent worth. A culture that considers each animal precious enough to care for—or to humanely euthanize, if it comes to that—is also one that protects its forests, punctuates its highways with wildlife crossings, and limits its greenhouse gas emissions. Caring is a measure of the graciousness within our own hearts. Wildlife care, the American rehabber Heather Pospisil has written, is less about saving species than “extending social justice and reparations” to individual animals—a practice motivated by bone-deep contrition.

That night, at the Freedmans’ house, Renata reached down to pat her prodigal pademelon on the rump. “C’mon, Floyd. You’re blocking the doorway,” she said. Floyd hopped inside, nose twitching as he inhaled the familiar aromas of his youth. He approached Barney’s food dish, sniffed again. And, as we watched from the doorway, a half-wild pademelon ate a bowl of cat food.

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