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Canberra: city of animal lovers


July 15, 2012

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A small number of Canberra’s animal enthusiasts take their passion to the next level. PHILLIP THOMSON talks to one of them

Nora Preston of the Wildlife Carers Group, at the Callum Brae Nature Reserve, with a rescued female possum. Photo: Graham Tidy

SELF-DESCRIBED protector of animals Nora Preston sends out a media release.

It is about a dog she alleges is being mistreated. It sits on the owner’s verandah and she has taken photos of it and sent them to her mailing list.

”The dog still has not been seized and is still out there in the freezing day and night with no kennel,” she writes.

So I ask her how much trouble she has been in, doing this sort of community activism.

”They abuse you,” she says matter-of-factly, but does not want to say too much more about it.

She only adds: ”When I do that, I’m not on my own. We try to calm them down and just explain to them what they need to do to avoid legal action. Sometimes it takes months.”

Canberra has its fair share of animal lovers.

A small number of them take their animal enthusiasm to the next level, campaigning in the media and sometimes trying as hard as they can to remain anonymous as they break the law.

Outrage often spills into the letters page when there is a kangaroo cull.

Parkwood Farm, which produces eggs in Canberra’s north, was raided by a group of animal rights activists who destroyed equipment in March.

The farm will now switch from battery hen farming to producing cage-free eggs.

However, Preston says she does not endorse law breaking, such as trespass. It would only hurt her ability to get things done the right way, she says, through lobbying.

She does not approve of the damaging of private property. She is more of a supporter of the media campaign, despite the dirty looks she might get from pet owners.

She has no qualms about stepping in and calling the authorities on short notice.

When she saw a man displaying cockatoo wings on the dashboard of his car, she called the police.

”I could just imagine him ripping [the wings] off a live cockatoo,” she says (although there is no proof the man did this).

She also stepped in when she saw a cockatoo being ”stomped on” at Queanbeyan in April. ”That cockatoo is still being rehabilitated, it’s been on antibiotics.”

The bird is now with one of the 20 volunteers in her Wildlife Carers Group.

Preston, the owner of two cats and one dog, started bird watching in the 1970s. After joining the local Wildlife Foundation in the 1980s, she later founded her own organisation, which she says is funded from her own pocket and receives up to 10 calls a day regarding animal welfare matters.

The group doesn’t give names to animals it rescues, although Preston is not against the practice.

The focus is on healing the animals’ wounds until they are released rather than handling them. ”We don’t want to turn them into pets,” she says.

Each year Preston says her organisation receives dozens of calls about snakes in backyards, echidnas on the road and possums in the roof.

A person must be patient to remove a possum from a house.

”They are very territorial,” she says. A possum box must be added to the roof, so the possum can mark it with its smells. When this is done, the box can be put in a nearby tree and the entry into the roof blocked.

Occasionally when her volunteers are called out to possum jobs, the noises in the roof turn out to be rats and mice.

”We don’t deal with those,” she says. ”People have to call the pest controllers.”

If echidnas are picked up from the road they should be placed off the bitumen in the direction they are travelling in. Otherwise, they may become disoriented from where their young, known as puggles, are located.

So how much animal cruelty, whether deliberate or through ignorance, exists in the ACT?

Figures show that the territory’s RSPCA animal welfare inspectors responded to 1100 complaints in the past year. Further action only needed to be taken in less than three per cent of those cases, according to the RSPCA chief executive Michael Linke.

In the past year, six animals in the ACT have been so neglected they have been seized immediately.

Some of the worst cases end up in court.

Two recent cases involved people who allegedly injured their own cats. Inspectors seized the cats and both cases are progressing through the court system.

In another case, inspectors seized an emaciated dog they believed was in imminent risk.

”A case involving a horse also involved failure to provide adequate food to a point of starvation and the horse was seized,” Linke says.

One matter currently before the juvenile court involves a 16-year-old boy who allegedly killed and tortured a number of dogs.

Clearly Preston believes her Wildlife Carers Group has an important part to play in tending to the animals that the RSPCA and other organisations do not get to.

And she believes people and humans are crossing paths more regularly as housing developments continue across the ACT.

This is perhaps most obvious in the ACT government’s kangaroo culls. Preston is passionately opposed to any kangaroo culls, questioning the ACT government’s statement that the shooting is done by experienced marksmen.

Up to 2015 eastern grey kangaroos were killed in the latest cull in May and June.

A survey of 600 Canberrans by Territory and Municipal Services, found 79 per cent were supportive of kangaroo culling under some circumstances and 70 per cent were supportive of culling for conservation of small grassland and woodland animals.

An online poll by The Canberra Times in May found 41 per cent of those polled supported culling.

Ask Preston and she undoubtedly believes most people are against the culls. And she will use all her powers to stop the deaths.

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