Meet a LAOKO volunteer – Michael Milne
This time we chat with Michael Milne, one of LAOKO’s longstanding carers and our secretary. Together with his wife Linda, Michael has cared for and released hundreds of native animals over the last forty years, beginning in the desert of northern Western Australia. Mick’s life has not only been dedicated to wildlife care, but also shaped by it.
Hi Michael! How did you get into wildlife care?
I was in the Navy for 37 years. I’d been based in the United States, which is where Linda and I married. Upon returning to Australia in 1983, I was posted to an American naval base at Exmouth, Western Australia, about 1200 kilometres north of Perth. Despite being on the coast it’s a desert environment: barren and remote. But there was wildlife everywhere; mostly red kangaroos and emus.
Driving back and forth to work at the naval communications station, I would often see dead wildlife on the side of the road. Exmouth is a tourist area, so many animals were hit. Because I was working on ships overnight, I would often be one of the first people on the road in the morning to see them.
There was no one else looking after wildlife up there at that time. It was accepted back then that if a mother was killed on the road, the joey would die. In all the time we were up there, we never encountered another person caring for joeys. The naval bases comprised 400 Americans and only 50 Australians, and these were mostly temporary postings. A lot were young people living in barracks and it would have been difficult to care for wildlife.
We started caring because we felt there was no other choice: we felt we had to do something if we saw something wriggling in a pouch. We had a house and a backyard. We didn’t have any children; we could put our time and our maternal/paternal instincts into it. We both loved animals – it was a no brainer for us.
What were those first experiences of caring for wildlife like?
We flew by the seat of our pants! Back in the early 80s, there was no milk formula specifically for macropods, and the nearest vet was 400 kilometres away in Carnarvon. There was no internet so we couldn’t look things up, and there certainly weren’t the wildlife networks that exist today. We started anyway. We had contact with some carers in Perth from whom we sought advice, and so began a process of trial and error. We used a human milk formula, supplementing it with eggs and yoghurt which would bring the formula closer to the protein requirements that kangaroos need.
What did you care for up there?
Our first joey was a western wallaroo, or euro – a distinctive red wallaroo that lives in Western Australia – called Rufus. Our second joey was a red kangaroo and we fell in love with reds: they’re so unique, and perfectly suited to the red desert. It was amazing to see those macropod instincts come forth in the joeys. It would get to 48 degrees in the summer, and our joeys would instinctively lie under our Christmas tree!
How long have you been caring for wildlife?
40 years next year almost continuously. Because of my Navy postings, it was intermittent at times. When we moved to Canberra – or anywhere where we could have joeys – we took it back up again. That’s when we were introduced to LAOKO, about 15 years ago. We started looking after joeys on LAOKO’s behalf in Canberra as they needed more carers. Our joeys were brought back to Cooma to be released.
So was it LAOKO that brought you to live here?
In fact it was. After 37 years in the Navy, I had done everything there I wanted to, and it was time to say goodbye. The opportunity came up to buy 250 acres near Dalgety, and this suited us in terms of what we wanted to do with our joeys and the opportunity to provide a release site to LAOKO, which it needed. So it suited both our goals and LAOKO’s. Now we’ve been here 12 years.
What is your favourite species to care for?
We love wallaroos because of their character. They are intelligent, and bond to you very closely. They aren’t the mob animals that Eastern Greys are: they are the least social of all the macropods and live in remote areas down here. They grow slowly and stay with their mother for a long time, which means that as a carer you could have a wallaroo joey for 18 months to two years. Since a wallaroo learns everything from its mother, they grow quite dependent on you, they’ll do everything with you. They’ll sleep with you if you let them!
Our last wallaroo, named Crikey, would willingly sleep alongside Linda even when he had reached 15 kilograms in size. We had to ban him from the house eventually! But he would still hop up in the evenings to take his bottle… even then!
We’ve also cared for a lot of wombats – we’ve released about 30 here, both ours and those of other carers. We love their playfulness and naughtiness.
And we love Eastern Grey kangaroos of course – they are so lovable and gentle.
Swamp wallabies are really unique and while they bond with you, they become independent suddenly.
What is a challenging experience you’ve had while caring for wildlife?
As we both care for animals and provide a release site, we see every stage of a joey’s development. We see them regularly even after release, and this means we also witness their ailments. Over the drought, we saw diseases that wouldn’t normally affect released animals, and the hardest part was when we couldn’t do anything about it. Lumpy jaw, for instance, affected animals that were eating plants they wouldn’t normally eat, like shrubs, because the drought limited the availability of grass. To see an animal that you’ve raised as a pinkie, who keeps coming back year after year, die in the wild… well it’s heartbreaking to see their suffering. I’d never had to euthanase animals before we came here, but when lumpy jaw gets into the bone it’s hard to stop. Seeing diseases affect wild populations in the drought has been hard to watch.
Another challenging experience is providing a release site for unprepared animals. When people bring joeys to us for release, they put all their trust in us. But if that animal has not been prepared for life in the ‘semi-wild’ (pre-release), it can kill them. They have become so bonded to their carer that they can end up with stress myopathy. I feel it’s so important for carers to simulate the progression of maturity that a joey would get from living with its natural mother. You need to mirror what a mother would do in the wild, preparing them for independence. When I feel I’ve failed someone because an animal has died… that is so hard.
What about a wonderful experience you can share?
It’s wonderful when you see a kangaroo you’ve raised come back with their own joey. Not only had you saved that mother, but you gave her joey life too, because without all your love and care the next generation wouldn’t have been able to exist.
Another great thing is the recognition a kangaroo can have for you as its mother. We’ve got some here that are probably ten years old, but you can still scratch them under the chin and they recognise that bond and seem to gain comfort from that touch – especially eastern grey kangaroos, which are such tactile creatures.
We’ve had about 100 joeys since we’ve been here so it’s hard to isolate one experience. But every time a joey reaches one kilogram in weight we name it, and crack a bottle of sparkling. We write the joey’s name and the date on the cork, and store them in a glass bottle (yes, it’s a big bottle!). It’s nice to dig down to the bottom of the bottle and pull out old names – there are some wonderful memories in there. That particular joey might have only lasted a few weeks, or it might have lived ten years – but that little life was part of our life for a period of time. That’s special.
I really enjoy running LAOKO’s macropod training sessions. We have a skull which I use for demonstration. It’s Banjo, one of the first joeys we cared for here. Banjo was a runt, but grew up to be the king of our mob, siring many joeys. He had deep set eyes and you can see that in all his children. He finally died at the age of 12. Between 12 and 15 seems to be the maximum age for them out in the wild. He’d been fighting and finally succumbed to the younger ones that were coming through. He just died under a tea tree. I reclaimed his skull, though it did not feel morbid to do this. I like to think that Banjo has come full circle: now he helps other animals by being part of the training process.
How do you juggle work, life and caring for wildlife?
It can be hard – sometimes we’ve had ten joeys at a time when carers have been hard to come by. But that’s where teamwork comes in: Linda and I share the load. We share evenings and Linda does the night shift. I get up at 4.30-5am to do the morning feeding and fill all those little faces with bottles. Then we get up and do it all again the next day and the cycle continues. We don’t want to be in a situation where our whole life is dominated by joeys, but during the drought and the ski season there was such an influx of joeys needing care that we perhaps took on more than we should. We’re lucky that we don’t have other animals or children to look after; we have the luxury to put all our time into our joeys. Sure, we don’t have a social life as such! But I’m lucky that I like the people I work with and can bond with them, and for Linda, the animals are her special contacts. Caring for wildlife is not something I’d recommend doing as a diversion, you have to put your heart and soul into it.
What would you say to someone who is considering becoming a carer?
Whether through a macropod course or meeting people at the markets, I do try to express to people the level of commitment that’s necessary. It’s not just a warm and fuzzy pet. You need motivation and passion to put the best care into that animal that relies on you for its life, happiness and long-term viability. It’s satisfying, but also a rollercoaster of emotions! You’d have to have a cold, dark heart not to be affected by the breadth of experiences available in wildlife care. I try to focus on the importance of mental health for carers as it can have a real impact on you. You might lose joeys though not through any fault of your own.
But the wonderful part is as simple as seeing that little face come out of a pouch. These animals have become orphaned due to the actions of humanity, and it is gratifying to redress that balance and create a positive outcome. I feel that all life is sacred and has value. If you can bring an animal into life that wouldn’t have otherwise survived, and you get to witness the development of its character, that is an amazing thing.
You shouldn’t be doing it for your own welfare, but do it for theirs.
It’s such a privilege to be part of that exchange between human and wild animals. It’s a unique experience.