Zoos Victoria Wildlife Health and Welfare Specialist - Dr Leanne Wicker

Picture Credit: Zoos Victoria

The devastating impacts of the summer bushfires are still being felt around Australia. As the country grapples to restore livelihoods and ecosystems, RSPCA Victoria and Zoos Victoria have been working together to better prepare response systems to protect wildlife in future disasters.

One of these initiatives is a newly created specialist role at Zoos Victoria, which has been funded by RSPCA Victoria. Dr Leanne Wicker is a Senior Veterinarian who has recently been appointed in this new role as a Wildlife Health and Welfare Advisor. We spoke with Leanne about her experience and why she is so excited about the opportunity this position provides.

Tell us about the new wildlife role at Zoos Victoria that has been funded by bushfire donations to RSPCA Victoria and Zoos Victoria?

The Wildlife Health and Welfare Advisor is a strategic role that aims to address some of the key wildlife health and welfare issues for Victoria. I will lead the development of an action plan to ensure that research efforts, funding and other resources can be better targeted to address some of the key knowledge gaps in wildlife health and welfare. We aim to ensure that wildlife health and welfare considerations are fully integrated into emergency response plans, threatened species recovery programs, and environmental protection policy. 

This role aims to ensure that wildlife health and welfare science underpins our approaches to managing and caring for wildlife in Victoria, ensuring our amazing animals thrive in healthy, biodiverse ecosystems well into the future.

What experience do you bring to the role?

I bring a really wide range of experience to this role which will support a very holistic approach to this work and allow me to remain empathetic to the different contributions each of the different stakeholders bring to improving our approach to wildlife health and welfare in Victoria.  

I’ve been a vet since 2003, moving into mixed practice in Tasmania after graduating from the University of Sydney. The practice I worked in provided veterinary assistance to Department of Primary Industries, parks, Water and Environment, and saw many of the wildlife carers of Southern Tasmania. It was there that I raised my first orphaned marsupials, including a tiny, critically endangered Eastern barred bandicoot whose mother was killed by a cat attack. It was a steep learning curve, as we faced many of the anthropogenic challenges facing wildlife globally.

From Tasmania I had an opportunity to work as a veterinarian in a transdisciplinary, climate change research team, spending a summer in Antarctica.  I anaesthetized Weddell seals to allow ecologists to attach advanced GPS devices to follow the seals as they travelled beneath the sea ice - the data obtained improved our understanding of the impact of climate change in the Southern Ocean.

I’ve also worked in the illegal wildlife trade in Vietnam, leading a project to understand the significant risk the global wildlife trade poses to both human and animal welfare.

I’ve been with Zoos Victoria since 2013 as the Senior Veterinarian at the Australian Wildlife Health Centre (AWHC) at Healesville Sanctuary. Last year, we saw just under 2000 sick, injured or orphaned animals. We work with wildlife carers, Victoria’s Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) and other veterinarians to rehabilitate these animals and release them back to the wild. It’s incredible to see animals get back to the wild where they belong.

In January 2020, we found ourselves facing unprecedented bushfires here in Victoria.  I was part of the team leading Zoos Victoria’s response to sick and injured wildlife, working with DELWP and the RSPCA to establish the triage response, and overseeing the veterinary care and rehabilitation of animals that were transferred to our specialized veterinary hospitals. I had the privilege of leading a collaborative effort in the monitored release of 14 koalas back to their wild homes in East Gippsland.

I am really excited about t this new role of Wildlife Health and Welfare Advisor and the opportunity to help  develop a more coordinated approach to wildlife welfare here in Victoria. 

Picture credit: Zoos Victoria

What do you see as the greatest challenges ahead?

It’s impossible to ignore the impacts of the climate crisis on wildlife here in Australia. Over the past few years, we have increasingly seen the devastation caused by bushfires, floods, storms and extreme heat events. I think one of the biggest challenges is going to be ensuring we have developed the research capacity, trusted relationships and flexibility to adapt our approaches to managing wildlife health and welfare in this ever-changing world.

We also know that, while we are all motivated by the same goal – to ensure healthy environments where both animals and our communities can thrive – many of our processes and systems operate in silos.  While there are some incredible research projects already underway, many individuals and organisations have developed specialised areas of understanding and our Indigenous communities have a very long-standing connection to the land and animals. However, this knowledge isn’t always incorporated into policy and approaches to wildlife health and welfare in Victoria. Our challenge is to make sure we reach out respectfully and openly, learning from each other, and moving forward together to get the best outcomes for wildlife, our environment and our communities.

The public has been incredibly supportive through donations. How else might they help?

We know that the public is really motivated to help when they see wildlife impacted by emergencies. So much of the incredible work and research we have seen over the past 12 months has been a result of the incredible donations we saw coming in from the public, and we are so appreciative of that support.

There are other things members of the public can do. If they find any sick or injured wildlife, or find orphaned animals, they can call Wildlife Victoria’s hotline or access DELWP’s online ‘Help for Wildlife’ tool, which provides a step-by-step guide on who to contact, or how and where people can safely transport the animal themselves to an appropriate care provider.

Some people might be living in an area that is undergoing significant change, for example rural areas developing into urban communities. Contacting Wildlife Victoria or DELWP as soon as concerns are raised is the best way to ensure we can mitigate the impacts on wildlife welfare as soon as possible.  This is a really challenging area, so it’s important that members of the public don’t try to intervene without expert advice.

People often want to ‘do’ something, but in many cases the best intentions can have negative impacts on wildlife. For example, feeding the incorrect food to animals – such as sausages, steak or mincemeat to magpies – can lead to really detrimental impacts on magpie health, particularly if they are then feeding these foods to their young. It’s really important that people seek advice from experts before they try to provide any care or food to Australian animals and birds.