Goolwa will be squawking in the coming weeks with a contemporary retelling of the iconic 1976 film Storm Boy starring Academy Award winner Geoffrey Rush and fellow Australian actor Jai Courtney.
Wonderful performers they are, but the real star of the show will be Mr Percival. He’s a pelican, and rest assured tourists will converge on our spectacular Coorong and marvel at these flocks of Pelecanus conspicillatus in full flight.
However, before we get warm and fuzzy here is a story about another pelican called Floatie, and it is not entirely pleasant. For 16 weeks and three days the rescue team at the Wildlife Welfare Organisation (SA) at Goolwa – chief executive Rena Robinson and Veronica Teague – received countless phone calls from the public saying there was a pelican by the Goolwa Barrage with a fishing pencil float wrapped around his right leg.
Rena (pictured far right) recalls going there with Veronica all hours of the night trying to rescue the pelican they named Floatie. “If we threw fish to lure him during the day other pelicans would come from everywhere and snap them up while poor Floatie, who couldn’t put his right foot down, struggled behind them.”
Eventually, after Rena left invited guests for dinner on a Saturday night, they caught Floatie, and he is still recovering in the Australian Marine Wildlife Research & Rescue Organisation’s Torrens Island facility.
The real story and the proverbial star of this adventure is Rena, a former nurse who until five years ago worked for 12 years alone for the organisation – and never for one cent. She was on-call 24 X 7 and used her own money to pay for nearly all of the vet bills.
Come September, the WWOSA will officially open its new $75,000 office and recovery facility at Goolwa, and Rena is unsure how she will react when the significant moment arrives We believe her shreeks of joy when they captured Floatie on that wintry night were only a rehearsal for this event.
“This facility means a lot,” Rena said. “It highlights where we have come from.”
It has been a remarkable journey for this organisation launched in 1986, that is now unique to South Australia. When Rena joined in 2000 it had $300 in the bank, and had to pay its public liability insurance, volunteer insurance, feed for the wildlife, and medical supplies.
There was a time when Rena, a volunteer, paid for the lot. “Where else was the money going to come from?” she asked. “There are still no grants; we do not receive anything in funding. Every cent needs to be raised by ourselves.”
The organisation opened a tiny shop in 2013, and to get things to sell Rena grabbed all these shopping bags and dropped them at people’s doors asking (some say begging) for bric-a-brac to raise money. The bigger shop next door became vacant, and since shifting there business has grown.
By far, the real success has been the new facility, and in an environment where one may occasionally see cruelty to our wildlife, Rena said she has also seen first hand the kindness within the community.
The achievement has been made possible by the Alexandrina Council, which gifted the land, and the community, especially a host of special people including local builder Rob Moreley, of RSM Building. He rallied the tradespeople who either donated their time or materials or both, and even worked over Christmas to do the tiling himself.
“This is unique to South Australia,” Rena said. “Nearly all wildlife carers throughout the state work from home, and we have been home-based all these years. The only other-like centres are the koala hospital at Plympton, but that is attached to a vet clinic, and then you have the Australian Marine Wildlife Rescue and Research facility which predominantly deals with marine life. They have been amazing.”
Our Wildlife Welfare Organisation is bracing itself for the baby bird season from August when the need to help injured birds and other wildlife usually reaches 90 a month, and then double that for the amount of calls. With progressive better weather comes more tourists, more cars, holiday makers and fishing and tackle, and pelicans like Floatie getting hooked.
And the balloons. “Why does everyone have to release all these balloons?” Rena asks. “Release the helium balloons and eventually they drop in the ocean, which is a tremendous problem up NSW where the turtles think they are jellyfish and they eat the balloons. Then they get the flotation problems. Saying they are biodegradable is nonsense.
“Much of our work is a pollution thing; people don’t get it.”
Rena said while the organisation was grateful for the help of 15 volunteers in the shop, it was extremely difficult finding the right people to fill the role as a wildlife rescuer.
“We are not dealing with pets; they are usually wild birds, and a lot of people cannot get their head around that wildness,” Rena said.
“Everything needs to be stress free, quiet, and the less human contact the better. All of these things come into play. Stress is a huge thing when you are dealing with wildlife.
“Looking after and rescuing wildlife is a highly skilled, dedicated job and it’s literally 24×7. It’s not like any other organisation where you have your shift, and if you don’t turn up it doesn’t really matter. Here, it does matter. To be a rescuer you have to be prepared for the phone to go off at any time. You could be having your lunch or having your hair done; you have to go because no one else will.
“There is nobody else but Veronica, and she has been amazing support. To me, this is about being a rescue worker or you are not; you cannot do it when you feel like it.
“There is also a lot of administration work; policies, protocols… the volunteers have to be trained from scratch. They are shocked when they realise what is involved. They think it is going around to a couple of seed bowls, washing them up and filling them with seed. We’re physically handling the wildlife.
“We put tubes down their throats to administer biotics and pain relief; to feed them. We fix fractures and wings. It is quite hands on. When you are dealing with birds of prey you have got to be trained how to handle them safely; you never stop training.”
Rena’s journey to Goolwa with her husband Karl, who has also done an incredible amount of work for the organisation over the years and especially with the new facility, began as a seachange. Her natural sense of health care with wildlife was about recognising the need, and wanting to give something back to the community. “Life is not just about going to work, coming home and that’s it,” she says.
“If I had not chosen wildlife I would be doing something else. I think being from a medical base I felt a need to use that medical knowledge. This job allowed me to learn a lot more on a different tangent. When I lived in Adelaide working as a nurse I hardly knew what a gala was.
“Sometimes I go home and get upset about the bad things from the day – yes, I take it personally – but then I take a deep breath and think, well, tomorrow is another day. The next day comes and you have some people who have driven from the far end of the earth to bring you a starling that needs help; that’s the connection between communities and what’s around them. It makes me feel good inside.
“What I am trying to do now is raise the bar with wildlife care. South Australia is way, way behind the other states with all of this. Go to Victoria, Queensland and NSW and they have lots of wildlife sanctuaries in terms of getting their act altogether.
“People say this is my passion, but it’s not like you wake up and say, I have got a passion today and I am going to do this. Passion comes after years and years of hard work. The more hard work you do the more the passion develops, and the more passion you get the harder you work.
“A lot of people say they would love to be a rescuer and they love animals, but if it came to them getting out of bed at six o’clock in the morning or in the rain at 10 o’clock at night that passion may very well diminish.
“It’s what I do, and I love my work.”
And when you hear about all the wonderful stories about pelicans as the movie stars descend upon us for the rekindling of Storm Boy, remember that song related to another movie The Graduate released 50 years ago this August 22: And here’s to you, Mrs Robinson…