Byron Bay Wildlife Hospital is going from strength to strength since relocating to the Macadamia Castle, on the Hinterland Way north of Lennox Head, in October. Matilda the mobile vet hospital is now based next to the electric vehicle charging stations and there’s a renewed focus on native wildlife and education within the park.
Veterinary Dr Stephen Van Mil is the founder and CEO of Byron Bay Wildlife Hospital and Wildlife Recovery Australia. He took some time out of his busy schedule on Christmas Eve to talk to The Echo.
Could you tell us a bit about what’s happened here since you guys took over?
‘We’re just doing small changes to start with,’ said Dr Van Mil. ‘The most important thing was moving Matilda here and plugging her into this beautiful solar power, because we were running off diesel generators down in Ewingsdale.’
For people who don’t know, Matilda is a high-tech veterinary hospital inside a custom-built semi-trailer. ‘Yes, it’s the world’s largest mobile wildlife hospital, which we designed and built last year,’ explained Dr Van Mil.
‘This is her home, but she’s capable of being deployed anywhere in Australia, during times of wildlife crises. It might be fires, or floods, or disease outbreaks.
‘People are blown away by the equipment that’s in here,’ he said. ‘This is a fully licensed hospital. X ray, ultrasound, endoscopy; anaesthesia and intensive care. This is the best of everything, and it’s all networked with the world.’
Matilda was paid for via Chuffed crowdfunding support and sponsorship from various companies and organisations, raising in excess of half a million dollars. Volvo Australia even donated a prime mover to tow the hospital, which Dr Van Mil said was an unexpected surprise.
‘And then we had a global search to find the best team to run it. We’ve secured some amazing vets and vet nurses – experts in wildlife care,’ he said. The hospital has also benefited from the involvement of expert wildlife vets from other facilities, such as Taronga’s Dr Larry Vogelnest.
Dr Van Mil said the challenge now was to maintain the substantial operating costs to keep the unit running, as all the services and medications provided by the hospital are donated.
‘The reality is, no one owns wildlife,’ he said. ‘Fortunately there’s some fabulous care groups and dedicated carers out there. And we complement their work in their rescue, rehabilitation and care work.
‘We’re also attracting attention from around the world; people from Europe and the US and the UK, constantly helping us, which is incredible and very rewarding.’
Major supporters include Seven Mile Brewing, the Ballina RSL Club and punk godfather Iggy Pop, whose cockatoo ‘son’ Biggy Pop’s image graces the back of Matilda, as captured by Mambo artist Paul McNeil.
How many animals can Matilda look after?
‘In twelve months we’ve treated 2,000 cases,’ said Dr Van Mil. ‘Every day is different, and we can’t predict the caseload. We get a wide variety.
‘What we have in this region is an incredible array of native Australian animals. It’s one of the most biodiverse regions of Australia, which is why we were compelled to create a wildlife hospital for this region.
‘Prior to our existence. Currumbin Wildlife hospital was and probably still is the busiest wildlife hospital in the world, with about 12,000 admissions a year, and about a third of them were coming from the Northern Rivers in New South Wales. So we’ve absorbed a lot of that, plus extra caseload that wasn’t getting to Currumbin. So we can see 30-50 animals a day, easily.
‘Early intervention, and early treatment, is often the difference between saving an animal or not,’ he said.
And you’re also running this major tourist attraction now. How does that fit in?
‘The opportunity to acquire the Macadamia Castle came up earlier this year. And it was something that we embraced quickly.
‘It gives us a home, with that clean green power and parking and accessibility for the wildlife hospital, but furthermore, it’s a tourist facility that provides an income stream,’ said Dr Van Mil.
‘Pretty much every cent spent here goes to save wildlife. So the whole thing has become a not for profit, although that’s probably a misnomer, really, because we need to make profit, so that we can pay the bills! But the whole thing is a charity, fundamentally. And we’re working hard to change the offering here at the park, so that it’s more relevant.’
Dr Van Mil said Australian Geographic have become partners with a new section in the shop, and there will be a greater emphasis on native wildlife and education in the park going forward.
The big killers
‘I think it’s very, very important that people understand the dilemmas that wildlife face every day,’ said Dr Van Mil. ‘We’re all aware of what happens when there’s a big catastrophe, like a major bush fire or flood. But the majority of presentations to the hospital are animals hit by car. That happens all day, every day.
‘Second most common is wildlife attacked by domestic animals or feral animals. Third most common is disease and then animals being orphaned. So, habitat destruction, clearing land for farming activities, or housing, commercial activities; it’s crippling wildlife every day.
‘We really want to use this facility as a way of educating the public. We’re very much focused on the younger generation, so they understand there are things we can do to make life better for wildlife, so we don’t see so many animals in the hospital.’
There’s also a plan to enlarge the sanctuary aspect of the operation. Clearly the tourism potential is huge, with the success of other sanctuaries and being so close to the airport. ‘Yes, and we’d love people to come by and share our stories,’ said Dr Van Mil.
‘A lot of the animals we see in the hospital can’t be released. And then the only other choice for them is is euthanasia. And if we can offer them a happy healthy home, and utilise those animals appropriately to educate the public and make people aware of why they came to the hospital in the first place, I think that’s serving a great purpose.’
What’s happening for school holidays?
Dr Van Mil said, ‘Every day here we have reptile shows twice a day, we have the one of the few free flight bird shows in New South Wales, which is a great attraction. There’s keeper talks with our koala and wombats and all the other Australian animals.’
In good news for wombat fans, Manda the resident grumpy wombat is a bit happier now, having had some dental work done recently.
How to help (apart from visiting)
If anyone wants to support the important work of the Wildlife Hospital, look out for the Chuffed campaigns as they are announced.
Supporters are welcome at any time to go to the Wildlife Hospital website, and look for the donate button (all donations are tax deductible).
Philanthropist Diane Firestone has also offered a generous donation of $25,000 as part of the Christmas appeal, with offers to match a further $5,000 in donations from the public.
New TV show
Another plan to broaden the reach of the wildlife hospital, and aid in fundraising, is a forthcoming TV series coming out on Channel Ten in February, called Wildlife Rescue Australia. After shooting earlier this year, 10 one hour episodes are ready to be screened on prime time, Friday nights.
While Dr Van Mil won’t be in front of the cameras this time (he spent many years doing that on The Today Show and elsewhere), he is the executive producer.
‘We’re starting to sell the show globally already,’ he said. ‘Again, it’s creating that awareness and, and letting people know what’s happening with wildlife and what can be done to help.
‘We’re a small part in that cog. I mean, we can fix the animals, but then they’ve got to be released somewhere safe, otherwise they’re going to end up back in again. So it’s a big story, it’s not just us fixing animals. It’s the whole rescue and treatment and rehabilitation and release.’
Dr Bree Talbot
Byron Bay Wildlife Hospital Vet Dr Bree Talbot has just had a new baby and is also one of the faces of the new TV series. She says she loves her job and is happy to share her expertise and passion.
‘I think we have a really exciting job,’ said Dr Talbot, ‘and I love telling people about what we get to do and showing everyone what cool animals Australia has.
‘By doing the TV show, it’s just an extension of me talking my head off to somebody else in the street or to friends, about we can do to help wildlife. Some people think you can’t do a lot to help. But we can do heaps of stuff!
‘This shows the dedication of the nurses and the carers and all the vets that work for wildlife,’ said Dr Talbot. ‘Hopefully, that means the general public will then love wildlife more, and they’ll want to look after wildlife and they want to help us look after wildlife and then the wildlife wins.
‘The Northern Rivers region is one of the most biodiverse regions in NSW, and we get to see them and treat them here. That’s amazing for the wildlife, but also for us to see them and treat them and get them back out and continue to restore that habitat. That’s what we’re here for,’ she said.
‘We want all the future generations to see the cool animals that we’ve seen. We don’t want them to go extinct.’
Dr Talbot says birds are a vital part of the local ecosystem, and a big part of the wildlife hospital’s work. The vets see many barbed wire injuries, to kookaburras as well as flying foxes.
With a background as an ag vet before becoming a wildlife expert, Dr Talbot says compromises are needed so wildlife and livestock can co-exist.
Bigger picture, looking to the future
The Byron Bay Wildlife Hospital is part of a national wildlife disease surveillance program, as well as providing expert veterinary assistance to local wildlife rescuers such as Australian Seabird and Turtle Rescue, particularly with turtles and sea snakes.
When major emergencies strike, locally or interstate, Matilda the mobile wildlife hospital is ready to attend any emergency around Australia at relatively short notice, with backup facilities available locally to keep the service going while the hospital is out on the road.
The mobile hospital has solar panels and a generator, as well as its own water system and satellite communications. ‘It really is a giant, giant caravan,’ said Dr Van Mil.
Dr Talbot said, ‘When you’re in the clinic, you forget that you’re in the back of a truck. The facilities make it easy to work and do long days in there.’
With a background in orangutan conservation, Dr Stephen Van Mil told The Echo the plan now is to roll out the mobile wildlife hospital model nationally, and internationally, particularly via the partnership organisation Wildlife Recovery Australia, chaired by Dr Ken Henry. ‘We’re committed to building a wildlife hospital in Tanzania too,’ he said.
With luck, and the right support, Matilda the mobile wildlife hospital will go from being one of a kind to being the first of a global fleet.
You can ring the Byron Bay Wildlife Hospital on 1300 WILDLIFE.