IN THE NEWS: How to avoid road kill and other tips to help keep wildlife safe this summer

IN THE NEWS: On DEC 20, 2019

For many people, summer means getting outdoors and maybe, if you're lucky, spotting an echidna rustling through the bush, or a dolphin jumping over the waves at the beach.

But no matter what you do for your summer holidays, at some point you'll probably drive.

And that introduces the possibility of hitting wildlife — which can be traumatic and dangerous for both the driver and passengers, and of course the animal involved.

Key points:

  • Slow down and try to only drive during the day to avoid vehicle collisions with wildlife
  • Keep a small wildlife kit, including gloves and a pillowcase, to help deal with injured wildlife
  • Put out water for wildlife during heatwaves and after bushfires

And summer also brings other challenges for wildlife, including less food and water in drought-stricken areas.

There is also the risk of bushfires, after which surviving animals need food and water.

And while our native animals are well adapted to the sometimes harsh climate of this vast landmass, they did not evolve or adapt to face the changes brought about by climate change.

So what can you do to help Australia's wildlife through this tough summer period?

Know your wildlife rescuers

An injured animal has the best chance of surviving if you call an expert for help.

There is no expectation of passers-by to handle or give first aid to injured animals, but getting in touch with a qualified wildlife rescuer or vet is usually an easy thing to do, according to wildlife rescuer Megan Davidson, who is the CEO of Wildlife Victoria.

"It's important to get an accurate location, particularly if it's in the country, otherwise rescuers can drive miles and miles and not find the animal," Dr Davidson says.

"These days we ask people to open maps on their smartphone and drop a pin [to share their location], and it's helpful to wait until the rescuer gets there."

But if you're planning a big cross-country road trip where reception might be a problem, Dr Davidson suggests putting a few numbers of qualified experts in your phone before you set off — search for 'wildlife rescue' for the nearest service.

Provide water for wildlife

The biggest challenges wildlife face this summer are lack of food and water, which is likely to be exacerbated by bushfires and heatwaves.

Dr Davidson says after fires people should think about how the surviving animals will get by while the bush regenerates.

"People are starting to talk about 'support feeding' wildlife until the bush has greened up again."

This means providing water for animals that might come near your property, and maybe some food too — but seek advice from local wildlife rescuers first.

"You have to think carefully about how you do that, because if you drop a big pile of food you will attract predators and feral animals too," Dr Davidson says.

If you come across animals with burns, the best thing to do is contact the nearest vet or wildlife rescue centre, and remember to keep your pets at a distance so injured animals don't become even more distressed.

Don't touch bats

Flying-foxes, or fruit bats, are especially vulnerable to heatwaves because they can't regulate their body temperatures beyond a certain level.

And this summer, wildlife rescuers around the country are already busy with hundreds of abandoned or orphaned flying-fox pups

The number one rule when you come across an injured or dead bat, is not to touch it, according to Dr Davidson.

"People shouldn't be touching bats because of the unlikely event of being bitten or scratched and contracting the rare Australian bat lyssavirus."

"If you can, pop a box over the top of it on the ground, or a washing basket, and put a sign on top saying there's a bat," she says.

Then you should call the local rescue organisation who will send somebody who is vaccinated and trained to collect bats.

If you are bitten or scratched by a bat, wash the wound for five minutes with soapy water and then get yourself to the GP or emergency room within 24 hours to get the post-exposure vaccine.

Drive slow and in daylight

As with many of the festive season's challenges — last-minute shopping, family gatherings and kitchen nightmares — sometimes you just need to take a breath, and slow down.

The same goes for avoiding collisions with wildlife, according to Dr Davidson.

"Avoid driving at dawn and dusk, which is when the animals start feeding and moving around, and night too," she says.

If you've driven along a country road in low light you might have wondered why there are so many kangaroos and wallabies on the side of the road, almost tempting their fate.

One reason for this is that road verges are often the only patches of greenery in an otherwise very dry landscape, according to ecologist Thomas Newsome from the University of Sydney.

"That's a result of of a little bit of rain that has come down, running off onto the sides of the road," Dr Newsome says.

And he warns that because animals don't recognise roads as barriers or threats, they often just go straight across them.

"And cars are moving very quickly, faster than any predator that these animals have evolved to escape from."

Watch out for feral animals

It shouldn't be too hard to avoid driving at dawn, dusk or during the night in summer when the days are longer.

So keep in mind in winter, if you do have to drive at those times, slowing down even a small amount can minimise the risk of a wildlife collision.

Some of the most potentially life-threatening accidents between wildlife and traffic can happen between smaller vehicles and larger animals, says Dr Newsome.

If you're driving in central or remote Australia you should be aware that camels pose a risk to drivers, and even in semi-urban areas feral horses and deer have been hit by cars.

And remember, do not swerve to try and avoid hitting an animal.

Be prepared for road kill

If you do hit an animal while driving, there are a few things you can have prepared that will make dealing with the aftermath easier.

Obviously, if there has been a serious accident where property is damaged, people are injured, or an animal has become a road hazard, it's important to call the emergency services.

Otherwise, if you think you've hit an animal, the first thing to do is to pull over to the side of the road if it's safe to do so and call wildlife rescue, Dr Davidson says.

"Usually these animals need to be euthanised because otherwise they are going to suffer a slow death.

"If the animal is dead, move it well off the road, if it's safe ... For example if it's a kangaroo you can move it by pulling its tail."

This is where a small kit in your car can come in handy — one containing some gloves, hand sanitiser, scissors, safety pins, and a pillow case.

If you don't have gloves, you can still touch the animal, just give your hands a wash afterwards.

Check the pouch for joeys

If it's an animal with a pouch the next step is to check whether there are any young on board.

The pouch of a kangaroo or wallaby is where you'd expect the belly button to be but, says Dr Davidson, an easy first step is to look for the testicles, because if it's a boy then there's no pouch to check.

Now the next step is not for the fainthearted.

"If there is a baby with fur and open eyes in the pouch still attached to the mother's nipple, you can't detach that joey without hurting its mouth," Dr Davidson says.

"You actually have to cut the mother's teat off, put the joey in a pillowcase and secure the teat to the pillowcase so the joey doesn't swallow it.

"It is confronting the first time you do it, but it's also pretty exciting if you save a life."

If you aren't comfortable getting a joey out of a pouch, just wait for the wildlife rescuer to arrive.

Carcass consequences

Road kill can also have some local impacts you might not have thought about, according to Dr Newsome.

"Dead animals can be a food source for native scavengers like wedge-tailed eagles, ravens and dingoes," he says.

"But it can also attract introduced pests like feral pigs, foxes and cats."

These scavengers can then get in the way of oncoming traffic, especially if they are slow to take off like the wedge-tailed eagle.

But there are some less obvious consequences of a roadside littered with carcasses.

"There can be nutrients transferred into the soil which can influence plant growth as the body decomposes," Dr Newsome says.

"It can allow weeds to proliferate, or native grasses depending on what seeds there might be in the animal's gut."

And one potential long-term impact of road kill — especially if more people are on the roads — is that predators, like dingoes, start to focus more on scavenging than hunting.

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