Victoria’s wildlife shelters and rescues are crippling under financial strain and emotional pain, with a lack of funding available and an increase in horrific animal cruelty acts.

Cancelling private health coverage, coming out of retirement to keep the lights on and more than $60,000 in debt; this is the financial sacrifice Theresa Matthews and husband Anthony Matthews have made to care for kangaroos at their self-funded wildlife shelter, Our Haven Wildlife Shelter.

As difficult as financial struggles are, causing strain and emotional distress, it is not the cause of the warm, salty tears swelling in Our Haven founder Theresa Matthews’ eyes.

Stradbroke resident Theresa Matthews runs Our Haven Wildlife Shelter. Photos: Zoe Askew

Originally from Mornington Peninsula, Theresa and Anthony Matthews were frequent visitors to Gippsland, returning to the region for their biannual holidays.

In 2000, Anthony ‘Scruff’ Matthews broke his back in a work incident, followed by a terrible staph infection that quickly deemed him redundant, incapable of working again.

So in 2009, Theresa and Scruff packed their house into boxes, loaded a truck, hit the road, and headed to Golden Beach to enjoy their retirement.

“We moved here to retire, to go on little holidays and do all that kind of retirement stuff and we were actually quite enjoying doing nothing,” Theresa said.

“Scruff and I both love animals, and I have always checked the pouches (of dead kangaroos); I always knew to do that along roadsides.

“This particular day, a bloke handed a joey to Scruff over the fence.”

“I just said to him, ‘a joey, what do you expect me to do with this?,” Anthony laughed.

“The man had seen me checking pouches, so he thought that we looked after animals,” Theresa continued.

“It was a long weekend, and we rang, and rang, and rang, and rang, but no one got back to us.

“I mean, I have had five children; it was crying out, and you just knew it had to be fed.

“So we Googled what we had to feed it and got the teets, Scruff went into town and got all that, and we just looked after it.

“Finally, someone got back to me. The shelters were miles away, but most of them were full anyways, and they told me to take it to the vet where they were going to; well, you know, euthanise it; they had nowhere to put it.

“I couldn’t do that. I wouldn’t do that.

“Not long after, a woman who ran a shelter contacted me after she heard that I was looking after this roo. She took me under her wing and explained all the rules to me.

“And from there, the roos just kept coming.”

When Theresa and Anthony moved to Golden Beach in 2009, they were financially well off, with no mortgage and no debt.

But that soon changed when the selfless couple took on the responsibility of caring for and rehabilitating injured and orphaned wildlife.

“Everything comes to me now, koalas, possums, kangaroos, joeys, everything,” Theresa said.

“I get them stable, fix them up if they can be fixed up, and then pass them to other shelters that have the right facilities for them.”

Theresa Matthews cradles a baby joey. Photos: Zoe Askew

Theresa has qualifications in personal care and has had training in wildlife care since founding Our Haven Wildlife Shelter.

But, with limited funding from the government available, relying on personal funds, the Matthews can not obtain the necessary equipment to provide seriously injured wildlife the care required.

“When I started this, I had no home loan, and financially, we had it great,” Theresa said.

“We were about to buy a caravan, but all that money got spent on the roos. We let our medical fund go because we couldn’t afford to feed the roos and keep that because, for the first six years, we had no money from anywhere; it was purely what we had.”

As the Matthews took on more and more kangaroos, joeys and other native wildlife, space soon became limited, and in order to continue providing rehabilitation and a safe space for injured and orphaned wildlife, they relocated to a larger property.

In 2017 Theresa and Anthony received a donation for part of a block of land, which saw the couple and Our Haven Wildlife Shelter move from Golden Beach to a property in Stradbroke.

“We got a donation for part of the block behind us, so then we went and took a loan for $60,000 for the rest of the money needed to buy the land, so then I went from no debt to $60,000 in debt,” Theresa said.

“Once a year, we can apply for a grant (from the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning); it’s $2000. My milk bill is that in six weeks.

“People don’t realise how much we go through. Depending on their age, whether their four-hourly feeds or two feeds a day, they slowly get weaned, but until they are 18 months, you are feeding them.

“We do more than 10 kilos of washing a day, so our water bill is huge, fuel bills are out of this world, and I think you would have a heart attack at my electricity bill, and then there is all the medication and medical supplies.

“There are plenty of (government) grants for domestic shelters, but you have a look at grants for wildlife.”

Shelters are seeking further financial assistance to help wildlife rehabilitation.

DELWP provides the only government funding available to Victorian wildlife shelters, offering grants of up to $3000 for equipment, infrastructure, consumables, education and training through the Wildlife Rehabilitator Grant program.

Last year, DELWP awarded $289,160.38 of funding to 120 wildlife rehabilitators across Victoria, which included the extra $60,000 of funding for rehabilitators hit by the July storms.

In the 2020/21 State Budget, the state government allocated an additional $7.5 million boost to animal welfare grants, which saw domestic shelters across Victoria awarded $1.5 million in funding in 2021.

That is a $1.2 million discrepancy in native wildlife and domestic animal funding.

To add to the list, this year the state government is delivering its commitment to provide $3 million in Animal Welfare Grants, with $2 million going towards not-for-profit and community vet clinics to maintain and expand their services.

The remaining $1 million will go towards domestic animal shelters and foster carers to buy equipment, upgrade, or expand their services.

A number of wildlife shelters across the state are struggling to keep operating due to a lack of funding available. Photo Zoe Askew.

It is not just Our Haven Wildlife Shelter that is struggling to make ends meet as a result of the limited funding available. The local flying fox rescue and rehabilitation shelter, Moonshadow, also feels the overwhelming financial strain.

Founder Lynne Amore says while some private organisations offer grants, money is limited, and successful applications aren’t guaranteed.

“Government funding doesn’t cover anything,” Ms Amore said.

“Rescuers are spending their own money keeping things running.

“We spend thousands of dollars on fuel a month and $100 a week just on the fruit and protein powder needed to feed the flying foxes.

“Some places we go to for our fruit offer us a few discounts, which is great, but unfortunately it really doesn’t elevate cost cover at all.

“People frequently ask ‘Why don’t we ask for the old fruit places can’t sell’, but many people don’t know this, that mouldy fruit causes brain damage to flying foxes, so it has to be fresh; old is not an option.

Rescue shelters save the government hundreds of thousands of dollars each year, whether through rescue and rehabilitation or euthanisation.

“You wouldn’t believe the number of roos I have had to put down kid,” Anthony said.

“Thousands … thousands.”

Veterinary services charge about $500 for the euthanisation of larger animals, not including burial, cremation or added call-out fees. But for Anthony and Theresa Matthews, euthanisation costs them.

It costs them money on fuel and resources, it costs them time, and it costs them pain.

So while wildlife rescuers like Mr and Mrs Matthews and Ms Amore appreciate the annual grant available from the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, it is not nearly enough to elevate the financial stress shelters are under.

Three of Our Haven’s resident kangaroos. Photo Zoe Askew.

A spokesperson from DEWLP said, “the work that wildlife shelters and foster carers do is critically important to help rehabilitate injured and orphaned wildlife so animals can be released back to the wild”.

“The Victorian Government is helping to stop the decline of native plants and animals and improve the state’s natural environment through its Biodiversity 2037 plan and has invested nearly $560 million towards protecting biodiversity and the natural environment since 2014.

“This is the largest ever investment into biodiversity and natural environment by a Victorian Government.

“Through the 2022/23 State Budget, $5.3 million has also been allocated to support authorised wildlife shelters and foster carers, implement the Victorian Koala Management Strategy, provide better protection measures for Grey-headed Flying-fox colonies during extreme heat events and the establishment of the Wildlife Emergency Support Network.”

Despite the unrelating financial stress and pressure Theresa Matthews carries, her love and dedication to the animals are unwavering.

“But honestly, they have been worth it,” she said.

“Seeing them come in so scrawny with no fur and eyes shut, then suddenly releasing them as these big healthy animal is just amazing, even though I cry all the way home because it is really hard saying goodbye.

“There are a lot of losses as well, ones you try and save, but you can’t. You just keep hoping. Once they pass, you feel like you should have put them to sleep earlier, you know, you start thinking that you made them suffer longer, all that stuff, after a while its, it’s like a rollercoaster of emotions.”

For someone like Theresa Matthews, who dedicates her life to preserving the lives of native Australian wildlife, it isn’t the financial strain that causes her the most distress, nor is it the death of an animal she has tried to save as distressing as that is.

What breaks Theresa’s heart is the horrific acts of cruelty people commit on the poor defenceless animals.

Theresa Matthews took a jagged, deep breath, hands shaking in her lap.

“I am going to fight through and make sure this is heard,” she said.

“I often go to the police and DEWLP, and nothing gets done about these cruelty acts.

“Last year, there was a kangaroo tied by its leg; it had been dragged a long way, and all the skin was gone.

“Where the kangaroo lay, it still had the electrical cord tied to its leg, and you could see all the way down the road all its fur and blood.

“This is all the stuff I see and lots of it.

“It is so hard to keep grounded.

“Last night (June 21), my volunteer got called out to a kangaroo at Lake Reeve, Loch Sport.

“There is a fence that goes down into the lake, and someone had tied a rope around this kangaroos neck and tied it to the fence, so when the water went up, it was dead.”

Crimestoppers Victoria has received 74 reports related to wildlife crime between July 1 2021 and June 30 2022.

Just recently, on Monday, August 1, Ballarat City’s Animal Management team found a dead eastern grey kangaroo decapitated and bound with orange rope during a routine street clean.

In Victoria, all wildlife is protected under the Wildlife Act 1975.

Hunting, taking, destroying, injuring, or interfering with wildlife is illegal, and severe penalties apply to those not compliant.

The maximum penalty for hunting, taking or destroying wildlife ranges from $8261 to $41,305 and/or six to 24 months imprisonment.

The cruelty to kangaroos Theresa sees is breaking her heart.

Crime Stoppers Victoria Chief Executive Stella Smith said, “it’s vital the public continues to come forward with information about wildlife crime because every Victorian has a role to play in protecting our native animals”.

“You can share what you know about wildlife crime, including illegal hunting, anonymously with Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000 or at www.crimestoppersvic.com.au.”

By bringing to light these heinous offences, Theresa and Anthony Matthews hope the public will become vigilant in reporting such crimes, holding those accountable for wildlife crimes, helping shelters like Our Haven protect native animals.

“Help us, help them,” is the message Anthony and Theresa Matthews urge the community to hear.

To donate, volunteer or find out ways you can help Our Haven in their fight to preserve native wildlife, head to their website at http://ourhavenwildlifeshelter.org.au/ or find them on Facebook.