Western ringtail possum releases by ‘carers’/ rehabilitators

According to the Western Australian Wildlife Conservation Act 1950, which is still the relevant Act even though we now have the Biodiversity Conservation Act in place, and the Wildlife Conservation Regulations 1970, Part 4, Reg. 28A (Regulation 28A) anyone can temporarily care for sick, injured  or abandoned fauna until it recovers or becomes capable of fending for itself.
A wildlife carer is therefore a person who is willing to care for a wild animal – no prior knowledge required.

If a member of the public is interested in taking up wildlife care and wishes to have some prior training, they can join a group and hope that they get access to training/mentoring,  which might or might not happen or they can enrol in a two-day introduction course run by DBCA ($210). This nicely presented but very broad and superficial course would by no means prepare anyone for the job, particularly not in respect to release as that is hardly mentioned. People are then however qualified to become registered rehabilitators – and do whatever they think should or should not be done with the animals in their care at their own costs.

The translocation proposal approved in 2005 proposed the introduction of a system whereby carers are required to notify the relevant department within 72 hours of taking a western ringtail possum into care. A similar system is in place for other ‘specially protected fauna’. (De Tores, 2005)
This most likely resulted in the Conservation Notice 2005 which I heard was never ratified and if you try to find it online, you will fail.
The figure has shrunk to 24 hours in some more recent documents but without any reference to a changed legal situation.
Following the translocation proposal, wildlife carers would also be required to ensure that all ringtails suitable for release were released in accordance with the official protocol which restricted release areas to those approved by the proposal.
Possums released by the department would all be health checked.  
As the department neither had the money for health checks nor for ongoing release and monitoring activities,  no steps were taken to access carers’ animals apart from on a voluntary basis. The political backlash if ‘prosecuting’ people trying to save our wildlife probably also played a significant role in practicing restraint.  

The relevant department (now DBCA) seems to only be interested in animals ready for release – not in all the time, effort and costs that are required to get the animals to that state.  
The annual figure of western ringtail possums in need of rehabilitation varies according to who asks the question (e.g. the department, the media or a grant provider) and who is asked. There is however no doubt, that nobody can have any credible figures as there is no register of who has decided to keep the animal they found and ‘become a carer’ for it.

The 2005 translocation proposal claims that carer records between 1994 and 2003 show an average of 123 western ringtail possums per year had been handled by one carer alone. (De Tores, 2005)
If you estimate that an average of 4 months of care is necessary for an orphaned baby animal to be raised to release age and acknowledge the need for full size aviaries for adults, this statement is revealed as completely impossible. Most carers only have small urban backyards at their disposal, not large, well equipped zoos. The time necessary to rehabilitate/care for such a gigantic number of animals would be the equivalent to 2 or 3 simultaneous fulltime jobs.  

The current, often quoted figure  that 200 animals from rehab will have to be released per year, sounds equally unreliable to me as only around one third of animals coming into care will eventually be released.

There is however no doubt that the number is high enough to warrant concern. Any development that puts high numbers at risk would clearly be seen as having a significant impact on the species. However, if laypeople did not volunteer to take responsibility, I wonder who would.

Transferring high numbers of this highly specialised folivore to Perth rehab centres would in most cases ensure professional housing and handling, however collecting browse to feed ringtails adequately is even in the Busselton/Dunsborough area at times an extremely time consuming issue and hardly possible in Perth.
In my own region, any regrowth is ‘cleaned-up’ for ‘aesthetic’ reasons, huge firebreaks are transformed to bare ground with heavy machinery and the vegetation is then ironically burned. When these problems were mentioned at a rehabilitator training day the reaction of departmental staff was a reminder of the ‘licence requirement’ – what a sad reflection on the agency that should safeguard the welfare of the species. Instead it only safeguards their own rules and regulations and in addition they would actually charge any person (apart from members of registered groups) a licence fee. Several requests to Shire/City and the department for help provide food for ringtails were either outright ignored or quickly forgotten.



A recent ABC report (ABC online) about a scientifically guided ringtail project with major funding shows several  photos of ringtails in care.  The animal is always eating a piece of apple. What chance does anyone have to educate the public or at least the carer community about the highly specialised digestive system of ringtail possums and the importance of a natural diet if fruit is so authoritatively used to raise baby animals?

It would not be unreasonable to demand that all rehabilitators either use release sites chosen and monitored by the department or – if they have access to potential habitat areas on private estate – to seek approval for their choice from the relevant officer and if granted pass on the history of the released animals, the release locations and any post-release monitoring data they generate.
No such requirement was ever communicated and my personal experience is that even when told exact locations, numbers, dates etc. the department still tried not to know about it or to make anything not done by them look illegal. There is hardly any reporting and compliance requirements for wildlife carers in place let alone that they are enforced, but they are still singled out in the recovery plan as a threat to the species’ survival. Carers/rehabilitators who belong to a group are slightly more supervised, however this is mainly dependent on the leadership in the group. Rehab groups have no legal power over their members.

Attempts at cooperation with the department regarding release and requests for help finding appropriate habitat for releases were consistently ignored by all but one officer who is unfortunately not in charge of community liaison work anymore.

The establishment of a rehabilitation centre in the ringtails’ core area was unsupported.

The problem of unregulated relocation is however even larger than described, as annoyed property owners who try to get help with ‘nuisance animals’ are also often referred on by DBCA to mostly untrained volunteers to deal with the issue and there is no recording or monitoring of outcomes.
Awareness raising in the public for the plight of our ringtails is also not made any easier when people seeking help from the department are referred to pest control agents. If the department in charge regards a critically endangered species as a pest, how can you expect anything else from members of the public?

We completely agree with the statement that releases of western ringtail possums ’that have been in the care of wildlife rehabilitators need to be better managed to ensure that animals are effectively monitored after return to the wild’. (Clarke, 2011)

The department will need to find a way to support and regulate community based rehabilitators and capitalise on the enormous resource of volunteer time, knowledge and experience available that could be harnessed effectively to ensure better outcomes for rehabilitated ringtails.

The legal situation is different in most Australian states. However according to research into rehab practices in the eastern states, the lack of government support and clumsy bureaucratic requirements are on the forefront of grievances just like here in WA.
Again, similar to WA, the  key problem for rehabilitators in the east is the lack of potential release sites  particularly those with adequate control of introduced predators.  (Guy and Banks, 2011)

Post-release monitoring also seems the weak link everywhere. Few  rehabilitators carried out any post release monitoring and those who did limited it to no more than a month,  which would not allow determination whether the release was successful and which factors were relevant for the outcome. (Guy and Banks, 2011)

Interestingly, most animals seem to be released with the provision of shelter and food – either with nest boxes for possums or release enclosures.
Feeding was provided at least for the initial acclimatisation (1–2 weeks after release) but in some cases long-term and in situations such as drought.  Food provision was also the most common tool used for post release monitoring.  (Guy and Banks, 2011)

This is completely different to the situation in my area. If animals are not released from an aviary in the carer’s own backyard, a basket-style shelter with the possum inside would just be put in a tree and the animal left to its own devices (pers. communications).

We are not aware of any comprehensive post-release monitoring done apart from the work described here.

A convenient and often employed way of releasing is to let animals go from the aviary they stayed in during the last phase of rehab. If the habitat is adequate and it is not fully taken up by resident ringtails, this is certainly an option for one or two animals. 
However, it is important not to release too many from the same spot as otherwise there will be fierce competition – with the possible outcome of newly released possums being killed or local residents potentially displaced.
Few carers look at the wider area with possibly a few more people that release ringtails from their backyards. Without centrally noting and reporting of all releases,  overstocking cannot be eliminated.
Neither post-release monitoring of the animals nor of the changes in the habitat that occurred as a result of releasing animals (Spielman, 2008) are usually conducted. One camera to see whether any animals persist – and to put nice videos on Facebook – should not qualify.

The so-called Pietsch study conducted with relocated common brushtail possums is often cited to push for releases only to the location the animal originally came from. Approximately 70% of the animals died within the very first week,  which seemed to prove that relocation is not a viable – and in the words of the study – not a humane means of damage control. (Pietsch, 1995)
However, critics of the study claim that suburban possums were translocated to completely unfamiliar bush habitat, that they were highly humanized, that some animals were simply unfit for an independent life and that the receiving area was heavily populated by foxes.

The main reason for not re-releasing an animal to where it was originally found, is usually that their habitat is either destroyed or the reasons for the need of care have not been remedied – such as overcrowding or high predation risk.  After several weeks of care the animal’s spot has also most likely been taken up by another possum.
Releasing an animal outside their birth population can also help restore gene flows.
Small, isolated habitat patches with limited dispersal opportunities in our suburban areas already increase the risk of inbreeding. (Spielman, 2008)

The claim is justified that rehabilitators which do not carry out pre-release health checks  may do more harm than good by transferring disease from released animals to healthy populations. (Guy and Banks, 2011)
However, the question needs to be asked whether wildlife carers have enough access to information to be aware of potential disease factors.  Comprehensive checks through a veterinarian are also outside the financial scope of most groups and individual carers. As most tests would involve laboratory services, even the most community minded vets cannot be expected to cover the costs.

official relocation