The only all-species wildlife hospital in NSW outside of Taronga Wildlife Hospitals is facing possible closure after a $6 million, four-year funding announcement was revoked by the NSW Government.

The state government notified the donor-funded Byron Bay Wildlife Hospital (BBWH) that despite its proven expertise and experience in providing veterinary and rehabilitation services for native animals, its work doesn’t demonstrate “value for money.”

In January 2023, the NSW Government’s Expenditure Review Committee approved funding to be reserved for BBWH based on a strategic business case. On 6 February 2023, the then NSW Government announced it had reserved funding of $6 million over four years for BBWH to continue delivering positive welfare outcomes for sick, injured or orphaned Australian wildlife through treatment, rehabilitation, and community engagement. However, on 23 June, the NSW Government advised that the grant was not approved.

The Government’s 6 February announcement created a clear expectation among the community, donors, sponsors, and the hospital that it had funding support from 1 July.

“We are extremely disappointed and surprised at the announcement, but native animals are the biggest losers in this decision,” said BBWH Founder and CEO Dr Stephen Van Mil.

“The financial uncertainty this creates means if we must close, the community and volunteer wildlife carers will have nowhere to bring sick and injured native animals for lifesaving care. Consequently, more animals will die unnecessarily from road accidents, natural disasters, disease, and attacks by domestic pets and feral pests.”

Byron Bay Wildlife Hospital is licensed as a wildlife hospital by the Veterinary Practitioners Board of NSW. Opened in 2020 after the Black Summer bushfires, its services are provided free of charge, seven days a week to injured sick and orphaned wildlife rescued by licensed wildlife carers, NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service and members of the public. They have treated over 4,000 animals since opening, and over 1000 in 2023 to date.

The hospital raised over $4 million in capital over 3 years to fund its infrastructure, staffing, equipment, and operations without government assistance. Known as “Matilda”, it is also Australia’s largest mobile wildlife hospital, capable of being deployed anywhere in NSW and interstate, providing emergency triage, treatment, and care for native animals affected by natural disasters like bushfires or floods. There is no other facility like it in Australia. It has been identified as a critical service within the NSW Government’s draft Wildlife Emergency Response Plan.

In 2022, 56% of BBWH’s threatened species patients were returned to licensed carers for rehabilitation or recorded as released into the wild after treatment, demonstrating the critical role BBWH plays in securing a future for Australian wildlife threatened with extinction.

Byron Bay Wildlife Hospital veterinarians assist in a multi-agency rescue attempt on a stranded humpback whale near Lennox Head on Saturday 1 July 2023. Photo: Craig Parry Photography

The funding grant required BBWH to demonstrate a value-for-money program contributing to the NSW environment portfolio priorities and supported by community and stakeholders. BBWH were advised that it was the only applicant that met the eligibility criteria. An independent economic impact report commissioned by BBWH to support its proposal showed that its work supports 19 jobs in NSW and generates $4.3 million in annual economic output across New South Wales, in addition to the invaluable biodiversity benefit of saving native Australian animals.

“Additionally, BBWH’s no-fee work placement program for veterinarians, veterinary students, nurses, and volunteers creates an estimated economic benefit of $240,750 in training value for future generations of wildlife professionals,” said Byron Bay Wildlife Hospital Chair Mr Karl Cope.

“Our vets are saving wildlife, including threatened species, every day of the week. We’ve budgeted to deploy the mobile hospital during natural disasters, and our facility reduces the chronic emotional trauma on rescuers, general practice vets and the community caused by constantly seeing animals in their care suffer.”

“Our fully costed proposal would generate $4 in economic output for every $1 invested, and support over 22 jobs in NSW each year,” said Dr Van Mil. “Furthermore, we demonstrated to the government that we wouldn’t depend on their funding beyond the four-year program.”

BBWH has broad support from the community, philanthropic foundations, elected government representatives from all sides of politics and wildlife rescue organisations. Funding is currently sourced through sponsorship agreements with partners such as the NRMA, International Fund for Animal Welfare, Volvo Australia, WWF Australia, the United Nations Development Program, community businesses and philanthropists. In 2020, BBWH established Wildlife Recovery Australia, chaired by former Secretary to the Treasury and wildlife conservationist Dr. Ken Henry AC, to create a national network of wildlife hospitals and specialist sanctuaries.

The Biodiversity Conservation Act states that NSW’s wildlife is the property of and protected by the Crown. The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1979 stipulates that if someone has a protected animal in their care, they are responsible for seeking veterinary treatment, and they must present it to a veterinarian or a licensed wildlife rehabilitation group. Despite this, there is an expectation that volunteers and veterinarians donate their services without compensation.

“The Department of Planning & Environment letter stated they look forward to continuing to work with Byron Bay Wildlife Hospital to deliver the best possible outcomes for sick, injured or orphaned native wildlife across NSW,” said Dr Van Mil.

“We have sought a meeting with the Minister to better understand the decision, and seek consideration of alternative funding options, but have been advised the Minister is unable to meet with us at this time. We remain hopeful and look forward to working constructively with the NSW Government to agree on an alternate proposal.”

“Our goal is to stay open and keep saving wildlife,” said Mr Cope. “We know our work is effective, value for money and supported by the community. We are grateful for the ongoing support of our benefactors but believe it’s reasonable that the Government contributes as well.”

Tax-deductible donations can be made via the Byron Bay Wildlife Hospital’s fundraising campaign website at www.byronbaywildlifehospital.org/donate