Twin red kangaroo joeys rub noses as they enjoy the sunshine at Sydney's Taronga Zoo, 01 September 2005 (Greg Wood / AFP)

Australian bushfires: government refutes misleading claims on social media that orphaned joeys will be euthanised

Misleading claims that first responders in Australia were advised to kill all orphaned koala and kangaroo joeys found during deadly bushfires have circulated on Facebook and Twitter. The posts, published in multiple languages, cite a document from the government of the Australian state of Victoria. But the Victorian government has specified that only joeys deemed unlikely to survive should be euthanised; a veterinarian consulted on the government’s report also told AFP that euthanasia can be the humane choice for orphaned joeys.

The misleading claim was published in this Facebook post on January 8, 2020. It was shared more than 150 times alongside photos of a kangaroo and koala. 

The post’s lengthy caption states in part: “First responders tackling bushfires in Australia are being advised to kill baby kangaroos and koalas who have been orphaned as a result of the crisis. The Victorian Response Plan for Wildlife Impacted by Fire directs that the rehabilitation of orphaned ‘milk dependent joeys’ from these ‘common species’ found in the fire zone is not supported. 

“Contrary to established practice, the plan urges against handing the animals to wildlife volunteers, stating ‘these animals require significant long term care and cannot be successfully returned to the wild.’”

At least 28 people have died and as many as one billion animals may have perished during an unprecedented bushfire season in Australia, AFP reported here on January 20, 2020.

Similar misleading claims were shared thousands of times after being published here, here, here and here on Facebook; and here, here, here and here on Twitter. 

The posts were shared in multiple languages, including here in Japanese and here in Greek, as well as in Polish; AFP's Polish fact-check team debunked those posts here

A similar claim appeared in this online petition titled: “Stop the killing of milk dependent kangaroo and koala joeys found in bushfires”. 

However, these claims are misleading. The government of Victoria has updated its guidelines and made clear that only young marsupials deemed unable to survive should be euthanised.

-- Victorian government response -- 

Andy Meddick, a Victoria Member of Parliament from the Animal Justice Party, stated publicly that such misleading claims were "categorically untrue."

“There's some rumours going around about how the Victorian Government plans on handling wildlife injured in the bushfire crisis -- stating that they all must be killed," Meddick said on Facebook here on January 7, 2020. "I can confirm these posts going around on social media are categorically untrue and not government regulation."

Meddick added that the office of Victoria Premier Dan Andrews has made assurances that "their plan is to support the rehabilitation of wildlife and that any native animal that can be rescued will be rescued."

“These untrue posts stemmed from a wildlife training manual published in 2017, which has since been replaced," he explained.

-- Conditions for animal euthanasia --

The training manual cited by Meddick, the “Victorian Response Plan for Wildlife Impacted by Fire,” was published by Victoria’s Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP).

“Wildlife Crew Teams will be deployed to undertake the on ground assessment of impacted wildlife, euthanasia or the capture and transportation of animals to a triage centre," the report reads.

“Euthanasia of wildlife impacted by fire should be undertaken where the health and wellbeing of the animal is significantly compromised, invasive or long term medical intervention is required, survival with treatment is unlikely, or if the animal will be unable to survive if released back into the wild.” 

On page 26, the report also list conditions for euthanasia, which include excessive burns, infectious disease, broken limbs and orphaned milk dependent pouch young, among others. 

-- Orphaned joeys --

Following misleading claims and allegations, the DELWP clarified its guidelines surrounding the euthanasia of orphaned pouch young on January 20, 2020.

The addendum, published here, reads: “Recent allegations that regulations exist to euthanise all surviving wildlife are incorrect. The current Wildlife Shelter and Foster Carer Authorisation Guide states that ‘wildlife experiencing unreasonable and/or incurable pain, distress, trauma, sickness or injury; or marsupials that are un-furred with eyes closed and ears down should be euthanised.'" 

The update adds "This is about the welfare of the animal – and we will not unnecessarily prolong pain or suffering of animals. Our approach to caring for our wildlife has been developed in consultation with wildlife veterinary experts."

-- Too young to survive --

According to a veterinarian who was consulted for the DELWP manual, age is the main criterion in deciding whether a joey should be euthanised. 

“The animals that are euthanased are the equivalent of a 12 week (or less) human foetus -- these are joeys that are less than 40 per cent through their pouch life -- eyes closed, unable to control their temperature, immature lungs, kidneys do not work, brain not developed, stumps for limbs," the vet, who wished to remain anonymous, told AFP in an email on January 15, 2020. "Wildlife carers have tried for the last 50 year to get these animals to survive without success." 

The vet also stated that such infant animals often "die a slow death over days from starvation, hypothermia and from diseases of immunocompromise," stressing that a more "compassionate euthanasia is to euthanase promptly to stop this suffering."  

They added that the misleading claims were “unfair” to the first responders and animal carers battling the raging bushfires and its aftermath. 

“The people on search teams are there to do the best job that they can do in terms of animal welfare, in what are trying and difficult conditions,” the vet said.