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Meet the Canberrans watering Canberra’s wildlife

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In the face of huge loss, compounded by recent medical trauma, a Mallacoota couple is turning to watering Canberra’s wildlife as a salve.

On New Year’s morning, jazz folk musicians Mileyna Cifali and Jim Horvath (pictured above) were in Brisbane having a family holiday and watching TV. Jim was recovering from recent surgery.

“About the first thing we saw was a photo of our home, totally flattened to just rubble and ash. And we knew it was our house because there was a burnt-out van out the front that we recognised,” Mileyna tells me.

Even though Mileyna and Jim had been told in an urgent, abrupt phone call the evening before by a South Coast friend that their house was gone, it was still a shock.

“It was pretty surreal,” she continues, “You just don’t expect that your house is going to go down even though you hear there’s a fire there.”

Mileyna and Jim’s home.

She likened it to finding yourself inside a strange movie that you never signed up for. Alongside pictures of their destroyed home, watched in horror as they “saw those images of people huddled on the beach and under the dark sky that whole world saw and that terrible fire front approaching.”

This was their beach. Their community.

To date, Mileyna and Jim are looking for a place to rent in Canberra and haven’t been back to see their razed home. But they are already grieving for their five pet parrots, their musical instrument collection, family heirlooms and photos and all Mileyna’s artwork and drawings.

“You can build new walls. It’s all the history, all the memories, wildlife that came to visit you all the pets that you had… all the friends that came to visit. It’s all those things that make it make a home.

“We’ve lost all my handwritten guitar compositions that I’ve written over my entire lifetime,” Mileyna reflects.

Two weeks before the fires, Jim had a stroke. He’s subsequently had two operations—one for a carotid artery and another one for a cancer near his eye.

This, coupled with the road closures, has barred the pair from returning to their devastated community to assess their loss.

Despite the trauma and everything she currently has on her plate, I was surprised to see Mileyna posting in Canberra’s Water Our Wildlife (WOW) Facebook group.

The rapidly expanding group was set up to coordinate putting out water stations around Canberra for thirsty wildlife.

The group contains a map where people can plot their water stations and other people can find them and help keep them topped up with water.

Despite only kicking off just before Christmas, WOW already has more than 5,700 members. (Some people are describing it as “a movement” as similar local groups are popping up all around the country.)

Concerned about the thirsty birds, Mileyna and Jim set up a watering station on Red Hill.

“We saw them all panting in the heat and smoke and so we went to the shops and bought a water bowl and took it back up and filled it with water. They just loved it. We plan to go back and help them each day,” she posted the group a few days ago.

On the phone to me, Mileyna explains this is giving her a way to connect back to nature and assist the fragile ecosystem.

“My partner Jim and I are great wildlife lovers and we’re very affected by the fact that so much wildlife is suffering and has perished in the fires and the ones that are still alive are suffering from a lack of water, lack of food and the heat.”

For Mileyna and Jim, this simple act gives them comfort: “In a time of feeling, very powerless and quite helpless, to be proactive, and to care for another living creature, gives you gives you a sense of empowerment.”

One of WOW’s admins Anna Reimondos agrees: “We have all been affected by the devastation happening with the drought and the bushfires. This empowers people to do something about it, and you don’t need any expertise or experience to do it. Just a simple tub and the motivation to keep filling it up.”

The group already has more than 800 watering stations going at the moment, and more are being added daily. One of the group’s most active members is ACT Senator, Katy Gallagher. All January she has posted in the group every few days about her “regular 5 pm customers”—a family of kangaroos.

Photo: Katy Gallagher.

“At the risk of becoming the mad kangaroo woman, how lovely are these guys?” she posted on Australia Day alongside numerous snaps of the roos, “They are pretty relaxed to watch me work around them filling up the water and putting out kangaroo pellets.”

Katy—who currently maintains nine separate water stations with big and small tubs for different sized creatures—says she’s loved wildlife since she was a child and even recalls her mum fostering a joey.

“I have been involved in RSPCA and supporting other animal welfare causes, so when the drought really took told and I saw all the animals living near me suffering I wanted to do something about it.

Photo: Katy Gallagher.

“I had to research what they could eat as I didn’t want to make them sick—so now I order online kangaroo pellets and supplement with meadow hay and sweet potatoes and leafy things,” she says.

“On days I have been particularly stressed with smoke and feeling like everything is too much—watching my mum and baby Roos drink and chew on food gives me a warm heart. I know it’s only a small thing and there are so many animals suffering at the moment but I know that my crew out the back are doing OK,” she says.

If you’d like to support Mileyna and Jim, please go along to their gig at Hippo Bar tomorrow (February 5). Details here.

Ginger Gorman is a Canberra-based social justice journalist and cyberhate expert. Her best-selling book is Troll Hunting. You can follow her on Twitter @GingerGorman

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