A kangaroo whisperer turns up the volume
Wildlife advocate Cienwen Hickey speaks up for the kangaroo in her kitchen
Twenty years ago, Cienwen Hickey and husband Grant retired to their dream property, 150 acres of old-growth forest with wildlife abundant in Far East Gippsland, Australia. Little did she know then, she was about to embark on the biggest battle of her life — protecting kangaroos.
Cienwen had already lived her life in phases. First as a draftswoman, perfecting car designs for Vauxhall Motors in the United Kingdom and then for Holden in Australia. After that, while raising four children, she became a chef before moving to a career in public relations for one of the biggest steel companies in the world, BHP. When it came time to retire, she settled into the stillness and beauty of a piece of land she loved so much that she and Grant put a conservation covenant on it — to protect it in perpetuity.
Kangaroos, wallabies, echidnas, possums, long-neck turtles, lace monitor lizards and over 200 species of native birds share the land and its 250-year-old trees. It’s a wildlife lover’s paradise, “a privilege,” Cienwen says, “to sit amongst them.”
It didn’t take long for Cienwen to get her wildlife carer permit, a government approval that allows her to rescue and rehabilitate injured wildlife. Her very first kangaroo was a “velvet”— so young that she was just starting to grow hair. The joey, who she named Phoebe, was rescued from the pouch after her mother was hit and killed by a car. Phoebe, an eastern gray, became Cienwen’s fifth child. She bottle-fed her six times a day, having to manually mimic a mother kangaroo to “toilet” her after every feed. This went on, as it does for all kangaroo carers, for nearly two years before Phoebe was ready to be released on the property.
Over the next five years Cienwen raised between 60 and 70 kangaroos, releasing them all on her private land when they were ready. The land became their home base. But kangaroos range and some ventured on to other properties. Most of the neighbors were cattle farmers who considered kangaroos competitors for grass but Cienwen didn’t see that as being problematic until one day, when walking on her property, she found two of her three-year-old kangaroos dead from gunshot wounds to the neck and shoulder.
In Australia, if you are issued a permit to kill a kangaroo, you are directed to kill them by a bullet to the head. “My cattle-farming neighbor was such a lousy shot, he hadn’t killed them,” she said. “They were trying to come home. They were both dead when I found them and must has suffered horribly for days. That’s when I thought, I’m spending my money raising these animals and then the government department that gave me the permit to raise them gives my neighbor a permit to shoot them. That was a turning point for me. That’s the day I became an activist.”
Cienwen founded the charity Kangawatch and a group called Australia’s Kangaroos to educate and enlighten Australians to the plight of kangaroos while activating wildlife lovers to help change the game. For the past 15 years she’s been a leader, exposing the unchecked cruelty by the commercial kangaroo industry while debunking the myths that vilify the gentle animals as pests. Her goal is to prove the yearly mass killings of kangaroos and wallabies are unsustainable and must stop before the species are hunted to extinction.
“Phoebe is now the matriarch on the property. I’m still her Mum. She still comes up and puts her arms around me and gives me a hug,” Cienwen says. “At night, when the mob comes up to the house, she jumps up the back steps on to the patio and if the door is open, she joins me in the kitchen — always wondering what kind of special treat I have for her,” she says. “Phoebe’s trust in me renewed a lot of things that I’d lost from humans. It’s a relationship similar to one you have with a dog — one with a bond that lasts forever.”