Video by Tom Compagnoni & Leigh Campbell
I’ve always loved animals. Growing up on acreage in Sydney's North West, my family had dogs, fish, birds, cats and even a horse named Bucky -- after much begging (complete with five year old puppy dog eyes), and dad conceding.
My uncle worked at (no longer existing) African Lion Safari and would bring tiger cubs and penguins to our property during the school holidays -- it was the early 1980s when rules were far more lax.
On trips to Bali I would visit the monkey forest and ride an elephant. I saw pandas in zoos in China, and grizzly, black and brown bears in Denali National Park in Alaska. To me, loving animals was interacting with them. It wasn't until a few years ago that it occurred to me that loving animals should mean respecting them -- letting them coexist in their natural habitats whenever possible.
Reading frequent news stories about poaching, the extinction of endangered species and overfishing made me feel angry. And helpless. Because I believe it is our obligation to help. To be accountable and liable for the world we've shaped around all other living beings that's ultimately for our convenience, at their cost.
One such business who is helping is Zambi Wildlife Retreat in Sydney's west, founded in 2012.
The brainchild of Donna Wilson, Traci Griffiths and Silke Bader -- the three women created an animal welfare charity and are developing an existing animal establishment into a true retreat for exotic animals retired from the zoo, circus and entertainment industry. Not open to the public, the grounds also operate as a rescue and rehabilitation facility for all species in need -- including domestic, farm and native animals.
Arguably the heart of the operation, Donna lives on site to be able to attend to, feed and maintain the grounds for the countless animals in her care. Having worked with exotic animals for close to two decades, Donna began her zoo-keeping career in 1996 when she moved to the USA to pursue her love of animals (she has completed a Diploma in Professional Zoo-Keeping -- graduating with honours -- and an Australian Certificate IV in Captive Animal Management).
The only property of its kind in Australia, Zambi Wildlife Retreat is home to tigers, lions, dingos, primates, reptiles, birds and a huge array of farm and domestic animals. The retreat’s three directors all volunteer their time --no one gets paid.
As you might imagine, all those animals need a lot of food. Locals Coles supermarkets donate their expired fresh produce, and farmers on surrounding properties will notify Donna when they have a lame cow or horse which would otherwise be disposed of. A vegetarian herself, Donna drives to these properties to personally retrieve the cow or horse which then becomes food for the big cats of Zambi Wildlife Retreat. While doing so upset Donna at first, she concedes that the process really is the true circle of life.
Just a few weeks ago the retreat had an emergency whereby a tiger had injured itself, puncturing its chest cavity. Sedating the wounded animal would have been too dangerous to its health, but thanks to Donna's quick thinking and training she was able to aid the tiger into a van (donated by Sydney radio personality Kyle Sandilands) and get it to Vinyard Veterinary C linic who performed a two hour, $5000 operation pro bono, saving its life.
Zambi Wildlife Retreat is actively working to raise enough funds to be able to develop and upgrade the grounds in the hope of taking in more animals in need -- with the directors vowing to remain volunteers so that they avoid becoming an admin-heavy charity. All funds raised through donations go directly back into the retreat and its residence.
After spending a day with the three directors my faith has been restored. While these animals cannot simply be returned to the wild, they can see out the rest of their lives being loved and very well cared for. From the tiniest duck to the biggest cat, these animals are pretty lucky to call Zambi Wildlife Retreat their home.
If they could talk I'm fairly sure they would say thank you.