In 2016, BRINKLEY DAVIES was in a car that hit a mother kangaroo. She was determined to rear the surviving joey and named her ‘Bunji’. Although Brinkley didn’t know it at the time, Bunji would become a life-long friend and spark a fire in her to do better for Australia’s wildlife.
Saving Bunji is a photographic memoir of the journey to save the little joey. In this extract we join Brinkley as she starts to care for little Bunji.
Warmth, quiet, and an audible heartbeat. These three things help stabilise a baby joey immediately. Then comes nutrients, specialised care, a lot of patience and dedication. Although I knew what was needed, I was eager to ensure I was doing everything right. I started reaching out to all my wildlife carer contacts to double-check the next steps. I was 100 per cent in to give this baby a fighting chance.
At this point, we were back in Elliston. It was dark, we were living out of our Troopy, and now I had an approximately four-week-old kangaroo joey down my top. It was a lot to take in. I knew now that the joey was a girl. She didn’t have testes, and even when they are tiny, female joeys still have a pouch. It looks like a little hole or skin flap on their belly – and she had one. I was reluctant to name her, because survival rates of pinkys – young joeys that haven’t yet grown fur – is so low. I didn’t want to get attached until we had gotten past the first forty-eight hours. This period is crucial.
First on the list was to get some formula: joeys at this size suckle every two to three hours, maybe more. It would also be comforting for her to have a bottle with a teat, just like her mum’s pouch would have had. The formula I was after is known as Wombaroo Milk Replacer 0.4. There are very specific guides to which formula a joey needs, depending on how far along they are. My little girl was furless, but her skin was darkening, her eyes had just opened and her little ears weren’t stuck to her head. She met the criteria perfectly for 0.4 formula. This can usually be found at vet clinics, but of course, we were nowhere near one. I didn’t have any formula in the rescue pack we kept in the car, either – lesson learnt.
We were in luck, though. After a few phone calls, some friends who lived on a property near Elliston had the correct formula as they had raised quite a few joeys. We headed there straight away, picked up the formula, a bottle and new rubber teat that was correct for her size/weight, and then made our way to a spot where we could set up for the night.
Next on the list was setting up the perfect environment for her. One of the most difficult things about caring for a joey this small is that they need help regulating their body temperature. They can easily get too cold, or too hot. There are specially made heat mats available for this very purpose, but they weren’t exactly readily available at midnight in the middle of the Eyre Peninsula. Luckily, my body temperature was exactly what she needed, so the ideal place was still on my chest. I used a pillowcase as a mini pouch, placing it down my top and on my skin, and then pulling the open top of the pillow case up through the neck of my jacket. She was so happy down there, and the opening meant she was getting much-needed fresh air (although joeys have an incredible tolerance for carbon dioxide!). With that set up, we boiled some water on our cooker and took it off the heat to let it cool. You can test for the right temperature the same way you would test it for a human baby: putting a tiny bit of the water on your wrist. I used a scalpel to poke a tiny little hole in the rubber teat and once the water was cool enough, I mixed in the correct amount of formula. It’s important to ensure that the milk isn’t too hot or cold, as this can further stress out the joey.
Once everything was finally ready, I slowly and so, so gently moved the little pillowcase pouch inside my beanie. That way, I could bring her head out enough to feed her and she would still be warm. As she was tiny, her mouth was also tiny, and very much closed. One of the biggest challenges we faced was getting her to open up so we could gently slide the teat into her mouth. We let a tiny bit of formula come up on the teat first, and just rubbed it gently on her lips, hoping she might taste it and open her mouth enough to get the teat in. After a little while, it worked – she was sucking! – but it wasn’t enough for milk to come out of the bottle. I had to squeeze the bottle a teeny bit. It took her about half an hour to drink 5 to 10 millilitres, and all I could think was progress. It was a miracle. I thought, is this what it’s like for mums when their babies finally latch on while breastfeeding? It gave me a whole new appreciation for how new mothers must feel. The relief, the joy, the affection. I was in love.
Given her age and weight, I was guessing she was going to need about five to six feeds a day, once every three hours or so. I was thinking mostly about my sleep, or the forthcoming lack thereof. It was okay, though. I’d gone into full mother mode and was ready for it – among other things, such as toileting.
Most people don’t know that joeys can’t go to the toilet by themselves. In the wild, the mother kangaroo will lick them clean inside the pouch until they are old enough to be outside and regularly eating solids. This licking is how the joey knows to go to the toilet. Wildlife carers have to simulate this for rescues by ‘toileting’ them, which involves using a warm, wet cloth to stimulate around the joey’s cloaca.
Toileting is a vital way of knowing how the joey’s health is; given that our tiny little rescue had just been through a huge ordeal, and was likely dehydrated, I was surprised and relieved that as I toileted her, she did a little wee and poo. Just like that, we had established a routine, and she was settled enough for us to start her recovery process.
I cleaned her and popped her back down my jumper in the pillowcase, and we got into our Troopy bed. I sleep on my back and don’t move at all during the night, so I wasn’t worried about squishing her at all. As I lay down, I felt her snuggle in even tighter to me. We had made it through the first few hours, and I felt good about it. By the time I closed my eyes it was about 2am. I set my alarm for four hours’ time, and off to sleep I went.
I woke up before my alarm. I feel like that always happens when you have an important job to do, and motherhood is at the top of the important jobs list. Our little rescue joey was still sound asleep on me, not surprising at all given her ordeal the day before. I went back to sleep for another hour or so before starting the day and, most importantly, starting our caring routine.
This time around it was much easier to get her to grab onto the teat. Even though she was only drinking a tiny amount at her age, it was a relief each time. I figured out that if I put some milk on my pinky finger then rubbed it on her mouth, she would try to latch onto my finger, creating a gap I could gently slide the bottle teat into. Pinkys’ mouths are very delicate, so you always have to be extra careful to avoid damaging their still-developing palate.
We also had a hot water bottle to act as a secondary source of warmth for her if I needed to put her down, and we made a secure little pouch for her to hang out in over the car headrest, where we could add the hot water bottle along with padding.
After the first 48 hours passed, we thought it best we head back to Port Lincoln to settle in and set up our little room for my new charge. The joey had survived through the few crucial days, and I already adored her. I still missed Balu, my dog, terribly, of course, but caring for this joey had given me something to focus on. Earlier in the year I had been researching Indigenous names for future pets. ‘Bunji’ had been one of my favourites, coming from Warlpiri and other languages of the traditional owners of the Northern Territory and Northern Queensland. It means ‘a close friend and kinsman’ – and that’s exactly how I felt about the little joey I was literally carrying around on my heart. It was the perfect name for her.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Freediver, Surfer, and Marine Biologist by trade, Brinkley has travelled the world for the last decade following her passions for the ocean, and wildlife. Founding Balu Blue Foundation Inc, in late 2016, a DGR endorsed, environmental charity in Australia that works to protect Australian wildlife and habitat.
In 2020, Brinkley launched two new ventures – Bandicoot By Brinkley Jewellery, to help support the conservation projects of Balu Blue, with beautiful, high quality and sustainable jewellery collections inspired by the sea.
Wildlife Expeditions – hosting life changing expeditions to some of the wildest places on earth, to see and experience wildlife with your own eyes. The overall goal of reconnecting those who come, with nature in an incredibly special way.