TEHREE Gordon spends 18 hours a day caring for native animals and has done for 30 years, writes SARAH HUDSON
Howling dingoes, croaking frogs, squawking galahs - even the occasional "hello cocky" - and a cacophony of animal noises welcome visitors to Barwon Heads' Jirrahlinga Koala and Wildlife Sanctuary.
But it is the constant ringing of a phone that makes you think owner Tehree Gordon is busy beyond belief.
"Oh no, that's Ellie, a (stunningly bright blue and red) ecelectus parrot," Tehree explains.
"She is one of four birds I have at home - they all make various phone sounds - and she comes with me to work every day.
"Kellie is another of my birds, a sulphur-crested cockatoo. When the door bell rings at home, she says 'who's there?' and 'would you like a cup of tea?'."
The comedic birds are part of a long and privileged list of countless rescued creatures that have been under Tehree's care for the wildlife sanctuary's 30-year history - and beyond.
Tehree, together with her husband, Hamish, have been revolutionaries in animal welfare - helping establish the wildlife carer network after Ash Wednesday, popularising animal therapy in nursing homes and hospitals, and assisting government departments in trials, including fox baiting and dingo tracking.
What's more, Tehree - who has been recognised with a series of awards such as the Senior Australian of the Year in 2004 - is no zealot, understanding that in all issues, including with farmers, compromise and pragmatism are often required.
Her work is all the more remarkable given that she has multiple sclerosis, suffered a stroke and had an abusive childhood.
Last year, too, the sanctuary - which houses about 400 animals rescued from zoos, owners or wildlife parks - had a set-back when the koala enclosure burned down, which saw the loss of six koalas and valuable medical equipment.
"I work 18 hours a day," she says. "I start at 5.30am and finish at 9pm, when I have a little sleep, then I get up at midnight to start feeding injured wildlife and that's when I do the paper work, too.
"Sometimes, I really struggle. Two weeks ago, I fell over and hurt myself because I was too tired. And, if I'm exhausted, I lose control of the left side of my body, because of the stroke."
She says she doesn't consider working with animals difficult and tells many a story of the healing powers of the creatures under her care and how much joy they bring.
"Jirrahlinga is not just for distressed native animals. It's about people, particularly those with a disability or special need.
What better therapy is there than working quietly with animals or just touching a koala or joey?"
Tehree speaks from personal experience.
She was born in South Australia, the eldest of four children, to a father who was a disturbed, violent, abusive drunk and a mother who "was the closest thing to an angel on earth".
The family moved constantly - Tehree went to 29 primary schools - but the one constant throughout her childhood was animals.
"I wanted to be a vet and two weeks before I was to sit for a scholarship my father tore up my books and took me out of school. He was determined I would never work with animals."
Tehree left school at 15 and worked in a variety of jobs. But when she was called on to help in a clean-up of a bushfire near Mt Gambier, she stumbled across the need for wildlife carers.
She began working in the Lost Dogs Home, learning about animal welfare and became a ranger for the Bellarine Shire in Geelong.
But the turning point came 30 years ago when Tehree needed to release a kangaroo in her care, who had a broken leg and could not fend for himself.
She bought a 2ha property on the outskirts of Barwon Heads and called it Jirrahlinga, Aboriginal for "seek a home for a kangaroo".
Today Jirrahlinga, which is open to the public, houses everything from koalas to snakes, wombats and peacocks.
Any injured wildlife coming through Jirrahlinga's doors - and they get 5000 calls a year - are rehoused, rehabilitated and eventually released.
- Jirrahlinga Koala and Wildlife Sanctuary, Barwon Heads. Details: jirrahlinga.com.au or ph: (03) 5254 2484.