The personal life changing experiences of a first time duck rescuer with the Coalition Against Duck Shooting (CADS) at Luke Buloke on the opening of the 2012 recreational duck shooting season.
This experience was both tragic and brilliant (because of the people I met).
It’s Saturday March 17th. I wake up at 3am and am feeling anxious about all this day will bring. Drank two cups of coffee and smoked a ridiculous number of cigarettes.
At 4.30am we meet up with our teams (I am in team 10). We are dressed in white, with orange fluorescent vests, decked out with whistles, fluoro orange flags, army goggles and white ‘duck rescue’ hats. I’m thinking at this stage it is cold, but not too cold.
There are over 100 rescuers… our team leader gives us instructions and a lawyer tells us what to do and say if approached by police. After about ten minutes, team 10 boards the minibus that will take us to our destination…. the Lake Buloke wetlands.
CADS and Wildlife Victoria are ready to go. A long and very moving tradition for this weekend is about to begin. A convoy of at least 50 cars all driving slowly one behind the other in the most amazing example of human solidarity I have ever witnessed. I look in front of me and it’s just car after car after car, all with their headlights on as it is still dark. I look behind me and see the same beautiful sight.
After about half an hour, we arrive at our destination, but it’s so bloody dark, I can’t see anything, have no idea where the water is although I know it is there somewhere. After all – no water, no ducks!! What I do see is a massive camp site where many of the hunters have set up.
I begin to feel uneasy and am hoping these men will realize what they are about to do – that they will change their minds, find compassion and just get the fuck out of here and go back to their lives.
Ten minutes later my team of about 12 people is walking to a destination I am unsure of. The ground gets muddy and my feet begin to sink, the earth smells dirty and rotten.
I can see other rescue teams already in the water. I had been told that rescuers were not allowed in the water before 10am. But we weren’t going to be forced to stand on the shore and just watch on helplessly. Yes it is illegal for us to enter the water, but that’s why we are there, so we go in anyway.
The water is surprisingly warm. In fact it’s my upper body that is cold. It is pitch black, but the stars are magnificent. I look towards the heavens many times. I am trying to figure out in my head and make some kind of sense out of what I know will soon begin.
With the cold night air I soon become freezing. I am so bloody cold my hands start to ache. We wade in water knee deep for what seems like miles out. I am surprised by how shallow the water is.
The team I am with try to break the reality of our situation by telling jokes. They make me laugh – they are great, great people.
After what seems like an eternity the first signs of a new day begin. The sun breaks over the horizon, the silhouette of the trees become visible. The night sky still filled with stars is lightened by a rising sun. I am in complete awe of the beauty of the landscape that is replacing the blackness of the night.
A tight ball begins forming in the pit of my stomach. I realize I am frightened. The shooters are ALL dressed in camouflage. They descend on the water in an eerily silent fashion. All of a sudden with the dawns light they are visible. Some have boats, some have set up mock grass walls to conceal themselves. Many have duck decoys (fake ducks that look bloody real which are put in the water to give live ducks a false sense of security); some have dogs, who excitedly paddle through the water. If it wasn’t this particular day, I would laugh at them having so much innocent fun.
A shooter calls out “ten minutes”. The other shooters’ excitement becomes very apparent, as they call out in waiting anticipation. One shooter using a duck whistle plays Advance Australia Fair.
I am now terrified. I still feel the cold, but my heart is racing. There seem to be shooters everywhere. 7.15am (5 minutes before they are legally allowed to begin) the first shot rings out. It is not directly behind me or in front of me, but to the side. Then a symphony of gun shots (which remind me of the sound of a fire work display) breaks the serenity of this magnificent place. I am looking up into the sky, but can’t see any birds. Then all of a sudden I hear a “BANG” right behind me and I jump, the noise is deafening. Then more gun fire sounds out in unison.
The rescue groups blow their whistles loud and fast. Our flags are all flying above our heads like our lives depend on it, but of course today it’s not our lives, it is the beautiful ducks who have done absolutely nothing wrong – but to exist.
Within two minutes the first bird falls, landing ten metres away from me and three other rescuers in my team. The bird is flapping its wings wildly, flailing in the water, going under. I am DESPERATE to reach him. My insides are screaming something my voice cannot verbalize. We get to him, in a desperate and frantic attempt to save his life, but he dies within a minute in a rescuer’s arms. Tears fill my eyes, and my mind just keeps saying, no, no, no. I kiss him. I wish him peace and love. We put him in a backpack – his life now over. I want to mourn this beautiful soul, but that will have to wait till later.
Between gun shots I am able to observe the shooters. They all stand waiting, with guns over their shoulders, looking towards the sky in eager anticipation. They remind me of a dog waiting for a bone to be thrown – they may as well be drooling.
Off in the distance I see two ducks flying together. They are a long way off, but still I can see them. We all wave flags and blow whistles to warn them not to come our way. They fly into the sun until they are no longer in my view. I think those two have made it, but moments later they reappear. The shots ring out and one slowly begins its decent to earth. It is obvious it has been injured, but the shooters just keep shooting. This bird is being annihilated. It doesn’t stand a bloody chance. The shooters cheer, very proud of themselves. They are such brave men, participating in a ‘sport’ which their opponents don’t even know they are part of.
I feel sick. I cannot comprehend such cruel and callous behaviour.
We keep wading through the water. Finally I feel warm on the outside, but so cold on the inside due to this spectacle I am part of. I am here to rescue. I am here to move the birds away from certain injury or death. I am here to be a witness to any shooter doing the wrong thing, and in saying ‘wrong’ I mean illegal, because morally it’s all wrong – but shooting ducks is very much legal.
More birds fly overhead. I hear a loud BANG just behind me. My team watches as it falls into the water, still alive, flapping wildly. It is so close, yet too far to reach. Its head sinks under the water, then reappears a few moments later, then again disappears under the surface. We beg the shooter to go and collect it (we think the bird is dead). He apprehensively walks towards his kill… he doesn’t want to, that much is obvious, maybe he feels threatened by us…. When he gets to the bird he picks it up by the neck. To my horror it is still alive. He whacks it hard on the water, but still it keeps flapping. He whacks it down again. Finally its body becomes limp – its spirit leaves its body – it is now dead.
This man showed no remorse. This is why he is here. He probably resents the fact he had to walk the 100 metres to get the duck. This is the reality of this ‘sport’. They shoot the ducks out of the sky and that in itself is the thrill. That in itself is the reward. Picking the bird up is just a chore that few really have the energy or inclination to do. It’s not why they are there.
Eventually the gun shots around us diminish. I have been told this year is nowhere near as bad as last. Apparently the majority of ducks have flown north to the flood waters. I am glad to hear this. I have been told that last year it was an absolute blood bath here. Duck, after duck, after duck was shot down, including babies, day old chicks. I am relieved my first year as a rescuer is this year, not last.
We wade through the water and my body aches – my legs, my feet and my hips. I fall in the water twice. Logs are everywhere and of course cannot be seen. I notice the gunshots have died down. I find a deep satisfaction in this. Shooters began to retreat back to the shore. They are bored, nothing to shoot at.
At 10am my team makes the decision to head back too. My body is killing me. I can’t wait to feel firm earth under my feet. I come back exhausted and feeling terribly, terribly sad.
Tomorrow we will be back again.
Today, what I have witnessed is humanity at its worst.
I am changed forever. Just being around and so close to people who just don’t give a shit – people who enjoy making other sentient beings suffer for no other reason than their own personal gratification. Children with their fathers – I worry about these kids and what lessons they are being taught. I worry that they will grow up to be just as disconnected and the abuse will continue into the next generation and perhaps the generation after that.
This year I was a duck rescuer for the first time. It will not be my last. Enough is enough… this MUST stop.