I was just thinking…………

…….I’ve spent this blissful rainy afternoon surrounded by chuditches and woylies, tammars and phascogales, boodies and bettongs, mardos, quolls and quendas. I’ve been trekking through all our national parks in search of quaint creatures and rare and endangered species – and I haven’t left the comfort of my lounge room. I’m surrounded by dozens of dog-eared and book-marked copies of my favourite ecology magazine, from current issues to those dating back 20 years. In the past decade our scientists have come a long way in the never-ending battle to save our native wildlife and thanks to a small team of dedicated people, there has been some success in stalling the extinction of a growing list of endangered species, but it’s still very scary.
I haven’t always done my research from the comfort of a soft chair though. I’ve had some memorable experiences out in the bush. I once found myself jolting and bumping along rutted bush tracks up on the cab of a C.A.L.M. truck, in the dead of night, in the back of beyond, clinging desperately to the roof rack with my knees while attempting to aim an awkward and very heavy spotlight into the bush. A regular survey was being conducted on the numbers of nocturnal creatures in evidence over particular areas, and I was invited along. I had the time of my life despite all the bruises to my nether regions. We recorded ringtail possums, brush tailed possums, chuditches, woylies and a variety of other secretive night wildlife including several sly and slinking feral cats and foxes. What a night to remember. I came away utterly exhilarated.

It’s a worry, you know, that so many of us seem to have so little knowledge about our West Australian bush and its inhabitants. If we took it upon ourselves to learn more and then hand that knowledge down to our children it must surely help to create in them a positive connection with, and a genuine concern for, their environment. It is imperative that the future keepers of our country glean as much information as we can teach them about our unique and amazing wildlife and flora. Knowledge leads to respect, which leads to care and heaven knows it is crucial that our children take far better care of Australia than their forebears have done.

Education is the key, of course, but never once, in my entire school life, was I taught about such things as quendas or phascogales. I learnt at lot about the kings of England, and I learnt about lost cities of South America, but I didn’t ever hear of a chuditch or a woylie, or even a numbat - and I came from a farm in the southwest!
I know that not much has changed since my school days because none of my children have ever been taught anything about our bush either - at least, not in any classroom.

Over the last few months, in the course of research to back up this article, I’ve questioned a variety of school children about their knowledge of WA’s wildlife and the answers are all the same. They’ve never been taught what’s in their own backyard. One Year 4 child thought she knew what a woylie was. ‘Yes, I think I know that one, isn’t he ‘Woylie Coyote?’
One of my weekly watercolour classes at Atwell Gallery consists of a group of thirteen children ranging in age from 6 to 12 and because they come from ten different schools, both private and government it was a good cross-section for me to quiz. I listed fourteen of Western Australia’s native animals on the blackboard, and out of that, only two were recognised, but the knowledge hadn’t come from school. The child had been on an outing with her parents to gain that information.

To add to my conviction, I was a remedial teacher at a large school in the suburbs a few years ago and I decided to combine a programme of bush education with an art course in a class of 35 children, varying in age from 7 to 12 years. When I asked them what West Australian native animals they knew of, all their answers were the standard: kangaroos, koalas, emus and rabbits! A smattering of lions and tigers was thrown in too.
Hmm …isn’t it a bit perturbing? Especially considering we have the most unique wildlife in the world!

A couple of years ago, in Ireland, I taught an art class of 15 children in a small school and I asked them the same question. What indigenous Irish animals did they know? Every hand shot up in eager anticipation. They knew them all and called out with confidence. Hedgehogs and hares, squirrels and shrews, moles and voles, deer and dormice, badgers, martens, otters and weasels, stoats and foxes, and not a single African animal got a mention! They even knew the Irish ones from those that were English. I was impressed. The knowledge just rolled out of them. Accurate and fabulous! As I turned to the blackboard to hurriedly scribble their yelled responses, I couldn’t help but think back to that classroom full of Ozzie kids in my own country, so utterly spectacular in its uniqueness and diversity of animal life. I was saddened and concerned to think that our children are missing out on an integral part of their education.

I hope to do something positive to change that, because I, for one, would like to see our children eagerly raising their hands and rattling off a stream of knowledge about their bush, their wilderness, their heritage.

Lori Spencer