Judith Hopper's home at Millfield is not so much a house as an ark.
At the entrance to the kitchen, resting in a puppy pen, are a couple of young swamp wallabies. In the lounge room is a wombat. In the bathroom, there is an eastern long-necked turtle sauntering along the bath. Beside it, in a baby's bath, is a water dragon.
What was Hopper's home office is now an "animal room". It houses two more wombats, along with a sugar glider and a ring-tailed possum.
Out the front is a jumble of little wooden boxes, waiting to be installed in the bush to provide shelter for possums and birds.
And in the backyard, there is no barbecue or swimming pool. Rather, it holds a "kindy pen" for young kangaroos and wallabies, a section of pocked and welted earth that is a temporary home for wombats, and a large aviary, which serves as a "creche" for baby flying foxes.
So this is not your usual household.
"No, I suppose not," agrees Judith Hopper, as she scoops up the little wallabies, named Erland and Lorelle, and places them in a fabric pouch. "Although really in my world, it's not that unusual."
Hopper's world is the animal world.
She is heavily involved in Hunter Wildlife Rescue, an organisation with about 250 members dedicated to rescuing, rehabilitating and releasing native fauna in need of help. Hopper coordinates care for flying foxes, wombats and turtles.
However, her door is open to all kinds of creatures, great and small.
Judith Hopper may not be a Doctor Dolittle, although she is constantly talking to the animals. But she is a carer and landlady, a nurse and a mother to native fauna.
And during the recent summer of horrible heat and bushfires, Hopper has been a saviour, as she has taken care of dozens of animals at any one time in her small home.
"She is an absolute wonder with the animals," says Hopper's friend and fellow wildlife carer Bev Marsh.
"She's such a fighter for our wildlife. It doesn't matter if it's macropods or flying foxes or wombats, she's there and she's fighting with everything she's got to try and improve things for them."
THERE was a time when Judith Hopper ran with a different herd. She was a corporate animal.
"I actually had a career and a normal life, as a business improvement project management consultant," she explains. "And at that stage there weren't strange things in the kitchen or lounge room."
They may not have been in her home, but animals have nearly always been in Judith Hopper's life.
Ever since her childhood in regional Victoria, Hopper had loved wildlife, particularly flying foxes. When she was 12, young Judith saw a microbat flap out of her father's overalls, as he went to pull them on, and she was mesmerised.
She took care of that little bat for months.
"That's when I fell in love with bats," Hopper says.
Decades later, when Hopper was a businesswoman in Sydney, her personal assistant helped her boss reconnect with being a batwoman. The PA enrolled Hopper in a flying fox care training day.
Hopper found her passion for flying foxes increasingly pushed into both her home and corporate life.
Hopper's then husband built a flying fox aviary in the backyard, and she scheduled business meetings and conference calls around feeding times for the baby animals.
About 10 years ago, with her marriage ending, Hopper decided to move out of Sydney and surround herself with more land, and more space to care for animals.
"It had to be on the east coast, because of the flying foxes," she says.
Hopper bought a large block in the Coalfields village of Millfield, after she sat in the backyard, gazed at the distant ranges cloaked in trees in the Corrabare State Forest, and "I realised I just totally relaxed".
What's more, "up here, there were flying foxes and friends".
Yet in recent months, those ranges that enticed her to settle in Millfield have been a source of worry and dread.
"The fires were in those hills," Hopper says. "That's where it [the line of bushfires] ended."
But that was the beginning of an exhausting, often heartbreaking, summer for Hopper and other volunteer carers at Hunter Wildlife Rescue, as they battled to save thousands of native animals.
Hopper's home became an emergency centre for injured and starving fauna. In the extreme heat, flying foxes, particularly babies, were dropping to the ground.
Emergency teams worked in the bush, providing first aid to stricken flying foxes, before transporting many of them to Hopper.
At one point, she had about 70 baby flying foxes in her backyard aviary, and in her home. She was feeding and caring for the babies around the clock.
More animals joined the Hopper household over summer.
Lorelle, the swamp wallaby joey, was rescued in January. Then, a couple of weeks later, Erland was brought in.
Both their mothers had been killed by vehicles. As soon as Erland arrived, Lorelle literally latched onto him.
"They've been friends ever since," Hopper says.
Other animals brought to the Hopper ark were rescued from the fire grounds. Not all would make it.
Whenever an animal dies, it breaks Judith Hopper's heart.
Caring for so many baby flying foxes in recent months, her heart has been broken time and again.
But she couldn't dwell on mourning for the dead; she had so many more babies relying on her.
"It's just been too much," Hopper says. "It's the sort of thing if you tried to process it, the dam breaks and you'd be catatonic on the floor."
And, frankly, no matter how fatigued and washed out she is, Hopper hasn't got time to lie on the floor.
"I've got 60 flying foxes in at the moment. For me, the crisis hasn't ended yet."
Yet Hopper hasn't had to face the "crisis" alone. Her home has been smothered in compassion.
"I once had an elegant dining room," she says, opening the door to an Aladdin's cave of medical supplies and stacks of boxes packed with hand-made wraps for baby flying foxes.
The international media coverage of the bushfires and their devastating impact on wildlife prompted a torrent of donations from around Australia, and from as far away as Singapore, the United States and Europe.
"Some of these turned up without a return address," she explains, holding up a handful of carefully stitched wraps.
"I can't even write and say 'thank you'."
More than donated goods turned up on her doorstep. Two women from California were so distressed by what they had seen in the news reports, they flew out to help the wildlife volunteers.
Assistance for Hopper has come not just from across the ocean but a couple of streets away.
Michelle Bowen is a neighbour of Judith and fellow member of Hunter Wildlife Rescue. The two women vaguely knew each other before this summer; now a firm friendship has been forged through long days and nights caring for flying foxes.
"She came around at the beginning of the crisis, and she's been here ever since," Hopper says, explaining that so many nights they would be feeding baby flying foxes until, "one of us would look up and go, 'Oh, it's light again', meaning we hadn't got to bed that night".
Bowen still turns up every day to help her friend.
"I think the bond is we put animals before us," says Bowen.
"I do have a partner. I never see him. He's very patient."
Michelle Bowen didn't escape the destruction of the recent bushfires.
She has a parcel of land in the Pokolbin State Forest, where she was setting up a healing retreat. But now the retreat itself needs healing, after being ravaged by flames.
Bowen lost a cabin and shed, machinery, and materials for taking care of wildlife.
Bowen is frequently heading back into the bush, not to rebuild that part of her life, but to try and save the lives of animals, injured, starving and dehydrated, who are crossing open, burnt ground in a search for food and water.
"There's a lot of very thin animals. We've had some animals that have come in for rescue that have been burnt and have been extremely thin," she says.
In response, Michelle Bowen has taken on another role. She is the manager of Hunter Wildlife Rescue's "feeding in the field" project.
She has been distributing food, including leaves, sweet potato, carrots, some fruits and seeds, rolled oats, supplements, "whatever I can get my hands on".
What's more, when she sees roadkill, she collects the carcasses and takes those into the bush for the scavengers.
"One hundred per cent of everything I put out has been eaten," Bowen says.
She has also set up water stations for the wildlife, but incredibly some of those have been stolen. So the best of human nature is being impeded by the worst - and, she fears, animals' lives are being lost as a result.
Green shoots are returning, and "the smell of death is slowly going out of the forest", but Bowen will continue taking food and water into the field, and rescuing those that need care.
"Because someone has to," she explains. "Because I love animals. It was their country first."
IT is the 11.30am feeding session in the Hopper household.
"I do sometimes think I'm running an animal restaurant," Hopper says.
The atmosphere is less like a restaurant than a kid's birthday party. Hunger and excitement create an air of controlled chaos.
First up for a feed is the wombat from the lounge room. He was known as Wobbles when he first arrived as a tiny creature, rescued from his mother's pouch after she was hit by a car.
During his stay, Wobbles has risen in both health and status. So resting in Hopper's lap, being fed special formula from a bottle, is Sir Wobbles.
"He's awfully posh," notes Bowen. "He's awfully spoilt."
Not that Bowen has time to dote on Sir Wobbles. She is occupied with Kunama, the sugar glider. The little creature has a big growl, which sounds like an old car engine starting.
Kunama was brought in after being found by the road, being pecked by birds. Her left eye was damaged during the attack. That hasn't stopped her from climbing and crawling all over Bowen.
"Michelle is her Mum essentially," says Hopper.
Next up to be fed are the two little swamp wallabies. The joeys nuzzle into Hopper's lap and drain their bottles of formula within a couple of minutes.
While they are being fed, two more wombats, Bill'san and Nafisa, wander like drowsy children out of the "animal room".
Both wombats are tired, having been playing through the night. Which means Hopper didn't get much sleep. She rarely does. As Bowen says, her friend doesn't sleep; she "dozes".
Sleep deprivation aside, the carers are delighted and relieved that the wombats have been playing. Bill'san has been gravely ill and they feared he would die.
Like any mother, Hopper knows she shouldn't have favourites among her "children", but at the moment, Bill'san is the apple of her eye, because "it has been such a fight to keep him alive".
The wombats are lifted onto the lounge. One pushes in behind the cushions.
"It's a wombat burrow, it's not actually a nice lounge," observes Bowen.
The swamp wallabies are lifted down, and Lorelle hops around the room.
"They are the ADHD [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder] of the macropod world," says Hopper.
Lorelle's energy seems to set off Kunama. The sugar glider clambers off Bowen and leaps and bounds around the lounge, using the furniture as a trampoline.
"You're getting very confident with the hopping, love," Bowen says to the little sugar glider. "I'm impressed!"
Hopper begins feeding the wombats, one at a time. While one demolishes the bottled formula, the other wombat soothes itself by nibbling on what had been an expensive scarf.
Many a treasured possession, especially shoes, have been reduced to animal chew toys in this house. But as she feeds the little wombat, Hopper doesn't care about those material losses.
"They give back so much," she says.
"They cuddle. You're so important to them, and for a few moments, there's nothing wrong.
"You can just relax and enjoy them and be there for them. It's the trust they have for you that's so amazing. Twenty years on, I never cease to wonder at it."
This is one of the precious rewards for Hopper, softening the grief that goes with the territory of being a wildlife carer. Particularly after such a confronting summer, with so many animals lost.
The local population of the grey-headed flying fox, for instance, has been decimated. Hopper estimates more than 25,000 flying foxes have died due to the drought and bushfires.
"Some people can't cope," Hopper says of the battle in the bush to save wildlife. "They're there for an hour, and they can never go back. And you can never blame them for that.
"When you've been there and seen it, you never blame anybody for never going back again. They'll do other things, and they're just as valuable those people, but they just can't face the death and the dying.
"The worst thing you have to do is to tell another carer, who reports to you, that their baby must be euthanased. That's the hardest thing you ever have to do. Coping with the death, that's emotionally the hardest thing, but to have to tell a carer that their baby isn't going to make it, that's really tough."
IN Hopper's backyard, two wombats, Marriam and Lucien, are digging in the dirt in their pen. They have been living at the Millfield home for about 12 months, but they are nudging ever closer to being released.
As Hopper explains, that is the goal for every animal here.
"Their future is to be released into the wild," says Hopper. "We only raise to release into the wild."
And when that moment arrives, it is filled with both sweetness and sadness: "Those are moments of joy, because you've made it. They've made it. And that's what you're there for."
Right down the back is the flying fox "creche", with the 60 or so little mammals squawking and screeching as they look inquisitively at Hopper.
In here, a couple of older flying foxes teach the young how to behave, in readiness to be released.
"They're learning their social manners, and they're breaking the bond with humans," says Hopper.
However, they do have a human for a neighbour. In the cabin next to the aviary lives Bev Marsh. A few years ago, she visited Hopper to help her care for the animals and ended up staying.
Marsh doesn't just help the animals; they help her. She has a condition called fibromyalgia, which causes her constant pain.
"Concentrating on the animals, I don't think about the pain," she explains. "They're fun. They get up to antics. They all have their own personalities."
As we talk, her attention is being diverted by a baby flying fox clinging to her.
"This is Neville, or, when he's been naughty, Nifty," she says.
Neville was rescued from the flying foxes' East Cessnock camp, suffering from heat stress. She's helping him to recover, preparing him for his return to the wider world.
"To get them through everything and see them released," Marsh says, as she looks down and tenderly runs her finger along Neville's fine, almost-translucent wings. "Yeah."
Back in the house, Hopper is preparing for the next round of feeding. As she sits in her little home, surrounded by animals, the days of tailored suits and conference calls must seem like another life ago.
"No, my life is integrated," Hopper says, as Lorelle bounces past her feet.
"But sometimes I have sat at a large dinner party with corporate friends, whom I love dearly and who love me, and who accommodate the wildlife in my life, and I listen to the arguments about what's going on at the office, or the stupid manager, or the client, and I think, 'I've just spent the day trying to save the life of whatever'.
"For a moment or two, I can't relate. I'm suddenly outside the world I used to be in, and thinking, 'Well, what are you arguing about that for?'.
"Yes, there are moments when I'd like my elegant lounge room back, and I want my dining room back. And just buy that pretty pair of shoes that I once would have done. But I've traded it for this. And I couldn't give this up.
"This is what I want to do. This is what I am. This isn't a hobby. This is life. It's my lifestyle. It's what I've chosen."
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