“I do not understand the human race, has so little love for creatures with a different face. Treating animals like people is no madness or disgrace.” Dr Dolittle. When you first meet Dr Barbara Baird you are reminded of this quote from Dr Dolittle. Barbara is a lively, intelligent woman with a myriad of talents and interests, not least of all ‘her’ native Australian animals, which she regards as family.
After working one-hundred-hour weeks, as a specialist anaesthetist, Barbara gifted herself early retirement in 1983. ‘Retirement’ obviously has a different definition in Barbara’s language. It appears synonymous with a change of direction rather than actually slowing down. One would suspect that she still commits to one-hundred-hour weeks with her involvement in ABC Friends Victoria, Australian Conservation Foundation, rescuing and nursing back to health injured Australian fauna and restoring, since 1983 a 64.75 hectares property, which had been completely decimated by cattle and soil erosion.
When Barbara happened across the deserted property, with a forlorn “For Sale” sign hanging haphazardly from a rusted gate, she fell in love and relished the challenge it presented. Living with no electricity for many years, Barbara has only in the past few years installed solar panels and remains off grid. The land responded to Barbara’s love and innovative ideas. Now nurtured back to full health it is a safe haven and habitat to a dynamic ecosystem. Holding court is an ancient Eucalyptus tree that Barbara fondly named her Thinking Tree. In 1983 the tree was one of the few signs of hope on the abandoned property. Over the years Barbara has sat in its bough, sharing every emotion and dream with this steadfast tree friend.
Surrounded by State Forrest Barbara is fire conscious and has had three large bunkers installed on her property. One is for her and her immediate animal family; the other two bunkers are akin to Library vaults, filled with precious writings, books, photographs and art work. For many years Barbara use to make and send up to 150 Christmas cards adorned with personal photos of animal families living on her property. Barbara, given her magnificent longevity, has long held a front row seat to the emergency that is our climate change crisis. It concerns her deeply. She wishes that we always adopt the Aboriginal way of forest fuel reduction, burning small circles of fires, as opposed to large rings of fire, which offer little escape. The process may take longer but the same results are achieved, minus the death and destruction of so many animals.
Biologist, Sir David Attenborough once said “Surely it is our responsibility to do everything within our power to create a planet that provides a home, not just for us, but for all of life on earth.” Barbara personifies this quote, dedicating her life and her medical skills to helping and healing the native animals that surround her home. Each morning she walks out to greet the sunrise and the animals saying, “It’s okay chaps, it’s only me”. This familiar greeting results in a reduction in the ‘fight and flight’ response and sees the animals relax for a while more as Barbara enjoys her breakfast. Barbara wants them to recognise her voice, so they can retain a healthy distance from other humans, who may pose a threat to them.
An orphaned baby wallaby was Barbara’s first ‘patient’ after moving to her property. She configured a pouch and carried the wallaby close to her skin, so it would have the soothing effect of warmth and a heartbeat. Two days later Barbara was booked to speak at a meeting, with dinner preceding the proceedings, in a Melbourne Restaurant. Barbara arrived at the Restaurant wearing ‘big clothes’. Thankfully people were too engrossed in conversation to notice when the baby wallaby’s tail popped out.
According to Barbara, “all animals have their own personalities”. This was further demonstrated when Barbara’s little wallaby finally left for the bush, with her chosen wallaby mate. Four months later Barbara arrived home from grocery shopping. Her wallaby had returned and was very agitated. As Barbara alighted her porch the wallaby jumped into her arms, it’s heart racing. Barbara took the wallaby inside but left the door open, should it want to leave. Thirsty and exhausted it had a long drink and slept, snuggled up just inside the door for several hours. Finally awake the wallaby then went to visit her old bed in the upper room, hopped back down, touched Barbara’s cheek with her nose, as a farewell ‘kiss’, checked for predators and hopped off into the bush. This same wallaby, for many years, returned to Barbara, introducing her newest joeys. Barbara did not touch these joey’s or their wallaby Mum. Barbara’s motivation has always been to rescue, heal and release, so that the animals live a natural life. In the words of David Attenborough again, “If we look after the natural world, the natural world will look after us.”
Aged only sixteen Barbara began a science degree at University of Western Australia. She considered a career as a Veterinarian But this eighty plus years, young dynamo exclaimed “Bloody hell, I realised I’d be killing animals if people couldn’t afford to have them fixed”.
Barbara began her medical degree, in a predominantly male dominated culture. To complete the degree, she spent her last year in residency at Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital in Perth. Professional life included postings back at Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, at our own Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne and Perth; England, Norway and many other wonderful postings.
Barbara’s speciality in anaesthesiology began by chance, after accepting an offer to work in Dundee, Scotland. It may have begun by chance but it soon became a passion. An effective Anaesthetist is the conductor of the ‘surgery orchestra’. Barbara embraced her role with expertise, dedication and compassion, especially her pre and post-surgery consultations, where she informed and comforted patients in many innovative ways. With complete humility, Barbara relayed many stories related to her time as an anaesthetist. The times involved in marathon neurosurgery, where staff after many hours ‘tap’ out to be replaced by new staff. Barbara reasoned that she knew the patient’s surgical statistics intimately and therefore always stayed for the duration of every surgery. Another story highlighted a child’s fears pre surgery, which found him hiding under the hospital bed. Barbara spoke with the child’s Mum, explaining the procedure and allaying any fears. Barbara intuitively knew her little patient was listening to every soothing and informative word, from his safe refuge under the hospital bed. Surgery then proceeded, with a tangible reduction in stress levels, resulting in far quicker recovery.
Always an adventurous spirit Barbara has also traversed our globe, with some of her adventures including a ship to Naples and driving a land rover from Scotland to India, “I travelled with adaptable plans and somehow it always worked out”.
Born in Boddington, Western Australia Barbara was one of four children. They were all taught from a young age to care for, respect and learn from the environment. After a storm the family would go to the beach, then home to research and identify what had washed up. Camping trips consisted of a canopy strung between trees. Barbara fondly remembers kangaroos hopping by as she drifted off to sleep.
Barbara’s Mum, was in her early twenties when she travelled to London and completed a Doctorate in Philosophy. A remarkable feat for a young girl born in Kalgoorlie, in that era. Barbara’s parents were devoted to each other and their children. In 1965 Barbara’s beloved Dad died suddenly, aged only 53. This was a devastating time for the whole family, made more so by the fact that none of them were allowed to attend his funeral. Woman and children were strongly discouraged, in many instances forbidden, from attending funerals. Barbara’s nineteen-year-old brother was the only family member in attendance. Barbara’s mother was grief-stricken. A loving daughter, Barbara over the years tried to help her Mum find some pleasure in life through organising Harry Butler Camping Trips and an extended tour of Europe and several other countries.
I have fervently believed we should always choose our words kindly and wisely, for words are oh so powerful. They drive culture and they also settle into the crevices of hearts, for better or worse.
Seventy-six years ago, a little girl named Barbara started school. She enjoyed belonging and loved to sing with the class. Although this little girl grew into an adult that could fill a library with her personal stories and experiences, the story that still reverberates with her to this day is the Prep teacher, who so violently lent into her and forbade Barbara from ever singing again. Her joy in singing was replaced with the embarrassment of having to mime every song thereafter.
Barbara has never been silenced again! Perhaps subconsciously this is the catalyst for Barbara’s personal strength and greatest passions, her native animals and sustainable biodiversity. There is no doubt that Barbara speaks eloquently and acts zealously on behalf of both; she is to local habitats what Jane Goodall is to Tanzania chimps and conservation.
The words of Jane Goodall are perhaps the most pertinent conclusion to this glimpse into Dr Barbara Baird’s extraordinary life.
“The least I can do is speak out for those who cannot speak for themselves.”
Story and Photo: Jacinta Foster-Raimondo.