8 September 2023

Wanted: Adults, kids to run for the lives of our endangered species

| Sally Hopman
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woman with lizard on her shoulder

Wildlife keeper and engagement officer at Wildbark, Mulligans Flat, and Youth Olympics champion Keely Small with her new best friend, the sanctuary’s pet Eastern Bearded Dragon. Photo: Wildbark.

So, you’re a Youth Olympics gold medallist – and your passion is native animals – what would be your dream job?

If you’re Keely Small, it has to be the new Wildbark centre at Mulligans Flat Animal Sanctuary in Gungahlin. As a young athlete living in Canberra, one of her passions was running through Mulligans Flat, so she knows the area well. Watching it transform into Wildbark, a centre to educate people about the importance of caring for our native animals, also helped.

When Keely started working at Wildbark a few months ago as a wildlife keeper and engagement officer, first on her agenda was to combine her two passions – native wildlife and running.

Her passions will join forces this Saturday, 9 September, when Wildbark celebrates its first birthday – and National Threatened Species Day – with a 5 km fun run.

Keely said the route would start and finish at Wildbark, through the Goorooyaroo Nature Reserve and into Mulligans Flat Woodland Sanctuary – the first time a run would be held in a predator-proof sanctuary.

“It all seems to have fallen into place,” she said.

“When I came back to Canberra from training overseas, I was looking to do something I felt passionate about. I’d always wanted to be a zookeeper, so the idea of working with animals was perfect. I guess some things are meant to be when you have a sanctuary like this on your doorstep.”

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The young athlete first made headlines in 2017 when she won the Canberra Track Classic in record time at age 15, beating the country’s best 800-metre runners in the process.

2018 was her year. She won gold in the 800-metres at the Youth Olympics on the Gold Coast. At the time, she also became the fastest Australian junior over 800 metres, setting a new under-20 (and under-18) record.

“It was a pretty surreal thing. You get the full Olympic feel of something like that, especially as I was the flag bearer. Sure, there was a bit of pressure, especially when you stand up for the anthem and get the medal, but it is something I’ll never forget.

“I was only 16 at the Youth Olympics, so to rank No 1 in that age group was pretty good.”

When Keely returned to Canberra in 2021, she was no longer convinced running was everything. Training and injuries had taken their toll.

“I still loved it, but I needed more in my life to keep my cup full. I needed more than just running.

“I was probably a bit burnt out when I came back to Canberra, but I wanted to be where my family was, so I decided to focus on my degree rather than running.”

The degree is in Zoology, which she is studying online through the University of New England in Armidale while working at Wildbark.

woman with bettong at night

The new wildlife officer at Mulligans Flat, Keely Smith, makes friends with Nancy the Eastern Bettong during a recent night tour through the sanctuary. Photo: Wildbark.

These days, Keely is gearing up for the Wildbark Fun Run, at her own pace – although her kelpie’s need for exercise helps.

“I started running as a hobby when I was little. I suppose I lost a little focus when I started competing. But now I’m back doing what I love – just running, rather than just running around in circles around a track.”

Wildbark’s first birthday celebrations start on Saturday at 9 am for the 9:30 am Fun Run for Threatened Species, 5 km for adults and 2 km for children. With most of the animals in the sanctuary nocturnal, they won’t be disturbed by all the activity. The run will take participants along the predator-proof fenceline through the nature reserve and down the boardwalk to finish at Wildbark where a fun day of community activities has been organised.

The Wildbark Learning Centre is at 25 Rosenberg Street, Throsby.

Money raised from the fun run entry fees ($20 for adults and $5 for children) will go back to the sanctuary to help save the lives of endangered species through its education programs.

Book now for the fun run at Wildbark.

Original Article published by Sally Hopman on Riotact.

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