Santa Fe woman collects hand-sewn items for wildlife hurt by Australian wildfires

By Olivia Harlow
oharlow@sfnewmexican.com
Posted 2/6/20

Jet-lagged after having just returned from Haiti, Amber Elizabeth Gray knew she had a mere 48-hour turnaround before her Monday (Feb. 3) trip to Australia. Now was as good a time as any to start sorting through the parcels, sent to her from across the United States and filled with hand-sewn wallaby pouches and crocheted bird nests.

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Santa Fe woman collects hand-sewn items for wildlife hurt by Australian wildfires

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Sitting on her living room floor, Amber Elizabeth Gray stared wide-eyed at stacks of boxes lining the walls.

Jet-lagged after having just returned from Haiti, Gray knew she had a mere 48-hour turnaround before her Monday (Feb. 3) trip to Australia. Now was as good a time as any to start sorting through the parcels, sent to her from across the United States and filled with hand-sewn wallaby pouches and crocheted bird nests.

"Oh my God, look at these," she said, unwrapping a tiny set of pastel koala booties and mittens, meant to prevent the animals from scratching at wounds caused by bushfires.

Gray, a Santa Fe-based humanitarian who calls Australia her "heart home" -- she has visited the country 24 times and says most of her friends live there -- will bring about 200 pounds of handcrafted items from across the U.S. to Australia this week, as an effort to help animals affected by the country's devastating wildfires. The idea, she said, is to offer a glimmer of hope overseas and remind locals that one person can make a difference.

Though crafting a single bat wrap or critter pillow might seem like an insignificant gesture, "When I look at the massive pile of boxes, I think that's a big act of kindness," Gray said Saturday through tears. "What I'm thinking about now is the impact of a hundred small acts of kindness."

Since September, the eastern and southern coasts of Australia have fought one of the country's worst bushfire seasons in history, largely because of severe drought followed by record-breaking temperatures. So far, 33 people have died and thousands have been displaced. An estimated 27 million acres and 2,000 homes have been destroyed.

The wildfires have also killed an estimated 1.25 billion animals --"not to mention the insects. How do you count spiders and ants and bees?" Gray said. With ecosystems completely wiped out, experts say any surviving animals will struggle to find food and shelter.

A self-described animal lover with a long history of natural disaster relief - she served in Indonesia after its deadly 2004 tsunami, New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina and Haiti following its 2010 earthquake -- Gray said she had to do something. (She's also offered aid to places like Syria, Lebanon, Darfur and Rwanda in response to genocides.)

With two three-week trips already planned to Australia -- one this week and one in April -- and a luggage capacity of 210 pounds, Gray said she figured she could serve as an American hub for those interested in sending items overseas.

After discovering the Animal Rescue Craft Guild Facebook group -- a page in which more than 233,000 members exchange sewing patterns and knitted ideas to help animals -- Gray decided to comment on the page.

"I said I can take 200 pounds of stuff with me, so whoever wants to mail me their stuff, I'll bring it," she said, noting she gave people a Jan. 31 deadline to ship their items to her Santa Fe home.

The post, which received nearly 950 likes, 129 comments and 35 shares, "just started this energy," she said. Almost immediately, people from states like Pennsylvania, Ohio and Montana were messaging her online to sort out logistics.

One user, Mary Phillips, commented on the post: "Amber, you are a wonderful lady. I thank you. Our animal carers thank you and our animals thank you."

Commenter Patty Moonbeam expressed gratitude, noting she was "a little worried about paying for the postage" to ship items herself. Another Facebook user, Kelly Straub, wrote that Gray's help will "reduce the carbon footprint of getting these items across the globe!"

Yet even with so much momentum online, Gray didn't expect to come home from Haiti to find 17 boxes -- many of them were filled with items made by dozens of crafters -- sprawled across her floor.

"It's amazing," she said, unpacking a marsupial sack, used to mimic a mother's pouch, when the mom is killed or separated from her young. "Better too many than not enough."

Gray will fly Monday to Melbourne, where she plans to speak about a trauma-informed movement at a program called Yoga for Humankind. While in town, she said, she will assess what to do with the items, whether that involves flying to Sydney or driving to shelters and rescue centers in a handful of cities. She also hopes to volunteer while abroad, helping independent animal caretakers and wildlife rescue centers, as well as counseling displaced fire survivors.

The journey will certainly be emotional, she said. For the last several months, Gray has followed the news, including gut-wrenching footage showing piles of dead kangaroos on the side of the road and a viral YouTube clip of a burned koala begging a cyclist for water. Just thinking of the wreckage makes her cry.

"I have friends who heard [the animals] screaming. When they walk in the woods, all they can smell is charred flesh," Gray said, fighting back tears and adding that because studies show the fires largely stem from climate change, humans are to blame. "I just want to say to every animal, 'I'm so sorry we did this.' "

Gray said it's critical that people understand that even when the fires do stop, the effects of devastation will not. She urges people not to turn a blind eye.

"When there's something this cataclysmic, this catastrophic, donate, knit, whatever it is. Do something," she said. "Care enough to do something."

This story originally published in the Santa Fe New Mexican, a sibling publication of the Taos News.

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