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Copyright © Jennifer Crane 2008

Cover: Tracey Wood

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise without the prior written permission of the author, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

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National Library of Australia Cataloguing-in-Publication entry:

Crane, Jennifer

Spillover: A Memoir

ISBN 978-0-646-49294-0

1st ed.



While every care has been taken in the preparation of this book, no responsibility can be accepted by the author for errors or omissions. Neither can any responsibility be accepted by the author for any damages resulting from the misinterpretation, or use, of information from the book. To the best knowledge of the author, all information was correct at the time publication.



It didn’t take long for the novelty of living next to a flying fox camp to wear off. The sight of them rising into the sky, en masse in silhouette at dusk, was awesome until the few hundred grew to thousands, then to tens of thousands. The evening spectacle turned ominous, a sight that every night sends shivers up my spine.

It is eerie when the bawling of the animals ceases for a short period in the late afternoon. I imagine they are preparing their flight plans for the nightly feeding raids within a fifty-kilometre radius. During this brief time of silence, if you listen closely enough, you can hear hints of other bush sounds. It is a slice of respite, until the noise builds, the evening sky becomes filled with their dark shapes and the air is polluted with their stench.

There are times when I step outside onto the back veranda to the barrage of screeching and want to scream, ‘Shut up and go away!’ so it echoes across the paddocks and through the forest and the bats fall silent and flee, never to return. But I don’t scream out and the bats aren’t silenced and they don’t leave.

For most of us living on the neighbouring properties, the presence of the bat camp is intolerable. We find ourselves questioning the adverse affects the colony has on our health and on our quality of life and the risk it poses for our animals. Despite reassurances from authorities, concern persists about the high concentration of the bat excretions that fall on the roofs of our houses and wash into our water tanks and drinking water.

At various times, groups of interested people gather at the camp site to discuss and watch the flying foxes. In the early evening, the crowd looks up and exclaims at the spectacular sight. The bats take to the air, a few at first, circling, landing in the tops of the surrounding trees, calling, then moving off again before the remainder swarm into the painted sky. And while the crowd of onlookers can leave, we cannot.

Of course, the large camp affects only a few neighbouring properties. And what are a few? We are told the flying foxes are migratory and will move on in time. But how much time? The colony arrived about five years ago and stayed.


We are told the impact of the colony lessens the further away from the camp you are – which is a revelation – so surely we can live with them? Some say if we don’t like our neighbours, then we should move.

We are told we will become accustomed to the noise and smell, which is something I have not found. We may adapt, because we have no other choice, but it is not something to which we become accustomed.

Yet, many people are also sympathetic to our situation.

The fact flying foxes are moving into populated areas is probably the fault of the greater community. Development encroachment leading to land clearing, destruction of habitat and the depletion of natural food sources due to drought, are some of the reasons. I know and accept bats are protected as an integral part of our biodiversity, yet I also know they carry a deadly threat that I live with every day.

Articles about flying foxes sometimes appear in the media but rarely is information included about the viruses they carry and the threat they pose. Already I hear the echoes of criticism and the calls of scare mongering. However, this is a burden I thought better to release and let fly where it may, rather than let it be forgotten and dismissed, until the next death, or the next.

This is my account and recollection of the events surrounding the death of my horse, Clive, to the Hendra virus. A virus carried by flying foxes. To maintain the harmony, I have changed the names of my family, friends and those I dealt with or have simply referred to a position or a title, while others may have been omitted altogether.

I see any unintentional errors or omissions as an opportunity for discussion, which will further enhance awareness. This is not an attempt to apportion blame or to criticise, but to increase awareness, promote research and help protect the fine balance between nature and humans.


June 2006

Saturday 10

The mist settled low into the creek line and the morning sun drew strokes of light and warmth through the treetops, slowly taking the water vapour into itself. Burning off the fog, they call it; the promise of a clear day. As I stepped from the back verandah, the frosted grass crunched under my sheepskin slippers. I clung to a mug of tea with both hands as the steam rising from it mixed with my visible breath.

The distinctive call of magpies announced the new day and I chased a crow from the windows where it was engaging in a territorial fight with its reflection. I looked up into the pale sky when I heard the sound of the ancient, high-pitched craw of the black cockatoos as they cruised in dedicated pairs. Roosters crowed. A dog’s bark, echoing from over the hill, harmonised with a cow bellowing somewhere beyond the rainforest.

Sound layered over sound and built to a crescendo before an impromptu pause, a breath, then new instruments joined the orchestra.

Who said nature was quiet? I thought.

This early morning serenade had always accompanied the calm I felt when watching my horses graze, oblivious to the world beyond their fences. It was a slow beginning before the rush of the day’s activities. However, for the past few years the performance included a more sinister sound that filtered through the rhythm to the point where it dominated, smothering the other instruments. The dark forms hanging from the branches always drew my eyes and their noise reverberated through the eucalyptus trees enclosing my property. The sound was like the screaming of the condemned in hell. The inescapable noise of a force of nature.

A breeze arose and shook awake the forest canopy, carrying with it the stench of the urine, faeces and male excretions of the colony of leather-winged marsupials camped in the rainforest on the eastern edge of my small acreage. As the day warmed and the breeze continued from its easterly direction, the reek of tens of thousands of flying foxes would worsen.

The aroma of the sweet, milky tea I had earlier craved now mixed with the acrid stench to grip my gut. I gagged. Unlike the lorikeets chirping amongst the crimson eucalypt blossom, I couldn’t


fly away. Where would I go? I looked at the dark brown dollops deposited during the night on the pavers and the roof of the house. The value of my property in the coastal hinterland was only a fraction of what it should be because the flying foxes make their presence known continuously. No one would pay to live near that.

Retreating into the house, I closed the glass doors to the outside world – to its music, its distinctive smell and to the sound and stench of the creatures I hated.

I walked past my eldest daughter’s bedroom and heard a moan.

‘Mum. I don’t feel well,’ Ashley called from her bed.

I felt her forehead then checked her temperature with the thermometer. ‘Your temperature is up a little.’

‘My throat’s sore and my head feels all stuffed up.’ She grabbed another handful of tissues to blow her nose. ‘I’ve got a headache.’

‘Where does your head hurt?’

‘At the front,’ she replied, rubbing her forehead.

‘Are your eyes sore? Does the light hurt them?’

‘No. I just want to go back to sleep.’

I patted her head as the immediate worry of a serious illness abated for the moment. ‘That’s the best thing. We’re not going anywhere today. I’ll get you some paracetamol and a drink. Looks like the flu. It’s that time of year. Half the school was off sick last week. Bad timing, getting sick on the long weekend,’ I said, which I immediately realised wouldn’t help raise her spirits.

Ashley had a history of illness, having been hospitalised with febrile convulsions as a baby and then later with pneumonia. Whenever her temperature rises, my heart thumps and I steel myself in anticipation of what might eventuate. Viruses hit her hard. It can take her a long time to recover fully, although her ability to fight off illness seems to be improving as she gets older.

My youngest daughter, Michelle, remained snuggled under the doona. She was resilient and brushed off most illness in a few days.

‘How are you feeling,’ I asked her. ‘Are you sick?’

‘No. I’m good,’ she replied but didn’t move from her bed.


Monday 12

Queen’s Birthday holiday long weekend. Just another excuse for a day off. At least we get an extra sleep-in day, I thought, hanging the last of the washing on the line before retrieving the first load.

As always, I cast my eye over the paddock to check my horses and noticed Clive (aka Galanta Impire), my black-bay thoroughbred gelding, lying in a slight depression in the ground in the middle of the paddock. This was not his usual resting place. My aged, chestnut, thoroughbred mare, Girly, stood nearby. It was mid afternoon and the day was cold and grey. I carried the load of clothes inside and dumped them in a basket, considering whether I should put a heavier rug on Clive, only to be distracted by Ashley staggering from her bedroom.

‘How are you feeling, babe?’ I asked, giving her a hug.

‘Better. Still stuffy in the head though,’ she replied.

‘Good. Stay warm. Do you want anything to eat?’ I fussed, relieved the symptoms were easing.

‘No. Not hungry yet.’ She made her way to watch television in the lounge room. Always a good sign of recovery.

An hour later, with the two girls drawing in front of the warm fire, I stepped out onto the veranda and saw Clive struggle to stand. With stiff, uneven movements, he walked in a tight circle, folded his legs and sank to the ground.

After such a long and close partnership with Clive, I knew, as a mother knows intuitively when her child is seriously unwell, that something was not right. It comes from communicating on all levels with an animal that is willing to carry you on its back, trust you and perform for you to the best of its ability.

Five years ago, when my husband died suddenly and everything – my present and my future – changed, I ceased riding and retired Clive from the saddle. Riding needed an energy and drive I could not sustain. There is always a risk with horses, and with two young daughters to care for on my own, the risk of riding a large, strong-willed thoroughbred was no longer worth pursuing.


‘Why does this always happen on a public holiday?’ I asked myself as I pulled on my scuffed and worn-out riding boots and yelled to the girls through the screen door that I was going down to the paddock to check the horses.

Since his retirement, Clive, together with Girly, had the run of the property. Even though officially referred to as ‘aged’ – he was 18 and Girly was 29 – Clive was strong and generally in good health. At 16.1 hands high, he was beautiful to look at in the paddock with his fine, gleaming, ebony coat contrasting with the two white socks on his hind legs. His thick crest held his broad head high with pride. But when he was fully prepared for a performance, his charisma shone through. He was a horse that demanded you look at him, one of those few that had real presence, an extra something that made a champion – and he knew it.

My sister originally bought him cheap from a show-jump trainer in Sydney because he was useless over jumps. Apparently, as a young stallion, he’d had a reasonable country-racing career until his macho antics became overbearing and he was gelded. Without the benefit of testosterone, he couldn’t run fast enough and came last in his final four races. He also had some problems with pedal osteitis, an injury to the bones in the hooves. Yet, my sister saw his kind nature and was sure she could train him for dressage and the show ring. She had never considered herself an expert in equestrian performance training, but as they learnt together, a strong rapport built up between them.

They had qualified and performed at a level higher than expected, considering Clive was competing against younger horses. A number of offers were made to buy Clive. However, he was worth much more to my sister. He was part of the family and you don’t sell a member of your family. When the time came to retire him from the show and dressage arena, I offered to take him. I wanted a horse to ride and he suited my needs perfectly. He would be a companion for Girly and, we believed, he would remain in the family, safe on my property, until he died of old age.

Clive enjoyed the freedom of the paddocks and seldom used the stable, except during bad weather. When my sister was showing Clive, however, she stabled him or kept him yarded for his own protection, to minimise the chance of injury. Horses, especially valuable ones, are


renowned for sustaining injuries immediately before an important event, which meant months of

wasted preparation until they recovered sufficiently to resume training. Performance horses were athletes in every sense, with regular and hard training routines required to maintain the condition of both the horse and its rider.

Girly, on the other hand, was retired many years before. I bought her as a rising four year old. I believed the mare was so in love with Clive that she never moved more than three metres away from him. Clive was, after all, a very handsome gelding. It amused me to watch their antics. Clive was the forceful, dominant male in the herd of two and Girly, the submissive, love-struck, dedicated partner. They took their herd responsibilities seriously. Sometimes, though, I thought Clive’s behaviour was just sheer male chauvinism. I had seen Girly stand by the water trough and not drink until after Clive had finished, and then watched him herd her to another part of the paddock because he wanted to go there, only to hunt her away from the sweetest grass so he could graze on it. On the other hand, I experienced an extraordinary incident that reaffirmed the horses’ attachment to each other.

One fine, warm, spring day a few years ago, both horses were grazing in the western corner of the back paddock. In the evening, I tipped their feed into the feed bins that were spaced well apart on the fence of the top paddock so there would be no dinnertime fights and, as usual, called them. At first, they didn’t hear, so I called again. Clive lifted his head from the thick grass and strode across the paddock, over the dam wall and up the hill.

As he came closer, I asked him, ‘Where’s Girly?’

He stopped and turned, looked across the paddock and whinnied. When there was no response from Girly, he turned to me as if to shrug and ambled up to the feed bin, but did not start eating. I called Girly again, and then decided to fetch the mare myself.

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