Living in rural Isanti County, Jill Arnoldy is familiar with squirrels, raccoons and white-tailed deer.

But it was kangaroos, wallabies and wombats that led her to pack up her sewing machine and a crock pot full of sloppy joes and charge through the midwinter snow on a recent Sunday morning.

After seeing videos of animals ravaged by the fierce bush fires, the retired county worker organized a sew-in at the parish hall of the Catholic church in Cambridge, Minn.

Two dozen crafters and seamstresses from east central Minnesota gathered to trace patterns, iron yards of donated cotton and flannel, cut fabric and stitch hundreds of bat wraps, wallaby hanging bags and lined pouches for baby kangaroos.

The items are destined to cuddle and comfort injured and displaced wildlife and young animals that lost their mothers in the fires that raged Down Under.

“The animals of Australia need someone in their corner,” said Arnoldy. “People here are stepping up. We can’t dawdle.”

Tammy Rhine, a therapist who practices in Isanti, Minn., arrived with her teenage daughter and the foreign exchange student now living with her family. Rhine, a quilter, made the perfect volunteer. She knows her way around a sewing machine.

“I know how to read and follow patterns well,” she said. “Sewing is easy for me.”

And she is an unapologetic animal lover.

“In our family, we all have a big heart for animals,” she said. “It’s good to see people pull together for this.”

The loss of animal life in Australia is nothing short of devastating.

A professor of ecology at the University of Sydney calculated that as many as a billion animals have perished in the epic inferno that scorched an area about the size of the state of Indiana.

Even as the fires are extinguished, the threat to wildlife continues.

Some animals will struggle to find food and cover in their newly charred habitat. Some that fled the fires by going underground or fleeing may find themselves in an inhospitable environment.

The need to help Australia’s vulnerable animals struck a chord with crafters. That comes as no surprise to Abby Johnson of Albertville, Minn.

“Crafters love planning and executing projects, putting it in motion and seeing an end result,” she said. “When what we work on serves a bigger purpose, it adds that much more satisfaction to it.”

While Johnson wasn’t at the two-day sew-in that Arnoldy arranged, she followed it through a loosely organized Facebook group. Nearly 380 crafty Minnesotans who are producing items for Australia have joined the group. They’ve shared designs and patterns approved by Australian agencies, posted photos of their finished projects and cheered on each other.

Mary Wojtalewicz of Moorhead, Minn., is gathering items from the northwestern corner of the state. She has crocheted dozens of nests of various sizes that have been requested for orphaned birds and small rodents.

“The natural material they would use to build the outside of their nests is gone, so we are doing that part for them,” Wojtalewicz said.

Personal connections

News of the need for items to help Australian animals has spread like, well, wildfire.

Crafters around the world have sent so many handmade pieces that some Australian organizations and animal sanctuaries have announced they are no longer accepting donations.

The Minnesota group, however, has connections to a volunteer on the ground who will take their shipment en mass and deliver the items.

Karen Kingston, who lives 8,500 miles from the Twin Cities as the kookaburra flies, is a friend of one of the Minnesota crafters. She donates her time to a nonprofit in Queensland that distributes supplies to rehabilitation centers and has pledged to get the handiwork into the hands of “carers who need them.”

“To see our precious wildlife suffer, to see them hurting and in pain, is heartbreaking,” Kingston said in an e-mail. “Wild koalas approach people for help and water when normally they are shy and reserved near humans.”

Kingston said she’s been “overwhelmed by the kindness, caring and generosity of people all over the world. This gives us much hope; words can’t describe our gratitude. Thank you from your friend on this side of the puddle.”

In mid-February, Alyshia Buchholz is making a very personal journey.

The 23-year-old is taking a break from her job of wiring snowmobiles and ATVs on the Polaris assembly line in Roseau, Minn., to fly to Australia with suitcases full of Minnesota-made kangaroo wraps and bat slings.

She’ll spend four months living in a hostel and volunteering at a wildlife hospital at the Australia Zoo in Beerwah.

The zoo was founded by the parents of the late television wildlife host Steve Irwin, whose programs had a profound influence on Buchholz.

“He was my childhood hero, starting when I was 5 years old,” she said. “It was my lifelong dream to go to Australia and work with wildlife.”

Born with polycystic kidney disease, Buchholz had a kidney removed when she was 19. After she recovered, she spent six weeks in Australia, where she volunteered for a wildlife sanctuary and a sea turtle behavioral study.

“My health situation showed me that I had to do what I wanted to do now — I couldn’t wait,” she said. “I loved doing that conservation work.”

She admits she’s a bit nervous about her return visit, which was planned before the fires flared.

“Animals at the Australia Zoo weren’t hurt, but they [the zoo] are receiving animals who were,” she said. “It’s nerve-racking to imagine what I will see. I hope after the wildfires die down, people won’t lose their passion to help animals, there or in their own communities.”

That’s exactly what the Minnesota craft group plans to do.

Once they’re finished knitting, sewing and crocheting for needy Australian animals, the newly organized crafters will shift their focus to wildlife rehabilitative centers and animal rescue groups in Minnesota, making blankets, crate pads, hammocks and nests.

Even though it was spurred by loss of animal life on a continent far away, they plan to craft it into a lasting legacy here at home.


Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer.