It takes a lot for Dr Stephen Van Mil to be starstruck.
After all, he was the Today show's former resident vet for more than a decade, rubbing shoulders with morning television's elite.
Yet this week, Dr Van Mil, now CEO of one of Australia's most pioneering not-for-profits in wildlife rescue, was in sheer awe after he received a handwritten letter from one of his ultimate heroes, Sir David Attenborough.
"It was a very special moment," he told Yahoo News Australia on Monday, recalling the moment he sat down to open it.
The letter had been sent in response to a speculative approach from Dr Van Mil, who had sent his letter in the wake of a groundbreaking project he's been involved in designed to help save the endangered platypus in Victoria – one of the recipient's favourite animals.
"It was more hope than expectation," Dr Van Mil admitted.
Yet low and behold, a response arrived from the UK weeks later.
The envelope featured Australia emblazoned on the front in capital letters. On the inside, the short note was signed off by 94-year-old David Attenborough himself.
"Dear Dr Van Mil, thank you for your letter," it read.
"I am indeed glad to know there is an organisation dedicated to the protection of the platypus.
"I hope you will forgive me however If I do not become connected with it by name.
"Yours Sincerely, David Attenborough."
Thanking Sir David Attenborough
In his letter, Dr Van Mil explained he had wanted to write to him for many years to "simply to say thank you Sir David".
"Tonight I write to convey my deep gratitude for everything you have done and are," he wrote.
Dr Van Mil had asked Sir David if he would like to endorse the project and the current work he was doing after founding the Byron Bay Wildlife Hospital.
And while he politely declined, Dr Van Mil, who has walked in Sir David's neighbourhood in England's Surrey for a glimpse of his home, says their interaction is a moment he will never forget.
"I'm getting the letter framed at the moment as you can imagine."
Australia's largest mobile wildlife hospital in need of ongoing support
Before the devastating bushfires rocked Australia at the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020, Dr Van Mil co-founded the Byron Bay Wildlife Hospital alongside Dr Evan Kosack with the goal of rolling out a revolutionary idea.
Instead of injured animals travelling large distances for emergency treatment, Dr Van Mil and Dr Kosack envisaged the Byron Bay Wildlife Hospital coming to them.
After the devastating events across South East Australia which saw more than one billion animals die, they knew it was needed more than ever.
With the help of donations, partnerships and considerable fundraising, their team were able to develop the largest mobile veterinary clinic in Australia last year, costing more than $1 million.
Yet with the project incurring extensive costs, including the full-time salaries of a wildlife vet and two wildlife nurses, donations are continuously needed to keep the project afloat.
"We do all the work for wildlife free of charge. We don't charge anyone anything," Dr Van Mil told Yahoo News Australia.
Their latest fundraising push ends in five days time, and are nearly halfway to their $215,000 target.
Among their list of needs to be funded by the money are three emergency vehicles used to transfer injured wildlife between the mobile centre and other veterinary clinics, particularly in times of crisis such as bushfires.
And while they will be primarily used in NSW's northern region, Dr Van Mil says the hospital is ready to take the mobile unit on the road to any location in Australia where it is needed.
"At any moment we could be called to anywhere in Australia. We've got to be ready financially to drop everything to get to where we need to be."
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