Image Source: https://www.abc.net.au/
When Steve Irwin came to the rescue, he was in a troop carrier with a camera crew and a flurry of people. He had been called from nearby Australia Zoo to help a sick green sea turtle that had been found floating in the Pumicestone Passage in south-east Queensland. He charged into the water boots and all.
There he would encounter another rare natural phenomenon. Two identical women, speaking in unison, comforting the turtle. “He couldn’t take his eyes off them,” says their sister, Liz Eather. “He was quite taken with them.”
And it wasn’t just because he was suddenly experiencing double vision as the twin sisters stood in the water in their matching clothes. It was because he recognised something in them, something he had in himself; a profound intuition and innate understanding of birds and wildlife.
“Steve had a skill for being able to recognise special things that people might have,” says his father Bob Irwin. “And he would have recognised that they were two young ladies who would be of great benefit to the zoo and also to wildlife in general. He would have known.”
As the giant turtle was placed on a stretcher to be taken to the Australia Zoo Wildlife Hospital, a pivotal moment occurred in the lives of Bridgette and Paula Powers, known universally as the Twinnies. They had found their calling. Forced by ill health to leave school in year 10, their future until that moment had been uncertain.
“What’s a mum supposed to do with two little girls that are very sick?” recalls their mother Helen. “They are not going to be able to hold a job down.”
But they had always loved animals. When they were very small they would go out into the vegetable garden to collect the snails and hide them behind the shed in a container before their nan could crush them. “We love their little tentacles,” they say. “We love all creatures great and small.” Even spiders. “They’ve all got heartbeats and feelings.”
After that chance meeting with Steve Irwin it was obvious; they would go to work at Australia Zoo and then start their own charity, Twinnies Pelican and Seabird Rescue, which they’ve been running for 21 years.
Because of their disconcerting way of speaking at the same time, people have tended to underestimate the Twinnies, mock them even.
Howling with laughter, former Good Morning Britain presenter Piers Morgan proclaimed, “It is one of the funniest things I have ever seen,” when he interviewed them. According to newspaper articles, the British public labelled them “the most annoying twins in the world” after a YouTube clip of them went viral with 5 million views.
But to the 47-year-old twins, speaking in unison is “natural”. “Our brains must think alike at the same time,” they say. They know it’s “weird”. “We do annoy a lot of people,” they say. They have tried to change “but it doesn’t feel right to us at all”.
And anyway, they have each other to love and if you haven’t got feathers they don’t really care what you think. “It is water off a duck’s back,” the twins say. But if you have got feathers, they can get inside your head and work out what is wrong with you.
“One of the true strengths the twins possess is this incredible ability to read a bird and just watch it for 30 seconds and almost know medically what’s going on with it,” vet and TV host Chris Brown says. “You can go to university for years and years and not be able to do that.”
Claire Smith, a friend and fellow wildlife rescuer, agrees: “Nobody else has gone that far in understanding the psyche of birds as well as the anatomy and the physiology and the biology.”
The Twinnies have tried wearing different clothes. “We did try once but we still got stared at. So what the heck. We might as well wear the same clothes again.”
The Twinnies say they feel more “complete” when they’re dressed in identical outfits, right down to the buttons.
And those who do know them most certainly do not laugh at them. They respect and admire them.
“I think a lot of people make the mistake of seeing them as being some sort of novelty act,” Claire says.
“But very quickly that just fades away to pure intrigue and wonder just over their level of knowledge and their passion and commitment. These girls are experts, they’re absolute pros.”
Two peas in a pod since birth
The Twinnies perform “miracles” on sick and injured birds every day, but as toddlers they were nearly institutionalised as hopeless cases.
When their mother Helen brought the newborns home from hospital 47 years ago, she knew there was something wrong. “They never really sucked properly on a bottle, they used to scream a lot. They were floppy babies, they really didn’t sit up until they were about 15 months old,” she says.
Helen and her husband John didn’t know what to do. “They just had that many problems.” When they were around the age of two she took them to Camperdown Children’s Hospital. “They felt the screaming and whatever other problems that they could see, maybe there’s no hope for them,” Helen says.
The twins were moved to an institution, but their mother, who has six other children, and who remains to this day their fiercest protector and strongest supporter, wasn’t going to leave them in that place. No way.
“I eventually got them out and I didn’t care if they called the police or what they did. They were my babies and I wasn’t giving them up for the world. And then I struggled at home with them, but I made it.”
At home they were loved. “They were always these two little dolls,” Liz, their older sister, says. “They had this beautiful, curly blonde hair. They were quite unique and funny. So pure and so innocent and wouldn’t wish any harm to anybody.”
The Twinnies spoke in their own twin language. Their father John called them the “little chipmunks — that’s how it sounds”.
No-one could separate them or break their bond. If anyone tried, they would just scream until they were safely back together again.
At primary school they were split up because a teacher thought they were cheating. “And so they had to give us another exam. We came out with exactly the same answers. So they put us back together again,” Paula says.
Helen tried putting them in separate beds. “You’d wake up in the morning and they’d be curled up on the floor together like little puppy dogs.” The Twinnies say they have a “special bond” that is “like a magnet”.
To this day, they sleep in their twin beds in the same bedroom, in the same pyjamas, slippers, socks.
Their doctor knows that if one gets sick the other will get sick, so now he writes a double prescription.
“I’ve heard such twins described as two bodies, one soul,” Deakin University epigenetics researcher Jeff Craig says. “And I think that’s a perfect way to talk about Bridgette and Paula.
“They do appear to be a single unit, more than the sum of their parts.
“The Twinnies are the closet twins I have seen.”
“We just love one another to pieces,” they say of their lifetime spent looking in a “mirror”. They have never had an argument, “we never get sick of one another”.
They also feel each others’ pain. And there is a lot of it. “We ache, we do”. They have the bones of 80-year-old women because of osteoporosis. They are on medication for heart issues, stomach issues.
Sometimes they can hardly get out of bed in the morning. “But we know we’ve got to look after our feathered friends over in our centre and they need our help,” the Twinnies say.
Perhaps it is their own illness and uniqueness that gives them such empathy, an almost supernatural understanding, an unspoken connection to stricken, sick birds. They are a little bit like threatened species themselves.
Their friend Claire Smith says the birds keep the pair going.
“They still go out at midnight to check on birds that are on drips. The birds come before the Twinnies,” she says.
“Nobody really knows they suffer with a lot of debilitating illness. I have never met people who work as hard, who are so sick and never complain. In a way, the birds have also saved the Twinnies.”
The Twinnies perform ‘miracles’
At any time of the night or day what Chris Brown describes as a “bat signal” can go up. “If there’s a bird in distress or even a turtle the Twinnies respond,” he says. “Every single waking minute will be spent tending to that animal and they don’t really rest until the patient’s needs are taken care of.”
The Twinnies will have birds in care for weeks, months, often years.
There are many text messages to Chris about their patients, but the twins do, he admits, “take great delight in pointing out my flaws and any mistakes I might make. There’s always an edge of ribbing and banter with them”.
Chris believes their magic is in the way they approach stressed and frightened birds.
“It’s just a very gentle way they approach any situation and [they] never rush because this is their life,” he says.
“It is never a hassle to spend time to sit back, to watch, and make sure any approach to a bird is done in the best possible way. Birds seem to immediately relax when they are around the Twinnies.”
Bob Irwin thinks 90 per cent of the birds that have come into their care would have died without their intervention. “I hate to think of how many hundreds and maybe thousands of birds would be dead now if not for the Twinnies,” he says.
Urban development on the Sunshine Coast is leading to more seabirds being caught up in fishing lines, struck by propellers, injured by humans or infected with botulism.
Their friend Claire says the Twinnies can tell just by looking at a bird what is wrong. “They are so hands on right from the beginning,” she says. “When a bird comes in, they will triage it exactly the same [as] if it was in a veterinary hospital.
“I have seen Twinnies perform miracles. I’ve seen birds with open fractures, I’ve seen birds without beaks, and I’ve seen very broken birds put back together with Twinnie magic.”
Paula and Bridgette’s end goal is always to release the birds back into the wild. Chris says: “It is like a spiritual awakening.”
For the Twinnies, it is emotional. “When we undo that zipper on the pet pack, our hearts are pounding and we do drop a tear. But that (the wild) is where they belong and it’s so good to see the little tail waggle.
“It’s beautiful to see them fly after they have been so sick. But we worry about them and we hope people just take care of these big, beautiful birds.”