I could hear Tricia singing away to Cloud in the unit across from me. I glanced in and she was combing her fur and talking lovingly to her. According to Jules the tour guide, Cloud is "more famous than Kylie Minogue". It must be true because he makes the same assertion during every tour. Apparently, Cloud is the most adopted of all the koalas and has even been photographed by Elle magazine. She's a tiny little koala with a long history at the hospital. She survived the 1994 bush fires and has become a permanent resident. She's normally outside in the yards but currently has a respiratory infection so they're keeping an eye on her indoors.
Amanda asked me to mop out one of the other units and, for some reason, the koala resident decided to climb down to the lowest beam on the gunyah (about a foot off the ground) and just stare at me. I was trying to mop around him and not make any eye contact or sudden movements. I was still convinced at this stage that koalas were like other animals and might snap or scratch if cornered.
Just then Amanda called out for me to help her with something. I emerged from the cell to see her holding a small beige-coloured koala up by the arms. It was Dunbogan Val, a koala that had been brought in the previous night and was hanging there in mid air before me. This is the best way to hold a koala apparently; if you hold them up by the arms they are essentially helpless.
Amanda was carrying Val into the ICU treatment room to be fed her supplement. The very first task in servicing a koala's yard or unit in the morning is to feed them their medicine if required. A whiteboard in the staff-room details whether a particular koala requires medicine and how it should be administered. The medicine is prepared by the vet in those stainless steel café-style sugar bowls with the flip lid and left on the sink with wet flannel (for wiping their little faces afterwards). Some new koalas have trouble eating from a syringe at first, although they like the formula. Each has its own dedicated syringe for feeding. Amanda wanted me to retrieve the syringe which had dropped during her Val-suspension routine. I followed her into the treatment room where the vet, Cheyne, proceeded to feed her.
Amanda kept a towel around her like a bib and the darling little thing dribbled its way through the whole meal. She's a funny-looking colour for a koala: they're normally grey in NSW. Blonde fur like Val has is normally a sign of age or sickness. Cheyne has a no-nonsense way with her charges: she kept commenting, "look at the state of you, you look like a scruffy blanket I once had", although treating her with perfect tenderness while feeding.
A little later that morning I heard Amanda tell one of the other volunteers that Val might be going to "the big gumtree in the sky". Oh no, my first touch with the sad reality of running a koala hospital. I asked Amanda, "don't they think she'll make it through the night?". "No, she's might have to be euthanased".
Click here to view more of today's koala hospital photos.