Friday, 16 March 2007

Diary of a koala-feeding platform

The koala in the bag weighs a tonne, but I hold him out before me like the precious cargo he is. I have a momentary fantasy about being a swagman with a purloined jumbuck in my tucker bag.

O'Briens Fiona
From koalawrangler's gallery.
It's regular koalawrangling duties today, not teamleader training, so I start at 8am with the usual Friday crowd. Barb's friend Colleen is here and we are teamed together in yard 9. I'm glad about this since I'll get to see what antics our Fiona gets up to today.

I hear that Innes Wonga slated for release so his arthritic leg must have healed. There's a flurry of activity as vollies grab their respective feeding pots and head out to their assigned yards. Lucky Wiruna's and Birthday Girl's pot food is mixed up, but not O'Briens Fiona's or Bonny Fire's. Barb tells us that the latter two are still up trees. I tell her about yesterday's shenanigans with Fiona; I have a hunch she'll be down in no time once she sees the others being fed. Using my newfound formula-mixing skills, I quickly whip up her double dose (they're trying to fatten her up since she was underweight when re-admitted). I also grab a towel on the way through ICU; I'm determined not to be a koala's pin-cushion today.

In the yard, we locate Wiruna Lucky and Birthday Girl without too much trouble. Birthday Girl isn't on her usual gunyah, but she's much bigger than either Fiona or Bonny so I'm sure it's her. Lucky is distinguished by a splotchy pink nose, so is easy to spot. Colleen takes Lucky, donning some yellow washing-up gloves before she starts. She's obviously taken one look at those koala talons and doesn't want to risk a scratching. I take Birthday Girl, who eats gratefully.

O'Briens Fiona
O'Briens Fiona
From koalawrangler's gallery.
With a few syringe-fuls to go, I spot some fuzzy movement out of the corner of my eye. It's Fiona descending her tree as if by clockwork. In no time, she's bounding over to where I stand feeding Birthday Girl. Obviously, I can't crouch (to discourage Fiona from climbing me) and feed Birthday Girl at the same time. O'Briens Fiona is insistent; she wants her breakfast, and she plans on being irritating until she gets it. I give in to Fiona's urgency and ask Colleen if she'll finish feeding Birthday Girl after Lucky.

Grabbing Fiona's pot and a towel, I walk over where there's some raised astroturf under a gunyah, thinking it will be more comfortable than the crouched position I assumed yesterday. I sit down and cover my arm with a towel, expecting Fiona to sit beside me like any normal koala. But, no. My body is no impediment to Fiona's hunger and her wiley ways. She walks straight onto my lap like I'm a horizontal tree with some tasty swamp mahogany leaf in my fingers. I quickly stick the syringe in her mouth and she starts sucking away. Her claws are resting on my chest and I'm grateful for my smock as an added layer of protection. I may have avoided becoming a koala pin-cushion today, but I'm certainly a koala-feeding platform.

Fiona's sitting on my lap and I'm thankful the towel's under her in case she decides to pee. She's so light, she feels no heavier than my cat. I hold no illusions about this being an intimate moment between us. Her brown eyes are glassy and I know I'm nothing more than a tree trunk with with food on offer to her. I have to pause to refill the syringe and Fiona reaches for frantically for it, brooking no delay. I also feel that this is somehow wrong; I should be avoiding human contact with her as she's a wild animal. I generally don't touch the koalas at all, even to pat them on the back, since I'm aware that what might feel inexpressibly soft to us can be a form of invasion to them. But the feed is under way and I resolve to finish it before extricating myself.

Once the pot is dry, I lean to the side and Fiona slips off neatly onto the dirt. She shimmies up the nearest tree and assumes the position for the rest of the day...until the afternoon feed, that is. Bonny Fire shows no sign of coming down so we set about the yard duties. There's two recycle pots, which we replenish with the best of yesterday's leaf and place next to Lucky and Birthday Girl so that they have shelter while they sleep.

Ocean Kim
Ocean Kim
From koalawrangler's gallery.
Kimmy and Linksy in yard 9A are down from their trees and snuffling about in yesterday's Nichollii, their favourite leaf. We rake their yard, but leave the leaf until the fresh stuff arrives. There's little to do until the leaf-collector cometh, so we head to the day-room for a cuppa.

Jo emerges with a bag and asks if I'll bag Sandfly Jye. My teamleader/handling training continues. Jye is seated on a high fork in his gunyah and I'm wishing I were a foot taller as I fling the bag over his head. He resists, predictably. This time I've got a hold of his forearms as I've seen the other handlers do. I tell this to Jo and she instructs "well, pull him off". Jo's standing back letting me do it all; there's no point it wimping out and letting the more experienced one help. It's a bit like pulling staples out with your fingers; he's stuck to the wood like glue. Somehow or other I manage to get him off and enclosed in the bag. During the whole process, I'm murmuring a litany of soothing words, trying to stave off the koala's fear. It's funny how you do some things automatically. I hand the koala bagful over to Jo. I asked jokingly if she thought the verbal encouragement helped. "Well, it helped you anyway", she says.

I return to the day-room, triumphant. Soon enough, Jo reemerges from the treatment room toting a heavy bag. They've finished with Jye; can I return him? He weighs a tonne, but I hold him out before me like the precious cargo he is. I have a momentary fantasy about being a swagman with a purloined jumbuck in my tucker bag. I gently lower Jye to the ground of his unit and open the mouth of the bag to let him find his way back. He ambles out, slightly disoriented, and seeks out his gunyah for comfort.

When the leaf does arrive, there is a strange leaf I haven't seen before. The bark is papery and black, and the branches zigzag at crazy angles. It sports fluffy yellow flowers like bottlebrush and has the most intense lemony-camphor smell of any eucalypt I've come across. Danae views it suspiciously, but Barb assures us that the koalas love to eat the flowers. It's a melaleuca, which gives me bittersweet memories of poor Melaleuca Alfie.

Links VTR
Links VTR
From koalawrangler's gallery.

The joeys in yard 9A, bound down from their tree and tuck into their leaf. Barb comes out to check on Links VTR. She has a word to me about O'Briens Fiona. Next time she does the crawling act I should just pick her up and plonk her on a gunyah to feed; we don't want koalas trying to crawl over people in the street looking for formula once they're released... Now that I'm more adept at handling them, it's probably something I could feel comfortable doing. Ask me to pick up a koala last week and it would have been a different story.

Barb makes off with Links VTR in her arms in order to weigh him. He's perched over her shoulder looking at at the world just like my cat does. When he returns, we learn that he's just under 3.5kg. They won't release him until he gets more comfortable with climbing. Barb explains that Links just doesn't display the usual koala desire of wanting to be high up in a tree. He would prefer to be down low where there's the eucalyptus version of a Sizzler salad bar. He's even developing a bit of a paunch.

Links VTR & Barb
Barb & Links VTR
From koalawrangler's gallery.
As Barb returns him to the tree, she places her hand under his bottom and tells him in a mock-berating tone to climb up the tree, not down. Linksy reaches out his bent little nose and sniffs her. I know it's not an affectionate gesture, but it really looks like one from our human vantage point.

With the leaf pots all replenished, I rake up the excess and dump it at the leaf skip. Jo is passing by on her way to yard 10 with another empty bag, this one destined for Oxley Jo. Do I want to bag her? I'll just have to give up on Oxley Jo wanting to be my best friend. She's a little easier than Jye to bag since she's so small, like a big joey. Jo stands in front of her to distract her while I sneak up on her behind with a bag. I pop it over her head and she starts to eep wildly in protest. I feel for her wrists again and try to wrench them as gently as possible from the gunyah. I recall that if you pull them slightly apart, the koala has to let go. She sort of drops into the bag at this point, and I let the bag ease to the ground. Her bottom is wriggling out the mouth of the bag and I scramble to close it around her.

Jo says I've done a good job. The main thing is not to drop the koala! Check! I think I'd probably throw myself under a falling koala before I'd let that happen. She also says that you can have all the koala-bagging experience in the world, but a bagging can still go wrong. I should take heart at this.

Click here to view more of today's koala hospital photos.