Friday, 23 March 2007

By any other name would smell as sweet

Koala droppings are the chief constant in the life of a koalawrangler. Much of our 'wrangling' time is spent diligently sweeping or raking away each day's supply of poop. They collect in the forks of gunyahs where the koala has been sitting, like a little stash of eggs the koala's been nesting on. They gather in the corners of units and aviaries, only to skitter out across freshly cleaned floors with the flick of a broom. They float swollenly in water bowls (I once mistook one for a tick). Koalas drop them on you as you mop the floor beneath them like small missiles. Researchers even collect them for analysis from time to time.

The vollies have affectionate names for them: nuggets, bush chocolate, coffee beans, jelly beans, easter eggs. Another day, another pile of koala poo.

You don't realise how much there is to be thankful for that koalas have the pleasantest-smelling, least offensive poo I've ever encounter in an animal...until one gets diarrhoea. A recent admission, Walcha Barbie, has the affliction. She was caught in barbed wire and has to have her dressings changed every day. She has the most delightful disposition; sitting calmly as her arm is dressed, looking comfortable and at ease in her towel-packed basket.

The reason Barbie catches my eye as I pass the treatment room is that today she is wrapped in a rather fetching vividly striped towel, a bit like a fringed sash. It looks like she's wearing a Mexican serape, making her resemble a tiny Mariachi performer.

Barb gently cradles her upper paws and head on the treatment room table, while Cheyne sets about the unenviable task of cleaning up Barbie's sloppy fecal matter. This involves wiping around the fur at her bottom and also between the 'toes' of her back paws, which she alternately splays and relaxes as Cheyne cleans. I'm reminded of the time a tourist -- watching one of the volunteers refresh the leaf with a hose -- asked how often we bathe the koalas. (The answer is almost never). Barbie doesn't look at all uncomfortable during her sponging, and even tilts her face upwards to sniff at Barb in way that looks (but isn't) affectionate.

Standing away from the action at the treatment room door, I ask Cheyne if it smells? She assures me it does. It's funny how desensitised I've become to koala droppings actually being faeces and not just some inoffensive koala byproduct whose uniformly shaped pellets make them look almost mechanically produced. Each pellet consists of the densely packed eucalytptus leaf that the koala spends much of their waking hours diligently chewing. Their smell is barely distinguishable from the general eucalyptus haze that prevails in ICU.

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