Thursday, 29 March 2007

National Koalagraphic

We're getting a bit of blue gum lately. I call it Skippy leaf -- according to my dusty mind records, it's exactly the kind of leaf that Sonny Hammond used to blow against to summon Skippy the bush kangaroo to the (usually improbable) rescue in the eponymously titled TV show.

Links Lorna
From koalawrangler's gallery.
I get in at 7am again today, Thursday. I'm continuing my teamleader training with Amanda. The concreters are at work pouring slabs around the edge of yards 1a, 2, 3, 4, 5 and part of yard 9. Just in time for the koala hospital open day on Saturday 7 April 2007.

Amanda has already checked that all koalas are present and accounted for inside in ICU. Like last time, she draws up a matrix with the acronym for each leaf type in columns across the top and the name of each outside koala down the side. Teamleaders only read leaf for those koalas directly in the care of the hospital, not the ones being monitored by the uni researchers. We then head out to the yards and attempt to determine which leaf is flavour of the month and which isn't.

The different types of leaf flummoxed me when I first began at the hospital. Several weeks of cutting and stripping branches on every shift has produced a gradual familiarity. Now I'm astounded by my growing ability to recognise different eucalypt types. I can pretty much tell apart Tallowwood, Nicholii, Melaleuca, Swamp Mahogany and Blue Gum. Swamp Mahogany is always a koala favourite -- for the koalas around here anyway; a koala from a different part of Australia would probably eat a different array of leaf, depending upon what is available in their home area.

We're getting a bit of blue gum lately. I call it Skippy leaf -- according to my dusty mind records, it's exactly the kind of leaf that Sonny Hammond used to blow against to summon Skippy the bush kangaroo to the (usually improbable) rescue in the eponymously titled TV show. Skippy was the after-school staple from my childhood. (You can see the scintillating opening credits to this iconic piece of kitsch 1960s Australiana here.)

I should qualify that I can generally pick the different leaf as long as each is in a nice single branch, but not necessarily when they're cut up and bunched together in the pot. It's a bit like being able to recognise whole heads of lettuce -- cos, iceberg, mignonette, romano....and then having to 'read' said leaves from within a mesclun salad. And 'reading' the leaf is what we have to do.

When we head into yard 10, there is koala on Tractive Golfer's gunyah and it's not Tractive Golfer! Yard 10 is a large open yard with a small circular yard within it that houses Ocean Therese. There are also about six smaller yards that run along the periphery of yard 10; these yards contain some of the koalas being monitored by Sydney uni researchers.

Tractive Golfer, one of the hospital's long-term residents, has free run in the main area of yard 10. He has scoliosis, producing a distinctively misshapen spine, whereas this unfamiliar koala is small, has normal spine curvature, and female -- judging by the tag in her right ear. Wait a minute! It's that tricksy O'Briens Fiona a.k.a. FiFi Houdini! Before I start wondering by what rare feats of magic she got from yard 9 (her most recent stomping ground) to yard 10, Amanda explains that, according to the whiteboard, Fiona's just been moved into the circular enclosure in yard 10 with Ocean Therese. She's obviously managed to scale her enclosure to make it into the main part of yard 10 (so still safely captive within the hospital). There she is sitting there happily chomping on Golfer's leaf.

There's a fine line to be trod between confining the koalas securely, but still enabling them the open-air environment they covet as wild animals. Most of the time, this balance works beautifully: the koalas enjoy both a secure outside existence in the yards while they still receive the best possible treatment and care. In Fiona's case, she seems to be a born roamer, and like her famous namesake Harry Houdini, is an expert at escapology.

Amanda & O'Briens Fiona
Amanda & O'Briens Fiona
From koalawrangler's gallery.

By now Fiona has made her way to the ground and is coming towards us, ever after that elusive formula. Amanda mutters that she wishes she had a towel so that she could pick her up and redeposit her in her correct yard. "How 'bout my smock?". I whip off my koalawrangler smock and it works a treat. All koalas present and accounted for in their correct yards.

With the leaf checks done, I scatter the collection boxes around the yards. The morning troupe is trickling in. Vanessa and I are doing yard 10 together today. There's a couple of photographers here from National Geographic who are snapping away as we work. They're especially interested in the feeds. I go in to feed Sandfly Jye and wonder how my hair looks (like is there a huge green insect in it like the other day?). I'm mostly carrying on with my work as usual, except that I feel a little self-conscious cracking off superfluous stems at the leaf-rack with a photographer clicking away right in front of me. Now I know how the koalas feel when I'm on shift. Should I "vogue" or something?

Oxley Jo
From koalawrangler's gallery.
When I carry the wet leaf into Oxley Jo's yard, the photographer's compadre interrupts and asks if I can enter at less than a breakneck speed. And can I walk around the gunyah the long way. Okay, shurrrrr. I wonder what captions will appear under these photos. They dutifully copy down our names and the names of the koalas. I wonder if I'll be listed as "Oxley Jo" or "Links Lorna" by mistake.

Cheyne is giving "how to feed" refresher training to all the shifts this week. The first koala I ever fed was Kempsey Carolina. Her feeding style is pretty unique and I had to make it up with every new koala since, so it's good to understand the right way to do it. Cheyne has Anna Bay Miles to demonstrate on. The two most important things appear to be how much of the syringe you place in the koala's mouth and how fast you squirt. Only the skinny tip of the syringe should enter the koala's mouth, even though they may try to draw the wide part of the syringe in. Sometimes they chew on the end too; this makes sense since chewing is the natural way for them to eat, not slurping on a plastic tube. However, letting the koala chew on the syringe increases the likelihood that they'll bite a bit off -- not good. Although they will often try to pull the syringe to the front, it's place to slot the syringe tip along the edge of the koala's mouth between the front and back teeth. Their left-hand side is usually best since most people are right-handed and therefore feed from that side.

The other important aspect of feeding is not to force the formula out too quickly. No-one wants liquid syphoned into their mouths like a firehose -- including koalas. Drinking the formulat should be a pleasurable experience -- they should be allowed to enjoy it!

When I return to yard 10, I glance over to yard 9 and notice that both joeys in 9a are bunched up very high in their tree. Wow! Linksy is really climbing now, like a real koala. I'm happy-sad about it; glad for him that he's koalarising along with dehumanising, but sad that it spells his imminent release. I don't think he weigh enough yet though, so we'll have him for a while longer.

Before I go, Tricia points out Oxley Westi in a lounge pose. They usually let their limbs hang or stretch them out when they're trying to cool down.

Oxley Westi
Oxley Westi
From koalawrangler's gallery.

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