Friday, 9 March 2007

Ellenborough Nancy: real wild child

Jo emerges, momentarily beaten by Nancy's loopiness, and announces "I'm gonna have to bag her".

Bellevue Bill
From koalawrangler's gallery.
I'm working with Danae in the aviaries this morning. She's been here twice a day, every day, for a week now, so she's an old hand. The aviaries occupy their own small yard which is reached by a gate near the leaf shed. If a koala somehow got out of an aviary while we were cleaning it, the animal would have to negotiate the gate before reaching the outside world. Saying that, I reckon O'Briens Fiona could probably manage to scale it...she's a wiley thing!

Danae has already emptied one of Bellevue Bill's leaf pots. Danae has started feeding Bellevue Bill who seems to enjoy it, although he keeps an eye on me throughout the feed. Cheyne, the hospital supervisor, comes in to do her rounds, clipboard in hand. Before volunteers touch leaf in the aviaries (as well as the smaller yards in yard 10), each one has to be checked and "read" for the details that the koalas themselves can't tell us about their recovery. I go to start cleaning Oceanview Terry's aviary when Jo's voice sounds over the fence "wait! wait! I still need to check the aviaries".

I didn't realise that BOTH the supervisor and a member of the Sydney Uni team needs to examine the koalas' units and yards. Until then, I thought that Cheyne's doing the rounds was enough; but apparently they look for different things. One check they both do every morning is to "read the leaf". This means scrutinising the leaf bunches to see how much each koala has eaten and which type of eucalyptus. This serves at least two purposes: to ensure that the leaf collectors are gathering the kind of leaf the koalas are eating, and to gauge whether the koala is demonstrating a healthy appetite. They also look at how much poo is on the ground ("reading the poo", I suppose) as this contributes to the overall picture of the koala's health. The uni researchers also take poo samples from each koala for testing. Jo is armed with little zip-lock baggies for the purpose. I'm still holding a bunch of leaf from Terry's unit and she makes a quick survey of the bundle and jots down some notes on a clipboard.

We're now free to carry on cleaning. Oceanview Terry is fast asleep under an arc of leaf so I empty the other pot, roll up the damp newspaper and replenish his dirt and water. There's no towel to change so it's a quick turnaround. There are some French tourists visiting the hospital so Danae pauses to give them some info about the hospital in their native tongue. The French is punctuated by the odd English word or expression. I hear "wet bottom" a couple of times, describing the ailment commonly suffered by koalas affected by Chlamydia. I wonder why Danae wouldn't have translated the term into French somehow, maybe derrière mouillé?

The new leaf is still not ready so I brave Ellenborough Nancy's aviary. She's sitting quietly down on end of her gunyah, so I gradually cut the old towel off the other end and sneak the clean towel on. With other koalas you can gently prod them to vacate the dirty end in order to replace the towel there. Not with Nancy. She's too much of a wild-thing. I keep thinking she must have been named after that other wild-child, Nancy Spungen, girlfriend to Sid Vicious of Sex Pistols fame.

Nancy decides she's going to climb down to the ground. I work as fast as I can to tie on the towel to the rest of the gunyah. I unravel the second new towel and wonder if she'll snatch at it like a rag to a bull as she did last time. Fortunately she's more interested in leaning up against the door and peering outside. All the while I'm tying the new towel on, I'm shooting her glances; her extra-wildness makes her unpredictable so she's not a koala you want to turn your back on.

Ellenborough Nancy
Ellenborough Nancy
From koalawrangler's gallery.

Jo turns up again, with more medication for the koalas. Both the boys take treat her entrance with stoicism. Danae and I hold our breath as Jo goes in to medicate Nancy. Nancy's aviary faces the joey yard, so we can't see what's going on in there from outside. Jo emerges, momentarily beaten by Nancy's loopiness, and announces "I'm gonna have to bag her": bagging a koala for treatment often lessens their distress. She returns with said bag (each outdoor koala has their own dedicated bag kept in a named compartment in the treatment room) and slips Nancy inside. We can still see her wriggling about under the canvas.

With Nancy gone, I dive into her unit, keen to take advantage of its being koala-free. I quickly sweep up her wet newspaper, finding a couple of ticks in the process, which I pocket for later processing. I'm only just starting to lay the dry newspaper when Barb appears with the Nancy bag. "Oh no, already?", I lament. She laughs. Barb lets Nancy ease herself out of the bag at her own pace and climb back on the gunyah. She's clearly subdued after her trip to the treatment room; I give her plenty of space, finishing the cleaning and leaving quietly.

I should qualify that beneath my mock characterisations of Nancy as a scary beast is my desire to see her recuperate and be released; I really can't wait till she's back amid those soaring gums of Ellenborough where she belongs. You can see the improvement in Ellenborough Nancy's infected left eye in only a few weeks. Glad to see her treatment's doing her some good.

Two weeks ago
Ellenborough Nancy
Ellenborough Nancy
From koalawrangler's gallery.
Now
Ellenborough Nancy
Ellenborough Nancy
From koalawrangler's gallery.

We learn that the fresh leaf is ready so set about replenishing the leaf pots. Back in the day-room I write up and bottle Nancy's ticks. I hear that there's been a motor vehicle accident near the corner of Ocean and Pacific Drive. Peter sets off on the rescue. With the aviaries done, Danae and I see what we can do to help in the ICU. Barb allocates Danae Innes Tony in unit 1 and me Condon Geoff in unit 4. Helen and Anne are next door with Ocean Roy.

Condon Geoff is the koala who would wedge himself in the space above the door of his unit in ICU. When he graduated to yard 10, he pushed over his umbrella in his smaller yard and took off up a tree in the main part of yard 10. He's back in the units where the staff can keep an eye on him. He's far up the end of his gunyah nearest the door when I enter so I set about doing the towel at the other end. I don't want to shift him more than necessary so I go out to prepare his leaf to make it an easy swap job.

Barb tells me in hushed tones that we shouldn't touch Golf Starr's unit. Her illness is too far progressed for her to recover. Instead, she will be going to that great gumtree in the sky. I remember how upsetting I found it when I first started at the hosptial and learned that little Dunbogan Val was not going to make it through the night. It still saddens me becoming so close to these animals, caring for them, and then facing the inevitable situation that some will never make it outside the hospital. But that is the nature of a hospital. I console myself that they pass away painlessly and with dignity. In addition, it's good to know that the researchers are learning something from each koala they treat which contributes to their knowledge of koala dissease. Ultimately, this benefits the koala population as a whole.

I return to Geoff and place a newly wetted bunch of leaf down the end with the clean towel. I gently lift the bunch he's hiding behind at the other end. He eeps briefly so I leave him be and go to wash and fill the other pot. When I return, he's still sitting there in the open when there's a perfectly delicious new bunch of leaf awaiting him down the other end. He's obviously a koala of habit and is attached to his usual spot. His back is facing the opposite direction to where I want him to go. My mere presence in the unit is causing his ears to flick. It's such a subtle gesture, but I now know how to read some of the signs of their fear or discomfort. The "conversation" between koala and human is rarely overblown.

Condon Geoff
Condon Geoff
From koalawrangler's gallery.

Rather than touch him, I gently tug at the old towel beneath him. Again he eeps his refusal. Finally, he gets the hint and ambles down the other end to the fresh leaf. Within seconds, I can hear him chomping away, now oblivious to my presence, how he got there probably forgotten. With Geoff fully occupied, I can now mop and paper the floor without resistance.

On my way out, I peer into the treatment room to see Cheyne examining the new admission. Barb is also feeding a koala in a basket. Peter comes outside to join us at the window. He's covered in scratches from the rescue. He explains that the koala with Barb is Crestwood Dampier, a koala with damaged hindquarters that she is caring for at home. He's a big boy, not like the little joeys she normally looks after.

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