Monday, 30 April 2007

Taking Nancy home

There has been a catalogue of koala machismo in the ICU, from dirt-tipping and horny grunting sounds to the pawing/chasing/foot-nibbling by that lothario Morrish Steven towards Emma, one of the other vollies. Now I'm convinced he's Jim Morrison's koala reincarnation.
I scan the whiteboard to get a quick feel for the lay of the land: who's moved, who's been shipped out. I see a note next to Ocean Therese's name. Her transfer to the Walkabout Wildlife Sanctuary at Calga (near Gosford) has been approved. No! I knew it was coming but how I will miss that fuzzy little face around here! I see from their website that she will have an ex-Koala Hospital companion in a fellow called Keith the koala, formerly known as Parklands Keith. He looks a nice chap, a bit like Wiruna Lucky (if that's his picture on the homepage). I can see a trip to Gosford some time in the future to visit our Therese.

There are FOUR koalas being released today! Three uni koalas from yard 10 -- Ellenborough Nancy, Ocean Roy and Oceanview Terry; as well as one KPS koala from ICU, Lake Private. Wow! I'm so glad for them. I remember when it was almost a full house in here a couple of months ago; now that mating season is over and we're heading into Winter, the koala traffic is due to slow down.

I'm not assigned to yard 10 today, but I decide to head up there to say goodbye to Therese, Roy, Nancy and Terry. When I get up there, Therese is asleep and curled into a grey ball. Innes Tony, however, new transferee to yard 10, is wide awake and looking handsome on his lofty perch (in Sandfly Jye's old spot). It's like I'm seeing Tony in a whole new light -- literally. Whenever koalas are transferred from the ICU or aviaries into the yards, they take on a more vivid aspect. They're also generally further along in their recuperation so, coupled with the warm morning light, they positively beam when they're out here. Today is a bit grey and rain is threatening, but Tony looks proud of his new digs. Ocean Roy is on the lookout for any activity from the yard.

I've been assigned the joeys and ICU. Being assigned the joeys doesn't necessarily mean ever seeing the joeys (except as fuzzy grey blobs clinging to their treetops). Today is not different; there's no sign of them, just their mess: the telltale evidence of their nocturnal leaf party. The choice tips are gnawed off the branches, the twigs are snapped in their stampede to fresh leaf, and the ground is covered in poo and half-chewed leaves. It's the koala equivalent of a bunch of kids leaving empty chip packets and half-drunk cans of cola on the floor of the rumpus room.

Indeed, it's like they're in training for the carry-on that we've been witnessing in the ICU lately. By yesterday morning, Morrish Steven had completely stripped the towels from his gunyah and torn the bark from the wood underneath. I'm reliably informed that Calwalla Bill and Lake Private did the same. Cheyne says she's been observing this behaviour in the ICU for a few days now and has finally put two and two together. For the last week or so, these boys have been sharing ICU with Oxley Nina, a girl koala... Three males sharing a confined space with one female means they've got something to prove about koala manhood.

If they were deer, they'd be locking antlers; if they were birds, they'd be puffing out their chest feathers; if they were gorillas, they'd be beating their chests; if they were stockbrokers, they'd be bragging about their big share portfolios. Yes, these boy koalas have been showing off to impress Nina. Big time. All this room-trashing behaviour is about proving to Oxley Nina which one of them is the big koala on campus. (Do they know she's *lowering my voice* with child?!). There has been a catalogue of koala machismo in the ICU, from dirt-tipping and horny grunting sounds to the pawing/chasing/foot-nibbling by that lothario Morrish Steven towards Emma, one of the other vollies. Now I'm convinced he's Jim Morrison's koala reincarnation.

Since Nina was released, and it's boys-only in ICU, they've returned to their usual ball-scratching nonchalance. (It's true, they do that a lot). I look in on Morrish Steven and his unit is pristine; so is Bill's and Private's.

It's Lake Private's last morning with us before his release, so he gets a special goodbye feed. His last supper in captivity. I've never actually fed Private before and it's funny how koalas vary in their feeding manners. He's eager but gentle at the same time. I have a little trouble with the syringe (the black stopper keeps coming off in the tube and I have to replace it). Private waits patiently between squirts. All the while I'm feeding, Private is squeezing out poo pellets like a production line. Wow, now that's feeling at ease in your surroundings. I'm not sure how I should feel about it. Suddenly, he jolts away from the syringe as though something unexpected has happened; I look down -- now he's peeing. He's been taken surprise by his own peeing mechanism. We both wait until he finishes peeing and recommence feeding. Ah, to be an animal and have no responsibility for personal hygiene or social norms.

Since Private's being released today, I don't need to clean his unit until he's gone. Instead I start on Calwalla Bill. There are no issues, despite the "strike out" warning on his door. He moves when I need him to, following the leaf pot to where I've moved it down the clean end of the gunyah. I can see that Morrish Steven is much mellower as well. I have to feed Steven as well and he is notable for his good behaviour: no grabbing. He still reaches out towards me when there's a break in the formula flow, but it's not the swipey urgency I've seen him demonstrate before. I notice that he's given his syringe quite a serve in the past though. The nib is scarred where he's gnawed at it on his back teeth. But he's gotten better at feeding now; he doesn't try to draw the syringe into his mouth like he used to. I can hear him slurping the liquid in and then stopping to swallow. I stop the flow each time I hear him do that. After feeding, Steven is completely mellow, even cracking a yawn before settling down for snooze.

I have a brief chat with Peter while I'm out cutting leaf. He's heading to Ellenborough to release Ellenborough Nancy. I would dearly love to accompany him since I've never been on a release before. I've also had a bit to do with Nancy while she's been in here. I was convinced she didn't like me for a while, after she took a swipe at me one day in the aviaries. I've since learned not to take such behaviour to heart. (That's right: Linksy doesn't really love me and Ellenborough Nancy doesn't really hate me; we're just leaf purveyors or annoyances to them. It's nothing personal!) Because Nancy heralds from a very rural part of the Hastings (unlike Port where koalas and humans tend to cohabit), she struggled more than most with the confines necessary for her treatment. It was satisfying to see her moved from an enclosed aviary to an outside yard, now I'd like to see her returned to her real home in the wilds of Ellenborough.

I watch as Judy brings Nancy into the treatment room in a bag. You know it's her by the way she's squirming under the canvas. She's not a koala to take any kind of confinement lightly. Judy wants to give her a final weigh-in before her release, but Nancy won't settle in the bag. When she's put on the scales her head pokes out the top and the handlers have to do their best to contain her just long enough to get the reading. Judy removes her from the bag, bearing her towards her basket in the customary fashion by her forearms; all the while, Nancy's twisting her back legs wildly trying to catch her capturer with claws. Ellenborough Nancy is a basket-case to the very end. The sooner we get this wild thing back to her wilds, the better!

I ask Tracy and Chris if they wouldn't mind cleaning out the final unit in ICU -- Walcha Barbie's -- so that I can head off with Pete. They're happy to, so we head off to Ellenborough with Nancy soundless in her covered basket on the backseat. It's a 57km drive to Ellenborough. Up the Oxley Highway, the urbanisation of Port quickly retreats and we find ourselves amid towering trees. It's alternately sprinkling and raining steadily. Fortunately, Nancy's been getting used to the rain so the transition won't be as great for her as for, say, Lake Private, who's been warmly ensconced in an inside unit while at the hospital.

I've got a map drawn up my Cheyne showing where Nancy was originally found, which was near the Ellenborough police station. Pete and I wonder about how she was brought in; Pete conjectures that perhaps a copper rang it in. I imagine it went down something like this:

"Hello, koala hospital? We've got a really ornery koala here in the lock-up..."

If her antics in the avaries are anything to go by, I can imagine her rattling her metal cup along the bars with the best of them.

Ellenborough Reserve
Ellenborough Nancy's new backyard
From koalawrangler's gallery.

As we approach Long Flat, the trees start to really soar and there's mist hanging down from the mountains like cobwebs. Clouds obscure the peaks. It's beginning to rain more heavily, but we're here now with a koala who's freedom is in sight.

Pete carries her basket towards a huge nicholii tree, a perennial koala favourite. We decide, however, that the trunk is a bit broad. Nancy's been used to gripping a narrow gunyah so we want to give her something a little easier to climb on her first day out. We move around the edge of the reserve, nearer a great density of trees and find the perfect tree. Pete strips off any loose bark that might get in her way. The tree's not too wide and has a low fork for Nancy's to nestle into. Here's how it went down:

Peter with Ellenborough Nancy in her release basketEllenborough NancyEllenborough NancyEllenborough NancyEllenborough Nancy
Ellenborough NancyEllenborough NancyEllenborough NancyEllenborough NancyEllenborough Nancy

It took her a few seconds to come to grips with her new surroundings (remember: she'd been in the dark in the back of a car for the last 45 minutes). Then, instead of climbing the tree we'd prepared earlier, she takes off out of the basket, scampers across the path and takes off up another tree. The's a tricky sheet of dangling bark she has to negotiate her way around, but we can see her arm muscles working. Watching her dig in with her claws reminds me somewhat of a rock-climber securing each precarious step with a spikey boot in the rockface. She looks like an old hand at it and I stand and watch her careful progress, ignoring the increasing rain. Nancy stops and peers down at me and Pete every once in a while. It's like she's saying, "Can I really stay here?".

By the time, we head back to the car, she's extraordinarily high up and perched in a sturdy tree fork. I'm shocked by how small she looks in her new, majestic and endless surrounds. She's like a tiny speck in the wilderness, which she's once more an organic part of. Good luck to you, Ellenborough Nancy!

Ellenborough Nancy
Ellenborough Nancy in her new home
From koalawrangler's gallery.

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