Monday, 22 October 2007

The great koala chase

Tawny Frogmouth and chick in yard 9
Tawny Frogmouth and chick in yard 9
From koalawrangler's gallery.

No, when I left the koala hospital this afternoon I didn't expect I'd be chasing a koala down Pacific Drive before I made it home.

Cheyne asked me to come in to the hospital this arvo to put my slide-wench skills to good use. She is giving a presentation next week on the work we do at the koala hospital, and the finer details of PowerPoint were eluding her.

So after spending a couple of hours animating text and cropping some pretty gruesome photos of dog attacks and motor vehicle accidents, I was glad to get out amongst the well-tended, luckier koalas in our care.

Three Dutch ladies outside Perks Chris's yard beckoned to me as I locked up. They were having trouble picking out our old girls in yard 9. I was happy to give them an impromptu tour along the perimeter of the yards. Birthday Girl was curled up on the gunyah, but I couldn't see Bonny up her usual tree. I thought she might have gone into hiding in case Roto Randy was feeling the love again (as he did the other night when he broke into yard 9 and, we suspect, had his wicked way with her). But we walked north around yard 9 and could see Bonny curled up on the gunyah on the other side.

The cute little tawny frogmouth mother was still there with her chick, pretending to be a tree branch. Wiruna Lucky seemed to be the only koala awake and snuffling her leaf. Around in yard 10, Westport Lily was tucked up in the spines of her umbrella.

Little did I know that these weren't the last koalas I would see today!

Since it was still light, I drove home via the coast road rather than Lord Street. I had passed Flynn's Beach shops when I saw a couple walking a huge dog, something like a cross between a wolf and a shetland pony. They'd come to a stop by a large tree at the side of the road, where, to my complete shock, there sat a koala. As I sped by, it looked peculiarly like the koala and the dog were having a conversation (fortunately the dog was on a tight leash).

I immediately pulled over and jumped out of the car, not sure what I was going to do when I got out. Did I have a towel in the car if I needed to pick the koala up, should something happen? I had no chance to find out as, the koala decided he'd had enough with talking to the dog and bounded headlong into the road, Pacific Drive. I only had enough time to recognise that the koala had an orange tag in its ear (so was a former hospital patient).

My gut response was to fling myself into the traffic (not really TRAFFIC, there were a few cars coming on either side). I waved my hands frantically at the cars going south and then threw myself in the way of cars approaching north. Fortunately, everyone stopped and our plucky koala bounded off down Leanda street headed for who-knows-where.

Of course, I went after it. I felt a bit like Alice following her white rabbit down the rabbit hole. I was also starting to wonder which piece of clothing--my t-shirt or my pants (the wraparound Thai fisherman variety)--would be the least offensive garment to remove if I needed to use them to pick up the koala. Yes, this is the kind of madness that goes through the mind of a koalawrangler when hot on the heels of a scampering koala. Of course, what I was going to do with the koala when I got it was a another matter.

I saw a guy approaching at a distance with a dog--I squawked at him, "Is your dog on a leash?! I've got a koala here!". Naturally.

My koala didn't seem to know where it was going but stopped and paused on someone's front lawn before heading off into their side yard. As a I tramped through the backyards of Leanda Street, I realised I was harbouring the illogical sense that this was somehow a lost koala--probably because it had an ear-tag and I wasn't used to seeing tagged koalas outside the hospital. It somehow felt that this koala was AWOL from yard 10 or something. It wasn't of course, nor did there look to be anything wrong with it. He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

It seemed to me that I would need help so I got the koala hospital on the line. John answered and I talked (or more like, squawked) my way through the situation. The koala seemed to have worked its way into a corner. The side yard backed onto two other yards where three fences met at a point, two metal and one wood. Amazingly, the koala climbed the wooden fence and along the metal fence.

It was beyond my help now.

A guy in the backyard next door was cracking open a beer. I blurted out from the shrubbery, "do you have a dog?". I think looking at horrible photos of koala dog-attack victims all afternoon had unsettled me. The bloke wandered over to the fence as I watched the koala's dappled behind disappear up the fence line away from me.

"Oh don't worry", he told me. "He's usually here".

Ohhhh. So I'd just been stalking someone's very own backyard koala???

Just then, the koala in question sat back on his haunches and let out a loud koala mating drawl--definitely a male. If he was a gorilla, he'd probably have been beating on his chest about now.

"There are koala trees just here", the man continued, like having a koala in his backyard was the most natural thing in the world. Behind me, I heard a miaow. A calico cat was looking at me quizzically as if to say, "what are doing in my owner's rose bushes?". It seems like I was the only entity who was concerned about the koala being there.

So I headed home, living to wrangle another day!

Friday, 19 October 2007

Aussie Mick, the rare white koala

Yes, folks, you heard it here first, okay, well, LAST then...but I'm not bitter! The story of Mick the rare white koala burst onto the world stage on 21 September, after we koalawranglers had known about his existence for some weeks. It's testament to the serious task we perform at the hospital that we'd all been keeping our lips (and keyboards) sealed on the matter, despite our understandable delight at having such a rare and precious beastie in our care. So we had to make do with whispering excitedly about him amongst ourselves.

Yesterday I read in that worthy tome, Wikipedia, that Port Macquarie is the "koala capital of Australia". If so, then Mick's stay with us really put Porpoise Spit on the map (even though he's not from anywhere near Port Macquarie and he's now long gone).

I remember my first shift at the hospital after Mick had been admitted. Cheyne gleefully ushering me towards ICU and I could tell from the way she was "frothing at the mouth", as she put it, there had to be *special* sort of koala in there. But who? I ran a quick survey in my mind of the small clutch of koalas celebrities who might fit the bill.

Blinky Bill is a clear stand-out. Then there's Bunyip Bluegum from Norman Lindsay's classic The Magic Pudding. Or you can't go past Cadbury's Caramello Koala. Of course, lately, the Japanese Koala March has marched its way into local supermarkets. And there's always the KoalaWhere koala -- you never know where that's going to turn up.

But no, we'd really hit the koala jackpot this time.

The curtain covering the grating to his unit delayed the revelation for a moment, but then Cheyne slid back the door and there he was, in all his fluffy white glory. Behind Mick were green and brown-striped towels tacked to the windows to prevent anyone's seeing in from outside. These, together with the wood and leaf accessories, gave his unit something of a funky 70s décor. All that was missing was the flocked wallpaper. Indeed, I got momentary flashbacks to Elvis's jungle room at Gracelands, minus the deep-fried Mars bars.

My invitation into Mick's unit did feel a bit like an audience with the King himself (only rarer, given the amount of Elvis sightings that occur each year in the US). It was truly like beholding a mythic being, a fairy, or golden child. The tiny whiteboard outside his unit (used to identify name, sex and symptoms) simply read: "ghost who walks". It's moments like this that I realise how out of touch I am (with obscure comic culture). The caption automatically caused me to configure a whole indigenous dreamtime story in my mind before being advised that, no, it was simply a quote from The Phantom comic. Despite the descent into pop culture, there's something apt about the epigraph. He stood before us, clinging onto the fork of his gunyah like a wise sage who'd just spent 80 years on a mountain-top before finally deigning to bring his cosmic wisdom to us mortal folk down in the valley.

Aussie Mick, the rare white koala
Aussie Mick, the rare white koala
From koalawrangler's gallery.

So what made Mick such a rarity? Well, to start with, he's NOT albino. Albinism is a congenital disorder characterised by a lack of melanin pigment in the eyes, hair and skin. Mick doesn't have this or any other genetic disorder; his nose was the generic koala black and his eyes were yellow (although his pink eyelids may make him susceptible to skin cancer). So while albinos do crop up more often than you think, Mick is the result of genetics playing out to produce the perfect example of the recessive fur gene in koalas, like having all the planets in the right alignment at the right moment. It would take decades of painstaking breeding to engineer such a creature.

On the topic of fur, what's interesting is that, although everyone's been calling him white, he's was actually more of a cream colour (and I don't mean his scent gland which is always a different colour than the rest of the fur on male koalas). Next to Kempsey Carolina's snow white chest fur, Mick's fur's got more of that lovely rich yellowness you get in a good full-fat vanilla ice-cream.

Kempsey Carolina
From broken_puzzle's gallery.

Aussie Mick
From koalawrangler's gallery.

Other than his rare fur colour, Mick was surprisingly average in koala terms. He looked like many of the big koala boys we get in there and was just as docile. And, alas, Mick's cloak of special fur did not exempt him from the infection currently plaguing our koalas, Chlamydia. In Mick, the disease had come up as a conjunctival infection which left his eyelids red and crusty -- like "red cabbages", as Cheyne put it. Once in our care, Mick underwent an operation to remove the "granula tissue on the conjunctival membrane", followed by treatment with a special ointment. Pretty soon, he was right as rain.

It's customary to name every koala who comes through our doors with the place they're from and the person who brought them into our care. In Mick's case, "Aussie Mick" seemed to fit since he hails from a secret location over two days' drive from here, but “Australia” is about as specific as we’d like to be. When I asked Cheyne where exactly it was, she got that look in her eye that means, "if I tell you, I weeel haf to keeel you". I joked with her the other day that next we’ll be calling him “Southern Hemisphere Mick”, just to be on the safe side.

Now that Mick's back home (wherever that is), we're hoping he's enjoying his improved vision and that he's also adjusting to the Groucho Marx nose and glasses we've fitted him with so that no-one recognises him there. If they're good enough for Elvis, they're good enough for our Mick.

Here's a random sampling of the coverage Mick received in the media, or a "lit review" as they call it in PhD school, although a "Mick review" might be more appropriate (yuk yuk):

"Magic Mick's one in a million" | Port Macquarie News

"Meet Paleface, the rare white koala bear" | Daily Mail (with video)

"White koala nursed back to health" | BBC

"He is all white" | The Daily Telegraph (photo gallery)

"Rare white koala has eye surgery" |

"White koala returned to bush" | The Daily Telegraph

"Rare white koala rescued and released" | Where Light Meets Dark (blog)

"Rare white koala rescued | MSNBC (video)

"Rare white koala found" | The Guardian (video)

"Rare white koala goes home" | The Age (video)

"White koala returned to bush" | Care 2 (blog)

"White koala killing us with cuteness" | Jezebel (blog)

"Mick the white koala bear" | Reuters (video)

"Rare white koala gets medical help in Australia" | Planet Ark

"Rare white koala" | Neatorama (blog)

You can view photos we took of Mick at the Koala Hospital here.

You can ADOPT Aussie Mick here, which takes you to Mick's sponsorship page on the Koala Hospital website. We don’t get any external funding so this helps raise valuable funds to ensure we can continue to save koalas of all colours.

Thursday, 18 October 2007

Lounging around with Westport Lily

Westport Lily
Westport Lily
From koalawrangler's gallery.

Westport Lily is a little female koala keeping Tractive Golfer company up in yard 10. She is one of the koalas who occupies the grounds of Westport High School here in Port Macquarie. Lily was brought in as a suspected wet bottom so she has a towel tied to her gunyah to show up any urinal discharge we would need to worry about.

Westport Lily enjoying her leaf

Lily has a quirky habit of lying stretched out on the gunyah as though she's waiting for her masseur to show up. "Make mine a hot stones massage with a bit of aromatherapy thrown in!"

Unfortunately, Cheyne says that an odd "cyst-like" structure has shown up under ultrasound which could explain her curious lounging activities. It may be that this is the only position she is comfortable in. It's a sad fact that whenever the koalas do anything that's particularly novel or different, it's usually because something's wrong.

Lily's a bit of a pacer. Like many of the koalas in the hospital, they spend a bit of time on the ground sussing out their yard and trying to find a way out. Here she is taking a bit of a run up...

Westport Lily coming straight for me!

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

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

News flash: "Koala bites dog"

If ever I'm in a tight situation, Bellevue Scrapper is definitely the koala I'd want in my corner.
If you've read my disclaimer above, you'll see that I'm not above admitting my lack of know-how in the medical department. I enjoy learning about the scientific side of koala care, primarily because it contributes to my understanding of each koala's "story", but I can be slow on the uptake sometimes. I'm an Arts graduate, okay?! I'll give you an example.

It's Thursday and I've just finished my work in the yards and have ventured into ICU to see what needs doing in there. There's action in the treatment room: Jarrod, Cheyne and Amanda are inspecting a small koala on the treatment table.

KW: "Who's this?".
Cheyne: "A new one: Bellevue Scrapper"

Scrapper got into a scrap with a dog so they are checking her for any wounds. I'm continually amazed at how placid koalas tend to be, showing little more than an ear-wiggle that they're distressed or annoyed. But this particular koala seems to be exceptionally docile as they gently move her about searching out scratches or bite-marks.

Cheyne's pretty used to my dopey questions by now, but I really excel with the following.

KW: "So is it normal for a koala to let you move her around like that?"
Cheyne: "Well, she is unconscious"
KW: "But her eyes are open!"
Cheyne: "Yes, the eyes do stay open when they're under"
KW: "Ohhhhhhhhh". (*thinks to herself* quick, say something brilliant so they don't think you're a complete dork) "So when I got my wisdom teeth out, my eyes were open the whole time???!!!"

Okay, I decided to stop while I was behind.

Bellevue Scrapper's story is a something of a curious one. She was involved in a dog attack, which is a common and horribly depressing occurrence with our urban koalas, especially during mating season (um not because of any weird cross-species hanky-panky, but because mating koalas are on the ground more where, sadly, dogs are king). But, according to the people who brought her in, it was Scrapper who attacked the dog, not the other way round! And Scrapper doesn't have a scratch on her...a couple of ticks, but not a scratch. What makes this story all the more unique is that Scrapper is a tiny little thing, barely more than a juvenile. Cheyne hazarded that she is no more than 18 months old. I don't know how the dog came off following the altercation, but I wouldn't think it'd be woofing too loudly about this one with its canine pals right now. If ever I'm in a tight situation, Bellevue Scrapper is definitely the koala I'd want in my corner.

Perhaps koalas are evolving to take on dogs on their own turf? (Probably not, but it makes for an amusing theory). Scrapper's case is so sadly ironic because we usually have the opposite case on our hands, and the koalas come off far worse than the dogs.

Recently we have had a spate of dog attacks lately. Salamander Bay Josie came to us from our friends at the Native Animal Trust Fund after a dog attack degloved her foot. She is with us to undergo rehab and physio to the area. Dunbogan Mastiff wasn't so lucky and died after an attack by a Mastiff hound.

There's been some releases too. Pacific Highway Vina who tried to "self-release" last week by hightailing it into another yard and up a tree was officially released during the week. She's made an amazing recovery considering she was in such a bad way after being hit by a car only a few weeks ago.

Poor old Comboyne Ken who had a crushed wrist was euthanased and, I'm sad to say, little Cathie Ali.

On a happier note, Chisholm Dave (the one Pete and I rescued from a Camelia bush after taking a dip in a backyard pool [Dave, not me or Pete] was released, as was Pacific Simon who was scampering up Pacific Drive when he was brought in.

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

Thursday, 11 October 2007

A bagful o' Dave

Last week, the hospital yards seemed chockful of koalas and most of the gunyahs bristled with leaf. The volume of koalas tends to coincide with the warmer weather when koalas are on the move seeking out other koalas for mating. This puts them in unwanted path of dogs and cars as they leave their comfortable branches to traverse backyards and urban streets. It's no coincidence that male koala patients have been in the majority lately, as these frisky boys venture out for some summer lovin'.

Remember the marsupial lothario who was pursuing Roto Abigail, the wild koala mum who lives just outside the hospital grounds near Roto House? He's been eyeing up some of our female patients for a while now, so it was decided that Roto Randy, as he's been dubbed, should be relocated to an area with healthy females, not those recovering from motor vehicle accidents, koala flu, and the like. The last thing our girls need is a male grunting and snuffling about the place while they're recuperating.

Cuddly Ocean Jane is missing from her usual spot in yard 2. She's been given the all-clear and released. Limping Livingstone Clover has also made the trip to Walkabout Wildlife Sanctuary where he'll hopefully help beef up their koala numbers.

Lighthouse Barry has also re-entered the wild, which is a relief, since we could barely keep him on his gunyah once he was transferred outside. He kept climbing up onto his roof and John, Jim and Pete took turns in propping a pole up for him to ease himself down to the ground.

Perks Chris is still doing his border patrol, trotting in regular steps around his yard. Emma's just finished Chris's yard and is starting on the koala in yard 1. The gate to the adjacent yard is open, which is unusual. She points skyward and I train my eyes up the tree in the next door yard.

Perks Chris & Lighthouse Barry on the prowl
Perks Chris & Lighthouse Barry
From koalawrangler's gallery.

There's a koala unbelievably high up, hugging a thick tree branch and looking for all the world like she's smiling smugly. Emma tells me it's Pacific Highway Vina, which is wonderful! She was so very fragile when she first came in after being hit by a car on the Pacific Highway a few weeks back. When I last saw her in ICU, she could hardly chew and even struggled to take in the liquid formula. Now here she is jumping fences and shimmying up trees -- a sure sign that she's on the mend. The hospital isn't Fort Knox; the outside yards balance the open-air freedom the furry patients crave with a modicum of security measures. Some crafty koalas will inevitably find a way out, but usually only into the next yard, and this doesn't happen very often. Emma replenishes Vina's gunyah with leaf. There'll be a eucalyptus smorgasbord waiting for her should she decide to return to earth.

The outside yards are well in hand so I start on newcomer Cathie Ali in ICU. She's a small female who regards me warily as I enter and start to clean out her unit. She's a clean girl; there's only a small smattering of tiny poo's on the newspaper beneath where she's perched on her gunyah. I start sweeping out the newspaper and sweep up the poo. She's so far down one end of the gunyah that I can easily replace one of her towels. She's a suspected wet bottom, so they're probably waiting on test results to confirm her mode of treatment.

Just then Peter pops his head in to see if I'll join him on a rescue. Two koala sightings have been made within only a few blocks of the hospital. It constantly amazes me how embedded in suburbia our koalas are. The first one is behind a block of flats opposite Flynn's Beach. A shirtless fellow emerges from his apartment to describe how he saw a koala ambling up the driveway with a sore leg. There's a large fence the separates the flats from a clutch of trees. Pete spots the big fellow high in one of these trees and far out of reach of even our longest poles. Unless he voluntarily moves to a more accessible spot, there'll be no getting to him, which is a shame since he obviously needs some medical care.

We head off to the next koala location. On another suburban street, there's a couple of kids waiting as we arrive. They take us to their front yard swimming pool and there, shivering in a Camelia tree is a very wet koala. Chisholm Dave, as he is to be known, has picked a good tree (for us, not for him). It's very low and with the help of a step ladder, Peter manages to wrestle him off the tree. I'm standing by with a bag and help by pulling and pushing branches out from under Dave's claws so that he eventually tumbles into my outstretched canvas sack. At the last minute, he makes a grab for whatever he can get a hold of and manages to drag down the front of my shirt revealing my bra to all and sundry. I'm just glad it wasn't my skin he found purchase in. I'm past caring about modesty, as long as I've bagged my koala.

I've got my hands stretched out before me holding on tight to the neck of bag. I don't want to rest the koala against myself as they've been known to tear through the bag on occasion. So this koala deadweight is giving my bingo wings a workout. I walk quickly to the car and sit in the back with Dave next to me. We're only a a few streets away so in no time Dave's on the treatment table being towelled off by Peter. John and Jim get to work preparing Dave a new unit with fresh leaf. He looks like a new koala when he gets delivered to his room and sets upon the leaf straight away. The camelia bush obviously wasn't providing must in the way of sustenance.

Keith's brought in another koala that made the mistake of running down the middle of Pacific Drive at 11.30pm last night. Fortunately, and amazingly, he wasn't hurt and Keith looked after him overnight before admitting him to the hospital today. He's a frisky little fellow, only a juvenile judging by his size and seems healthy. He has a very white, clean little bottom, but the towel from his basket is stained red, which unfortunately suggests there may be something wrong internally. Cheyne will have her work cut out for her on Monday with all these new admissions.

I return to Cathie Ali and finish off her unit with some fresh wet leaf. I notice that there's something strange going on with her claws on her front right hand. The claws look like they're split or are shedding an external layer. She's very timid and scurries down the other end of her gunyah with John's help and I finish replacing her towels.

I scan the day book to find out about recent activity in the hospital. I'm saddened to see that Oceanview Terry was brought in DOA. He was one of the successful patients from the university chlamydia drug trials from last year.

Little Oxley Cori is a tiny 440g joey who was found miraculously alive sitting under a tree. He's gone straight into home care with one of our special koala foster mums. Comboyne Ken is another koala in home care. He's from an area about an hour inland from us here at Port Macquarie. He was covered in soot from the local bush fires and is suffering a broken wrist and general poor body condition. Speaking of soot, a recent patient Anna Bay Sooty has been sighted near a youth hostel with her baby Smudge. It's not often we find out that our ex-patients are doing well.

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