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 d├ęcor. 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.