Thursday, 14 February 2008

Every koalawrangler's worst nightmare

Well, it happened like this...

Being the Australia Day long weekend, the usual Saturday arvo crew were taking a break. As lots of people were pouring into Port Macquarie for the weekend, Port Macquarians were pouring out. There wasn't even a spare teamleader available to run the Saturday afternoon shift.

This might just be a job for....koalawrangler! I just did my first morning teamleading shift on Thursday which went well. I've also worked on a number of afternoon shifts so I know what's involved. There's no leaf-reading required of me or leaf prep required of the team; the bulk of the work is feeding, spraying leaf to freshen it, and topping up the water in the leaf pots.

Deb and I arrive at 1.30pm, which gives us time to inspect the yards. Not one but TWO joeys are down on the gunyah nibbling away. It's Oxley Holly and William Krystal! They look up at us from their luncheon for a moment, as if to say, "oh, it's only the humans", then promptly carry on eating...

Oxley Holly (top) & William Krystal
Oxley Holly (top) & William Krystal
From koalawrangler's gallery.

We ogle the joeys for a bit then go to take stock of which koalas are up or down so I know which feedpots to make up. Bonny's down, so is Tractive Golfer, but Granite Murray is way, way up his tree.

Inside I start mixing the formula up. Marie, who's giving today's walk-and-talk comes in to introduce herself. There are already a lot of people gathering outside for the 3pm tour outside the yards. Marie explains that she would prefer us to stagger the koala feeding; if we all began the feeding at the same time, some of the koalas would be finished their formula and back to snoozing by the time the group made it around to them. The idea of coinciding the walk-and-talk with the feeding is that the koalas are awake then, which tends to be more entertaining than watching koalas sleep!

So just as Marie is moving the tour group around to the first yard, Deb heads into feed Newport Bridge Gloria. Gloria is a recovering wet bottom. She was shifted outside from her unit in the ICU a few weeks ago. She's doing much better, her bottom is drying out and she's very bright and frisky, which is always a good sign.

Newport Bridge Gloria
Deb feeding Newport Bridge Gloria
From koalawrangler's gallery.

Marie has assembled her group outside the yard as Deb begins feeding Gloria. Unfortunately, Gloria has made her way down from the gunyah onto the ground, which is not optimal for feeding. It's better for the koala to be on the gunyay surrounded by leaf they can latch onto. As it is, Gloria is reaching out and trying to grab onto Deb's arm. She tries to lure Gloria back towards the gunyah, but all she's interested in is continuing to feed.

I'm watching this from the sidelines, outside the yard. I start thinking, "I really should go in there and lift Gloria back onto the gunyah". The other day during a rescue, I scrambled around on my haunches and plucked a koala off the dense branches of an orange tree, without a single scratch. I've also relocated a koala to the gunyah: Hamlyn Bev had attached herself to the metal ring around the tree in her yard, so I picked her up by the forearms as I'd been shown and deposited her easily on the gunyah.

So, technically, it should be no problem this time, right? I enter the yard just as Gloria takes another swipe at Deb who's got a couple of scratch-marks on her arm already. I get behind Gloria and lift her up effortlessly by the arms as I've watched handlers do numerous times, and, with koala in tow, make for the gunyah. Then things start to go pear-shaped.

I don't know why all my koalawrangler wisdom left me at that moment. I should at least have gotten a towel first to protect my arms in case I got a scratch.

The two previous times I'd handled a koala barehanded, I'd been lowering them: either into a bag or onto a low gunyah. This time, it was different. Gloria's gunyah was just too high for me to reach, so as I held her towards the beam she started scratching at me with her back legs. For some insane reason, I'd convinced myself that a koala would be more interested in getting onto the gunyah than biting me, but no, because biting me she was. Biting and scratching. Yow. I was actually really shocked at how hard she managed to bite down. Koalas spend a lot of time chewing leaf practically to a paste, so their jaw muscles are incredibly well developed. Lucky for me, Gloria's top teeth had connected with my fingernail rather than the fleshy part of my finger -- otherwise, she probably would have bitten straight through.

So I soon realise my brilliant tactics aren't working. I'm in pain! I quickly give up and lower Gloria back down to the ground. I don't drop her, but I do let her topple from my grasp as she nears the ground. All this with an audience. I can feel Marie, the guide, wincing, probably trying to imagine how to frame this to make me look less inept. Suffice it to say that I would gladly have the earth open up and swallow me (or have Gloria finish me off) at that moment, rather than endure the alternative of having to face the music in front of a rapt crowd.

What I do know is that I have to keep going. I can't lose momentum. I have to get Gloria onto the gunyah in one simple move now. Fortunately, Deb moves the stool over towards me, as I pluck up Gloria, stand on the stool and plop her on the top beam. Why couldn't it have gone this way the first time?


I replayed the event over and over in my mind. I felt so stupid that I expected the koala to try to grip onto the gunyah rather than resist whatever it was I was doing to her. If only I'd thought to jump onto a stool to begin with, or simply lift her onto the lower beam of the gunyah which I was easily above.

It was a learning experience alright. After I beat myself up about it for a while, I realised that you can't learn skills like animal handling without making a few mistakes, although I could have done without all those witnesses.

Click here to see more photos of this week's koala patients recovering at the Koala Hospital, Port Macquarie.