Wednesday, 26 November 2008

"Waiter, there's a koala in my oysters!"

I do rather enjoy the visual of Barb decked out in her winter woolies at 8 o'clock of a night with a frisky young joey scampering about her...
Settlement Point Bea

*singing* "Bea-cause bea-cause bea-cause bea-cause bea-cauuuusssse...bea-cause of the wonderful things she does!"

Do I appear to be lost in a Wizard of Oz reverie (coupled with confused spelling)? No! It's just that I'm in a state of mild u-phoria, make that b-phoria, after an audience with the Koala Hospital's tiniest charge, the bea-utiful Settlement Point Bea.

I haven't been into the hospital for a while and, well, it was as busy as Horton Street on a Saturday morning (actually I don't even think Horton Street ever gets as busy as the Koala Hospital was today). Susan from National Geographic was there taking new footage and toting her video camera/boom mike contraption (you can read about her last visit here); Geoff was busy showing around some Friends of the Koala Hospital; and Barb had come in to pick up some fresh leaf tips for her little homecare joey, Settlement Point Bea.

I'd not met Bea before - the closest I'd come was to her was fixing a santa hat on one of her photos for the Koala Hospital Christmas card. In the flesh, she didn't look quite real...such a little creature yet one with a will of her own.

Bea's association with the Koala Hospital started with a call on 10 October. I must have been in that day because I recall the caller's words well, "a koala has just had a baby...".

This was not likely - in truth, the 'baby' is about the size of a peanut when it is born. This tiny unfurred 'pinkie' then crawls its way up through its mother's fur to the pouch where it spends the next few months suckling and growing and thinking very little about the outside world.

What the caller probably saw was this very small joey making an unscheduled move out of the pouch, as suggested by the caller's second statement: "...and the baby has fallen onto some rocks!".

Rescuers from the Koala Hospital were immediately dispatched.

Little Bea, a small female joey weighing only 445g, had indeed fallen from her mother's pouch and tumbled 10 metres onto some oyster-covered rocks. Fortunately, though, a layer of dried seagrass cushioned the joey's fall. According to our vet, the bones in a young joey are still growing making them less brittle. So luckily Bea only sustained a scratch near her nose which has nowhealed.

Since that day, Bea has been in homecare with Barb, one of the Hospital's regular foster mothers. Bea spends almost all her time in a reconstructed pouch. First, Bea grips onto a sheepskin roll (an ingeniously recycled car seat cover), which simulates the feel of the koala's mother's dense fur. She is then wrapped in a small square of flannelette sheet, and nestled inside a larger flannelette 'pocket'. This koala pocket sits in a washing basket on top of a comfy cushion that is first covered in protective plastic, then in another layer of flannelette sheeting. A baby blanket on top of it all keeps Bea tucked into 'bed'.

Settlement Point Bea(Apologies for the blurry pics - all I had on hand was my mobile phone camera! Notice what's going on in the bottom right photo: Bea was fascinated with the boom mike, probably thought it was a long-lost relative!)

Bea stays cozily inside her flannelette pouch most of the day and night, except when it's feed time or play time. Barb had come into the hospital to get Bea a sprig of fresh nicholii leaf - her favourite. There is always a small bundle of leaf tips inside the basket where Bea can easily reach them.

Before Bea could attempt to eat leaf, we had to ensure that her gut contained the right flora to allow her digestive system to break down the eucalyptus leaf that is the koala's primary diet. The way joeys obtain this flora naturally is by eating their mother's pap - a special type of poo. Although Bea's mother was sighted in trees near where Bea was rescued, she could not be caught; this was unfortunate since she had visible 'wet bottom' (clinical signs of chlamydia), and needed treatment.

The only reason Bea is able to eat leaf at all is because we were able to source pap from a koala that died. At least one koala's death permitted little Bea to survive and flourish.

But leaf is not all Bea eats. She still take nutritional supplements from a syringe. barb was pleased to say that her nightly feeds have now decreased. Bea's basket sits on a chair by Barb's bed and she takes food at 10.30pm, 2am and then at 5am ... allowing foster Mum and Dad a bit of shut-eye between feeds at night. Apparently Barb knows when koala bub wants feeding by the rustling and gentle 'eh eh' noises coming from the pouch. This way, Bea also lets Barb know when she's wet her bedding and is ready for a pouch change!

An early point of concern had been Bea's fur colour; healthy koalas in NSW are generally grey in colour. Bea's fur tends towards brown - which can be a sign of deterioration and may have been result of her mother's being unwell due to wet bottom. She also caused some worry in the early days when she was only gaining about 30g a week. However, at 5.5 months old, Bea is doing well and is improving all the time. In the last week, however, she's gained 100g. She now weighs almost 700g.

Bea has designated 8pm every night as 'playtime'. I suppose it could be worse - playtime could be at 3am... Bea's idea of play is to crawl right out of her artificial pouch and up onto mother Barb, where she nips at Barb's eyebrows and nibbles the side of her nose. Indeed, Bea decided to give us all an example of this behaviour in the Hospital day room today. Barb was surprised by how full of bea-ns Bea was, despite the number of people around. She said she's not a particularly social creature. Unlike other joeys Barb's reared, Bea is a generally not a people-person. "She won't be a 'cuddly bear'", as Barb puts it. She prefers a bite to a kiss and cuddle, which is just how a koala should be.

As well as being a bit early for playtime, Barb was keen to settle Bea back into her pouch. You see, Barb wasn't wearing her special playtime outfit. And what was that, I was keen to know? A thick winter dressing gown that Barb dons, even in the verge of Summer; anything to protect delicate human skin from those pincer-sharp claws. I do rather enjoy the visual of Barb decked out in her winter woolies at 8 o'clock of a night with a frisky young joey scampering about her...