Friday, 16 January 2009

Bonny Fire: mother of the year

Well, readers, the first day of 2009 carried with it some sad and unexpected news. Bonny Fire, the doyenne of yard 9, drew her last breath in the early hours of 1 January 2009.

Bonny had been her same old self – bright, alert and maintaining a good weight – right up until Christmas. But between Christmas and new year, she began to refuse her nutritional supplement which, for her, was not normal. Over the next two days, she became lethargic and flat, so she was put on a rehydrating drip, but without noticeable improvement.

Then it was new year’s eve, not that the voluntary koala care stops at the koala hospital – no matter what day of the year it is. Judy, one of our dedicated home carers, didn’t want to leave Bonny unmonitored, so she took her into home care overnight with plenty of fresh leaf at hand. However, when she went to check on her during the early hours of the morning, Bonny had already joined Cloud, Wiruna Lucky and O’Briens Fiona, our other much-loved former occupants of yard 9, in that great gum tree in the sky.

Unfortunately, the lack of obvious clinical signs meant there was absolutely nothing we could have done for her. It is also typical for wildlife to hide their clinical signs until the end – a form of natural-selection survival strategy.

We suspect that the cause of death might have been lymphatic cancer, which was suggested by the presence of enlarged lymph nodes and unusual fatty material throughout the lymphatics. Also, koalas with lymphomas tend to deteriorate very quickly – sometimes in a matter of days – which certainly reflects what happened to Bonny. However, this is still a tentative assessment and we need to wait for the results of tests to be carried out by the University of Sydney to be sure.

Who was Bonny Fire? Bonny (as she was always known) was admitted to the Koala Hospital in Spring 2001 after being rescued from a fire at nearby Bonny Hills. A young adult koala weighing 3.75kg, she sustained burns to all four limbs, nose, chin and ears. Through diligent care and treatment, Bonny’s main injuries healed, although she was left with permanent damage to the claws, digits and palms on her hands and feet. Similar injuries would have little effect on the survivability of ground-dwelling animals, but for a tree-dwelling marsupial, such damage carries a devastating toll. Robust claws, strong digits and leathery palm surfaces are critical to climbing, and climbing is the mainstay of the koala’s existence: it enables them to seek adequate food, shelter and to avoid predators.

As a result, Bonny could never be released, but remained at the Hospital as an “education” koala. Like Cloud before her, Bonny played an important role in wildlife care by giving researchers access to a living animal with legacy bushfire damage. Observing Bonny’s day-to-day life contributed to our current understanding of the absolute priority the must be made of hand and foot health when treating koalas. This knowledge now determines releasability and hence treatability, since our ultimate aim in the Hospital is to release healthy koalas back to the wild where they belong.

Unlike in the wild, here at the Koala Hospital we could made changes to Bonny’s surroundings to make her life easier. Narrow wooden poles were erected to enable direct access from Bonny’s gunyah to the gum trees in her yard. She was also given frequent “manicures” as her misshapen claws frequently became overgrown; something that normal climbing wear-and-tear generally prevents in healthy koalas.

Some of you may recall that it was during such a routine claw trimming in 2008 that we first became aware that Bonny was eating for two. A rogue male koala had started hanging around the trees outside the Hospital during the koala mating season in late 2007. When he was found in Bonny’s yard one fine morning, tongues started wagging; and video evidence taken during her claw trimming proved that Bonny was indeed “with pinkie”. (You can see the video and read more about Bonny's midnight triste here.)

In the months that followed, Bonny’s pouch bump became more and more pronounced, and her son, Bonny Blaze, finally started to delight us all by peaking out of his mother’s pouch. When he did, everyone remarked on what a great Mum Bonny was. Of course, she had done it all before – back in 2005 Bonny became Mum to Blaze’s older sister, Bonny Ash (released in 2006). Then, it was a fellow patient who broke into Bonny’s yard in 2004. (As anyone who works with koalas will tell you, if a koala wants out of an enclosure, they can generally work out a way; and if it’s mating season and a male koala wants in, equally, there’s no stopping them!)

Bonny was protective of Blaze in the pouch and then, once he was too big for it, she could be seen cuddling little Blaze fit to break your heart! It was pure joy to watch Bonny bounding around her gunyah with Blaze in tow – attached to her tummy or affixed to her back like a caboose! Then, once Blaze grew big enough to gain some independence, he was placed in a nearby yard for dehumanising. Bonny’s dependence on us for supportive nutrition meant that Blaze was exposed to frequent human contact right along with his mum; so it is important for any joey in our care, since they (usually) require no treatment, to spend time completely away from humans before their release. But, before you start to think that Bonny’s separation from Blaze might have triggered some sort of empty nest syndrome (um, if koalas had nests, which they don’t), that’s simply not the case. It is usual for juvenile koalas to move away from their mothers (but still within or overlapping their mother’s home range where she can keep an eye on him). So, Blaze’s relocation mimicked what would have happened in the wild.

Blaze might have had more than a little something to do with extending Bonny’s life, however. I found myself thinking, that perhaps Bonny had “soldiered” on despite her illness, just long enough to see Blaze make his way in the world. Initially, that seemed a little too sentimental, smacking a little too much of anthropomorphising (which Cheyne is always trying to kick out of me); but as it turns out, there is some sound scientific support to such a notion.

You see, koala mothers are tremendously dedicated. At the Hospital we have seen other examples of female koalas enduring horrid growths/cancerous conditions, but all the while lactating and still nurturing their joeys. They give up fighting for their own health only once the joey is weaned, and literally drop off the perch – leaving behind big, healthy, well-nourished joeys to carry on the family line. What troopers!

It will seem so strange not too see Bonny in her usual tree, but there are also things that uplift me about Bonny’s life and even her death. It is somehow satisfying that Bonny wasn’t cut down in her prime, like so many of our koalas, by one of the “big four”: dog attack, motor vehicle accident, Chlamydial infection, or bushfire. Ironically, the injuries she sustained in the fire that gave Bonny her name meant she enjoyed a life at the Koala Hospital that she could never have had in the wild. She even managed to produce two healthy joeys to boot (and no doubt a swag of grand-joeys!)

It’s probably anthropomorphic of me, but I’m also gladdened by the fact that Bonny spent her last hours not alone, but comfortably in the home of a koala carer. It heartens me to know that Bonny was looked after with that special Koala Hospital care, right up until the end.

Click here to view more photos of Bonny Fire.

Click here to adopt Bonny Blaze.

Click here to adopt Bonny Ash.