This beautiful little creature is Georgie, a tiny baby koala who was orphaned and came into the care of Sue Swain, one of our friends at the Hunter Koala Preservation Society near Port Stephens, north of Sydney.
Georgie weighed only 212 grams when she came into Sue's care after Georgie's Mum had died as the result of a dog attack. The mother was a very young koala herself and it is believed that Georgie was probably her first joey.
Cheyne and the other staff at the Koala Hospital have had a close relationship over the years with Sue. Sue is one of those cherished people who cares for orphaned wildlife - sometimes a couple of koala joeys at a time - which means round-the-clock feeding.
Over the last week, Cheyne and Sue have been conferring by email over little Georgie's progress, in particular concerning the acquisition of a special substance called 'pap', which young joeys must eat before they can progress to eating leaf. As crazy as this may sound, this pap is a form of maternal faeces. It is produced in the caecum (pron. seecum), the blind gut in the koala's complex digestive system. And the substance is more vital to the early progress of a young joey than colostrum is to a newborn human.
The importance of pap is that it inoculates the joey's developing gut with the microflora necessary to digest the eucalyptus leaf - which will become its primary source of food. Without this microflora, the leaf is toxic to the koala. If pap is not available, poo shakes are made up for the joey to drink. Just as they sound, these shakes are made by mixing the fresh droppings of a healthy koala - male or female - with a non-dairy formula supplement. Sometimes the poo shakes are enough to provide the microflora; in other cases only pap will do.
Georgie was fed poo shakes regularly while Sue desperately tried to source fresh pap. It may sound gruesome, but the only way pap can be acquired artificially is by harvesting it from the caecum of a koala that has recently died. The premise is a bit like organ donation in human medicine; if an otherwise healthy koala is killed in a motor vehicle accident, at least it is possible for that animal to donate their special pap to nurture a growing joey in desperate need of the magic mixture to survive. Pap from a male or female koala will do.
In the past, Sue has looked to the Koala Hospital to provide pap for joeys she has had in care, and, likewise, Sue has collected and delivered pap for other licenced carers who have joeys in need of it. Also, because the Koala Hospital has a dedicated joey yard - the climbing kindergarten - Sue sends her joeys to us just prior to release. They get lots of practice climbing in the joey yard, and, after months of hand-rearing, soon return to their wild koala ways before they are released.
Caring for tiny joeys can be the most enriching but also the most heart-breaking part of wildlife rehabilitation. Unfortunately, in Georgie's case, despite everyone's best efforts, no pap could be obtained for Georgie and she did did not survive. This is a sad story, but it is important that people understand how much orphaned joeys struggle to reach necessary milestones in human care.
If you would like to make a much-needed donation to help the Hunter Koala Preservation Society with their valuable work, please click here. They are in need of funds to support their day-to-day operations in koala care and rescue. These include: an Ambulance, Veterinary medications, tests, research and updating veterinary equipment, Rescue apparatus, Rehabilitation sheds, Leaf storage sheds, Education campaigns, Buying and planting koala food trees, Rehabilitation areas/land, Establishing new and existing areas that sustain koalas, Environmental enrichment programs.