Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Adelaide Koala & Wildlife Hospital

Warning: This blog entry has an excessive amount of cuteness and some sadness. Please discontinue reading if you experience any of the following symptoms: overuse of extended vowel sounds, over-productive tear ducts, or deciding to quit life and just become koala. 

The koala cared more about the window behind us than posing for a selfie... 

The Adelaide Koala and Wildlife Hospital officially opened it's doors in February 2014, one month ago. I didn't even know they existed until the director, Rae, sent me an email inviting me to spend a day volunteering there. I called her and asked if it would be possible to extend that time to a week. I instantly liked Rae. She was amazingly sweet, but enormously sassy. Her conversation hinted of a full and adventurous life. And she loved Tennessee, becoming giddy each time I mentioned my childhood hometown. The hospital had more than enough volunteers, but Rae was happy to let me volunteer for a whole week.

It took two busses and just under two hours to get to the hospital from where I was couchsurfing. I went from no schedule at all to waking up at 6:00am and getting home at 7:00pm every day. Every part of my body hated me for this. I didn't expect it. I'm a workaholic in the states, always working two or three jobs at a time. I guess four months of laziness caught up to me!

My first day started on Monday, March 10th. I had already looked up all of the bus timetables and arrived at the bus stop in perfect time. And then I waited... and waited. I had no idea why the bus wasn't coming. After approximately 45 minutes of waiting, two ladies walked by on the other side of the street. One lady stopped and stared at me for a moment before yelling, "It's a holiday!" I yelled back for clarification to which she replied "It's a horse race. State holiday. The bus only runs every hour or so." I thanked her and then pouted in frustration over my luck of having my first day be the day busses barely ran. I called the hospital to let them know what happened, and, after over an hour wait, the first bus finally arrived. The second bus was not on it's usual schedule, adding an additional half hour. I finally got to the hospital and hour late, and dearly missing my car. 

The Koala Hospital looks like a very professional building, despite it being a remodeled house. There are hardwood floors throughout. The front room has two desks, koala themed items for sale, and some young, fuzzy koalas along the far size. Off of the front room are two smaller rooms and a hallway.  The first of those rooms, is filled with dog kennel sized caging for older koalas and some larger veterinary equipment. The next room is filled with birds and their supplies. Down the hallway is an overnight room for staff to stay when needed, and a bathroom, complete with a hot-tub. At the end of the hallway is a large kitchen/dining room, with a veterinary room connected. Behind the house is an under construction aviary, covered outdoor koala areas, and an education room. It is all very clean and well put together. I was impressed at how well done everything was.

Rae was at the hospital every day I was there. There was one veterinarian, who came by regularly, but didn't stay for too long. One or both of the two vet nurses were always working during open hours. As for volunteers, there were always 2-5 of us. Most volunteers came once every or every other week, and worked a half day shift. I stayed for the whole day, every day to learn as much as I could. If I had worked at my American pace, I could have done everything in the hospital by myself and possibly exceeded what was done with all those people. It took a few days to adjust to the Australian way. This is an average day: Open building, care for animals (approximately ten koalas, four birds, and a turtle), clean everything, have a morning tea break, bottle feed baby koalas, have a lunch break, assist with miscellaneous projects, bottle feed baby koalas again, have afternoon tea break, care for all animals again, clean, close building. For each break, everyone just finishes what they are doing and gathers together to talk, drink tea/coffee/coke, and snack. The slow pace is immensely beneficial for learning, community, and animal care. I had to remind myself of this frequently. Occasionally someone would act rushed to finish a task, and I just couldn't wrap my head around it. There was so much time and so many people for such little work to be done, at least compared to any work or volunteer environment I have ever been a part of before.

When I walked into the hospital on my first day, I was instructed to put on a scrub shirt and put my stuff away in the overnight room. Everyone was already busy at work, so I just asked a handful of volunteers if I could shadow them for the day. No one objected. The very first animal was a duck... I just rehabilitated hundreds of ducks in Minnesota. I respectfully learned how they cared for it, and did my best to replicate that. The second animal was a White-Cheeked Rosella. (That's a bird.) It really enjoyed having branches with flowers on them within it's cage. Outside, I helped rake out the AstroTurf bottom of the cage that contained a koala named Lillian. Every koala has a name in addition to its number. It seems like they keep trying to do a naming system, but nobody really follows it. I filled Lillian's water, gave her fresh eucalypt branches, and cleaned out her dirt bowl. Koalas sometimes eat dirt for additional minerals. 

Lillian chillin in her enclosure. During my time there, they thought she might have a pouch infection and were waiting for lab results back.

All of the other animals had been cared for, so it was time to clean. I assisted in cleaning tasks which were obvious: sweeping, mopping, hanging laundry, and so on. I avoided dishes other than my own. You see, apparently I do dishes the American way. I've been told Japanese also do them the same way. I take a fill a sponge with soap, scrub the dish, rinse it under a running tap, and then dry it. Every Australian I have seen do dishes fills the sink with soapy water, dumps all the dirty dishes into that water, scrubs the dishes underwater, and then takes them out to dry. I like my way better, but a lot of people comment about how I do it differently. It's just simpler to do other tasks instead.

I've had so many tea times that I can't even remember them apart from one another, but I assume I just spent the first one trying to get to know people. By the way, the word tea is used to mean the drink, a break, or a meal. That confused me for a while; I kept wondering why people drank coffee when they said they were going to have tea.

After tea, people got up from the table and returned with baby koalas in their arms. One lady walked up to me and asked if I would like to bottle feed a baby. I can just imagine the look that must be on my face every time someone asks me a question like this. Of course I wanted to bottle feed baby koalas! There were four joeys, two older than the other two. None of them were related, but the younger two were kept together for comfort. I was handed one of the younger two; I believe it was Sage. During my time there, I got to feed each of the four koalas twice. 

Wash cloth bib in place and ready to be fed!

Each koala has a little warm sack to sit in during feeding time. I'd like to say something cute about how it's comforting to them, but really it's to keep us from getting pooped on. 

Koalas are fed a formula milk designed especially for koalas. There are slightly different formulas based on the age of the Joey. Each of these four recieved the same formula. Rae mixed up the formula each morning and kept it in the fridge to be heated as needed. Warmed formula was drawn up into syringes with small funnels at the end for feeding. I tried the hold each koala in the position it seemed most comfortable in. This was usually cradled like a baby or sitting in the nook of my arm. Each joey also had a unique way of eating. 

Goldy was always eager for food. He was loud with gruff vocalizations when getting him out of the cage. When the syringe was near him, he would grab it and drink it's entire contents in a flash! Goldy enjoyed sitting on top or knocking down all of his branches. He is identifiable be the rings around his eyes. 

Meadow, seen here eating a leaf, had the funniest feeding method of any of the koalas. She would stick her younger out and lap up the formula. Rae thought she might have a cleft pallet at first, but her mouth was perfectly fine; she just seems to prefer drinking like a dog.

Saffron (looking at camera) and Sage both ate slowly and were volunteer favorites. Saffron is identifiable by the white freckles on her right cheek. Notice, all the joeys have large teddy bears to hold onto like they would a momma koala.

Koalas aren't born looking like the most adorable creatures on earth. No, they are born looking like pink jellybeans (2 centimeters long) after only 35 days of gestation. They use their tiny arms to climb into their mom's pouch. The koala slowly develops while attached to it's mom within the pouch for a little over six months after birth. Eventually, it begins to wander out (this is the gross part) to eat it's mom's poop.

Let me clarify a few things since we are on this topic. Koala poop is not square. I've heard this said about koalas and wombats. I don't know about wombats, but koala poop is oblong, and resembles that of a rabbit. This is not exactly what the joey eats; what it eats is much more disturbing sounding. The koala mother produces a soft and wet fecal substance specifically for her joey to eat, called pap. Contained in the pap are micro-organisms that the baby needs in order to digest ectalyptus leaves. If the mom dies and the joey is removed, pap is harvested from the end of the mother's cecum. In case you aren't aware, a cecum is a part of the digestion system which is a sort of dead end, keeping food in your tract longer so more nutrient absorption and material breakdown can occur. Koalas have a particularly long cecum due to their hard to digest diet of eucalypt leaves. There are over 600 species of eucalyptus, most being regional growers. Koalas are highly selective with what species leaves they will eat and preference varies widely between populations. Contrary to popular belief, koalas do not get "drunk" off of eucalyptus. They have a sluggishness to them due to the high amount of energy needed for digestion.

As joeys grow bigger, they begin to ride on their mother's back and eat leaves with her. The pair will stay together for approximately a year or longer depending on when the mother has her next joey. Females only have one baby per year and often skip years between. Females reach adulthood at approximately two years of age, while males take at least a year longer.

Until koala joeys grow fur and begin wandering outside of the pouch, they are called pinkies or pouch young. Pinkie koalas can be very difficult to hand rear. During my time at the hospital, there were two pinkies, but unfortunately neither one survived. The first pinkie was already there when I arrived, so I'm not aware of how the mother "went to rainbow bridge", as they preferred to say. Rae was the only one to care for the tiny babies since they are so sensitive. I was able to get one picture as Rae was preparing to feed her. 

You may find her cute, ugly, or resembling an evil mastermind of an alien race like I do, but she is most definitely a baby koala. I espessially like this photo because it shows koala hands quite well. They have two thumbs! I did not know that before coming to the hospital. They still only have five fingers per hand, but their index finger makes up a second thumb. They also have super sharp claws, mostly for climbing. I was a little sad that this picture didn't show her nose, but I wasn't going to chance my luck with a second picture.

A few days after starting at the hospital, a new koala came in. She was leaking brown goo out of her backside and was highly unlikely to survive. In these cases, the koalas normally don't get names. I kindly suggested naming her America, and they actually went with it! As assumed, she quickly declined and passed away from kidney/renal failure the day after she was brought in. She also had a pinkie in her pouch that was removed in attempt to save it. This pinkie was slightly smaller than the first, and ended up reaching the same outcome hours later. 


There are some success stories for pinkies though! One such story is KO, a now grown female koala, who due to other controllable medical issues can't be released back to the wild. She is well loved and practically gets the run of the place. Hopefully, South Australia will soon allow unreleasables like her to be used as public education ambassadors for their species.


The last of the koalas was Vivian. She was a young adult female with a pinkie in her pouch. She was suspected to have early renal failure, a common ailment in koalas. Rae believed this could be a result of stress due to aggressive large males. Vivian was one of my favorites. She would climb around her cage just to spy on people in the next room.


An interesting fact about South Australian koalas is that they all came from an extreme bottleneck in genetic diversity. Koalas were originally found in the state of South Australia, but became extinct when their fur became valuable in the 1920s. A small number of koalas (less than 10) were reintroduced to South Australia from an already deteriorating population in Victoria. 

Acerbated by frequent inbreeding, these koalas suffer from many fatal conditions. Kidney/renal failure, koala retrovirus, and chlamydia are the main concerns. Kidney/renal failure seems to occur in South Australia more than other parts of the country. The cause may involve many factors, but most research points to certain types of gum trees frequented by this population. Koala Retrovirus (KoRV) is an autoimmune disease that is both contagious and hereditary. It increases the chance of a koala succumbing to conditions such as tumors and infections. Chlamydia is the most well known koala disease. It can cause blindness, pneumonia, urinary tract infections, and reproductive tract infections. The only population of koalas not to be found to have chlamydia is a large group on Kangaroo Island, off of South Australia. 

When reading up on koala diseases I saw the same facts again and again. Most koala populations seem to have dormant diseases of some kind; it is stress that is assumed to be in main factor in activating the diseases and harming the koala. Stress is attributed to mating season, deforestation, and side-effects of living near humans. 

My time at the Koala Hospital was amazing and I am so thankful to have had the opportunity to help. I took many pictures, but most were accidentally deleted. There was an Eastern Snake-Necked Turtle that I spent a lot of time working with. Some additional animals included a galah and a pigeon. 

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