Sunday, 12 October 2008

Port Macquarie Koala Hospital, New South Wales, Australia

Athletic koalas?
It’s always nice to have your illusions shattered. Given that koalas aren’t exactly renowned for their non-stop athleticism at the best of times, you’d hardly expect the unfortunate ones beset by blindness, permanent disabilities and venereal diseases to be little hubs of pure energy.
Well, try telling that to Paddy, who has discharged himself from hospital, and is haring up and down a tree in a bid for freedom.

Koala hospital for chlamydia sufferers
Paddy has chlamydia, an unfortunately common complaint for these sleepy little furballs, and he has been placed in isolation to stop him infecting others. However, the security at the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital, on the North Coast of New South Wales, Australia isn’t watertight, and he’s managed to make his break.

Volunteers give chase
The escapee has caused quite a commotion too, as a troupe of volunteers attempts to stop him running amok. Sending someone up the tree after him would be an obviously fruitless pursuit, so more cunning tactics have to be brought into play.
Apparently, koalas can’t stand things being wafted around their head, so Chris, the hospital’s habitat officer has attached a plastic bag to an extremely long pole.
As he waves it above Paddy’s head, the miscreant scarpers down the tree trunk with surprising speed, and this process continues until he’s near the bottom.
Waiting there to pounce are two volunteers with a sack, hoping to bundle him into it and take him back to the ward.

Benny Hill Show
Paddy is having none of it though, and as soon as he spots a brief respite from the plastic bag of unimaginable terror, he races back up the trunk to the highest branch he can find. The whole process, now beginning to look like something straight out of The Benny Hill Show, is repeated again – and again – until finally the prisoner is dragged kicking and screaming away, clawing his Hessian cage.

Australia’s koala capital
Port Macquarie is arguably Australia’s koala capital. It is surrounded by prime habitat, a gum tree heaven if you will, and the dozy marsupials still thrive here, even though the town is growing at a rapid rate.
The human expansion has been costly for the koala population. As more housing springs up, more trees are cut down, and many of the patients at the hospital are there for man-made reasons.

Mauling and drowning
According to Anne, the volunteer who guides us round, car accidents, maulings from pet dogs and drowning in swimming pools are just three problems the urban koala faces. They may have sharp claws, but they’re hardly likely to win a fight with a narky bull terrier or Holden Monaro. The swimming pools are a more eyebrow-raising problem as, although hardly the Ian Thorpes of the animal world, they can actually swim reasonably well.

Getting out of the swimming pool
The issue, says Anne, is that once in the pool, they can’t get out. The walls of the pool are too steep, and they can’t get a grip on the tiles at the top, so they just tread water and flounder about until they run out of energy and slowly drown.
It’s a pretty horrible way to go, and the hospital is encouraging local residents to put a small rope dangling in their pools so that the wayward adventurers can pull themselves up. Whether it will take on remains to be seen, but the staff at the hospital are determined to prove that not all human interaction with koalas has to be bad.

No Government funding
Set up in 1973 and run almost entirely by good-natured people donating their time, the hospital receives no Government funding. The $140,000 a year it takes to keep operations going comes entirely from donations, be it from visitors, generous benefactors or its adopt-a-koala scheme. Over 100 people volunteer their services in various roles, be it in conducting tours, running the shop or going out at dawn every morning to collect fallen branches from the bush to feed the koalas with.

Hand-reared like a newborn child
The most dedicated of all are those who take the youngest and most needy home with them. They are hand-reared as if a newborn child – including feeding sessions in the middle of the night – until they are of sufficient weight and health to be transferred to the hospital. It’s quite clear that these people care an awful lot about their eucalyptus-munching friends, and this shines through as you’re led through the pens in which the recovering koalas are housed.

Getting to Port Macquarie

Nearest International Airport: Port Macquarie has an airport, but international visitors will have to get a connecting flight from either Brisbane or Sydney

Using public transport: Port Macquarie is 510km south of Brisbane, approximately a seven hour drive, and 450km north of Sydney. It is connected to both by train and bus.

More information: The Koala Hospital can be found in the Macquarie Nature Reserve on Lord Street, a 15-20 minute walk from the city centre. It’s open every day, with feeding time tours conducted at 3pm. Entry and the tours are free, although donations are greatly appreciated.

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