In December last year WIRES (Wildlife Information Rescue and Education Service) was called to help a small koala found at Waterview Heights with a bad case of conjunctivitis.
Lizzie weighed 3kg, but while quite thin and underweight the size of her head and her sharp little teeth showed her to be still very young, probably not long having left her mother and already running into trouble.
Waterview (a rural residential area west of Grafton) is a known hotspot for koalas where residents look out for them and keep them safe. But koala food trees are limited in the urban setting and a young koala can have difficulty finding unoccupied habitat for itself. Also this was a time of protracted drought, when smatterings of rain were doing nothing to raise the moisture in the leaves koalas' depend on. As the summer temperatures rose, so did the number of koalas coming down from the trees, severely dehydrated, empty-gutted, and most unable to be saved.
Lizzie's vet examination showed her to be free of urogenital chlamydia, which usually means cysts and euthanasia for female koalas. An ultrasound check showed her kidneys to be normal, and blood tests and swab samples proved her only problem to be the ocular chlamydia and corneas severely altered by the infection.
Being young and viable Lizzie was accepted for the costly treatment and started on a 28 day course of injections and eye treatments. Quite early on it looked likely her sight might be saved, but still there was a long battle ahead to save her. A finicky eater from the start she never seemed hungry, her hydration levels were difficult to maintain and on hot days she would stop eating altogether. The majority of harvestable leaves were from trees that had suffered a disastrous fire a few months earlier, so were young epicormic growth, low in protein.
Lizzie was started on koala milk, which predictably she turned her nose up at, but with a small drop of eucalypt oil and a pinch of high protein powder added she took to guzzling it very nicely. Then for a day or two she would start to pick up, before another searing day knocked her down again. In time she started lapping water, which made things easier, but she would never look for it and would drink only if it was put under her nose. When the forecast predicted above 32 degs temperatures she was back in her hospital cage in the cool bathroom.
In more ways than one though this little girl was different to the rest. She became the first koala in our branch to be cared for locally through the full chlamydia treatment to its clearance, and her eventual release.
Previously, with no knowledgeable koala vet in Grafton and the wildlife hospitals an inaccessible distance away in Queensland, our branch practice was to rely heavily on the wonderful staff of the Lismore Friends of Koala group and their almost-specialist koala vet at the Keen Street clinic. When a koala was delivered there, it stayed there, with the vet on tap and a team of volunteers to gather trailer loads of leaves and administer treatments, and long experience to help the koalas safely through their ordeal
This time though, with our environmentalist-trained vet Ray Barnett ready to help, the arrival into the Valley of WIRES' State Koala Coordinator for morale support, and a sudden access to the Sydney University's new Koala Heath Hub for medications, specimen testing and free support to koala carers everywhere, things took on a different slant. With suitable care and pre-release facilities at Shannondale it was decided we could take her through ourselves.
It was never easy. Collecting armloads of beautiful fresh leaves every evening, only to see them thrown out untouched the next evening was upsetting and worrying. But still Lizzie managed to slowly eke back some of the weight she had lost, until final tests cleared her of chlamydia and she was ready for pre-release. Now, with a tree of her own to climb and eat from and a few supplementary leaves from different species to pick at, she stayed comfortably sheltered in the pen until the weather finally cooled and a first good rain shower brought that light at the end of the tunnel. After 3 months in care Lizzie had gained only 1kg in weight, but she was eating better, looked healthy, and it was decided nothing more could be done for her. She was taken out of her pen that evening and left silouetted against the evening sky in the arms of an old swamp mahogany tree.
Whether she is a success or not we most likely will never know. But the very best we can ever do is give them a second chance at life. The rest is up to her. Good luck little Lizzie, you have had quite a journey.
- Pat Edwards, Clarence Valley WIRES Koala Coordinator