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  • Liane Morris

Hospital a Sanctuary for our Precious Koalas


General Manager Georgie Cairns. Image Credit: Di von Essen.

The Port Stephens Koala Hospital is entering an exciting new phase in its development. Having recently been awarded a Federal Government Save Koala Fund – Health Grant of $3 million and a further $2 million from the NSW State Government as part of their Regional Koala Support Program, the hospital is undergoing significant expansion. Just in time for its third birthday!

 

Steering the organisation into the future is newly appointed General Manager Georgie Cairns. Georgie has a science degree with a major in zoology and has also worked as a secondary science teacher. Despite loving her teaching work, she always felt the pull toward wildlife and took up a position at Taronga Zoo, where she coordinated multiple projects, including Project Koala. A family move to Newcastle saw her coordinating volunteers at the RSPCA, and when the opportunity came up at the Koala Hospital, Georgie felt that all her experiences to date had led her to the right role.


“When I saw the job advertisement, I just knew I had to take the leap,” said Georgie.


“My work at Taronga Zoo had prepared me well – particularly my work on Project Koala, which is all about the conservation of koalas. There’s lots to learn. Each day brings a new challenge, but it’s such rewarding and important work.”


Koalas are an endangered species. According to state government research, by 2050, it will be extremely rare to see a koala in the wild. They are facing extinction unless we do something urgently. Since 2010, the Port Stephens Koala & Wildlife Preservation Society has rescued over 700 koalas and released over 400 survivors back into the wild.


“Our koalas are facing many issues that are contributing to their decline,” said Georgie.


“Deforestation, disease, car accidents and dog attacks are the primary culprits.”


According to Dr. Donald Hudson, the Koala Hospital’s Head vet, educating the community to be more aware of the situation and what to do when you come across a koala is a critical part of the solution.


“We need people to be aware of things that impact koalas, all wildlife really,” said Dr. Donald.


“It’s not just disease we’re dealing with. We need to grow the right trees. People need to slow down in some areas, and if you hit something, for goodness’ sake, stop and call our rescue line.


“Koalas are very chilled out and have no natural predator. They’re not stressed by people; in fact, they’re curious. Contrary to what people believe, they are not stupid, nor are they drunk on eucalyptus oil. They can run 35 km per hour and leap several feet in the air.


“Dog attacks are the worst. The koalas look okay on the outside, but the internal injuries are terrible, with deep lacerations, infections and puncturing of organs. If they live, it can take months to treat the injuries and wounds, but possibly, the trauma is even harder to treat. They go through a complete personality change once they’ve been attacked. In contrast, a car accident is easier to treat. Because they are so tough, it’s usually just some fractures they recover from fairly quickly.”


Image Credit: Bonita Holmes-Nu'u.

The passion of local people working to protect and preserve the koala population in the Port Stephens area is what makes all the difference at the Koala Hospital. Veterinary nurse Zoe Bradley has worked with Dr. Donald for 17 years, long before the hospital was developed.


“I moved here 17 years ago and became a koala volunteer,” said Zoe. “I loved it so much that I did my veterinary nurse training and progressed from there. It’s my passion, and it’s a great team that I’m privileged to work with every day.”


The time it takes for a koala to recover is why so many volunteers are required for the program to be successful. The hospital runs 24 hours per day, seven days per week, and there are up to 16 volunteers on site every day. This ‘koala army’ undertake a myriad of tasks, including administering medication, weighing, bringing the koalas up to the clinic for their health checks, servicing the yard, counting koala poo and collecting fresh leaves. Some volunteers do administration and marketing work.


Head Vet Dr. Donald Hudson and nurse Zoe Bradley. Image Credit: Di von Essen.

“I’ve been a volunteer here for three years,” said Bonita Holmes-Nu’u, a photographer when she isn’t volunteering.


“The day starts with a group meeting where we are allocated our tasks and koalas for the day. There’s a lot of training involved when you become a volunteer, but it’s mostly hands-on. I recommend it to anyone who is interested and can respect the fact that they are wild animals. As much as you want to cuddle them, you can’t.”


Keeping the koalas appropriately fed is a huge task assigned to its own plantation team of volunteers. Four days per week, this team goes out to collect leaves from preexisting plantations, harvesting ten per cent of the leaf from the larger trees. To feed one koala for a year takes one thousand trees, and they will only eat trees from their local area. This fact has implications for anyone trying to move koala populations from one location to another. To keep pace with the need for the correct species of trees, the Koala Hospital has put a call out to landowners in the area who have space for tree planting. The plantation team will go out and plant trees on your property so that, in the future, they can harvest the leaves as koala feed.


The funding recently received from the Federal and State Governments is earmarked for the Port Stephens Koala Hospital upgrade and operational expansion, which is to include things such as staff wages, a physical expansion of the hospital and clinic and training so that the clinic can serve all wildlife, not just koalas. The latter is a significant change to the operations of the facility. In addition, there has been a generous donation from the Cockbain Family Wildlife Trust to cover the purchase of a Supria Fuji Film CT Scanner.


“We’re very excited to be able to offer the same level of care that we offer koalas to all wildlife,” said Georgie.


“Our hospital is probably one of the most modern and equipped facilities of its kind for the treatment of native wildlife in Australia, and it seems crazy when there are so many animals in need, not to take advantage of that.”


The fact remains, however, that even with these generous donations and funding grants, the Koala Hospital will continue to rely on public donations to keep its doors open. The Koala Sanctuary, within whose grounds the Koala Hospital sits, is run separately by the Port Stephens Council and was set up as a tourism site to be self-sustainable. A percentage of what it earns is used to support the hospital.


With the Koala Hospital and the Koala Sanctuary celebrating their third birthday this year, the success of the facilities is undeniable and something for the local community to get behind and celebrate.


HOW YOU CAN HELP:

• Adopt a koala. These virtual adoptions are available online. You’ll receive an adoption certificate and photo and regular updates about how your koala is going.

• Donate. All donations are tax-deductible.

• Volunteer. Apply online to become a volunteer.

• Plant the right trees. If you’re a local landowner with space to plant some trees, contact the Koala Hospital and the plantation team will assess the situation to see if your land is suitable for growing koala feed. The trees will be provided free and planted for you.

• Do the right thing. Remember to slow down in areas where wildlife may be present. Keep your dogs inside at night. Always stop your car if you hit something and call the Koala Hospital rescue line on 1800 775 625 for free help with injured native wildlife.

• Go Shopping. There is an online shop full of fun koala-related gift ideas. Visit www.portstephenskoalas.com.au.


The KOALA HOSPITAL RESCUE LINE is 1800 775 625 for free treatment of injured native wildlife.


3RD BIRTHDAY CELEBRATIONS - MONDAY 25 SEPTEMBER

For a great day out, birthday celebrations include free gifts for every child, scheduled guided tours hosted by Sanctuary Ambassadors, cutting of the Official Birthday Cake, and Koala Talks by Port Stephens Koala Hospital. Check out our socials for more Birthday celebration information.

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