Feeling Warm and Fuzzy

Feeling Warm and Fuzzy

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An article in the Sun Herald March 10, 2013
Nina Karnikowski Travel Writer

Nina Karnikowski decides it’s high time to get cuddly with an Aussie favourite.I’ve never touched a koala. As an Australian, I’m almost ashamed to admit it. It seems on par with never having eaten a Vegemite sandwich, never having been sunburnt, or never having played two-up on Anzac Day. It seems, well, downright un-Australian. So when the opportunity to head to Port Macquarie – a renowned koala hotspot on the NSW mid-north coast – recently arose, I jumped at it. Now would be my chance to assert my status as a fair-dinkum Aussie.

My day of ‘‘bear’’ hunting starts early at Port Macquarie’s Koala Hospital. It’s 8am and volunteers are bustling around the open-air enclosures, replacing bunches of eucalyptus leaves, feeding selected patients by hand and cleaning up after the night’s activities. 

 Koala 1

Port Macquarie’s Koala Hospital in action – Barry, a koala who suffers from scoliosis, gets hand-fed at the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital. Photo: Ben Rushton

This hospital, the only one of its kind in the world dedicated solely to the care of wild koalas as well as being the world’s leading koala research centre, attracts up to 300 visitors a day. I immediately understand why, as volunteer Helen Meers starts introducing me to some of the patients. In the flesh, the furry little critters are even cuter than Blinky Bill.

There’s sleepy-eyed Barry, his back bent from scoliosis, snuggled in the crook of a eucalypt branch; Alison in one of the private intensive care rooms, who’s recovering from two minor operations on her chlamydia-infected eyes (about half the koala population has this bacterial disease, which affects the urogenital tract and eyes); and Kaylee in one of the open-air enclosures, who’s had a leg amputated and an eye removed.

As we weave our way through the eucalypt-lined avenues between the enclosures, I’m desperately tempted to reach up and cuddle the furry little guys, but Meers warns me off.

‘‘All the koalas here are wild and we want to return them back into the wild,’’ she says. ‘‘So we don’t handle them unless we have to, because we don’t want them to become reliant on human help.’’ Before they’re returned to the bush, the koalas are tagged and micro chipped, so there’s a growing body of research that will become crucial to managing their survival.

About 300 koalas a year are treated here, Meers says, but thousands more benefit from the information gathered by the hospital and its research partners.

We make our way to the treatment room viewing window, where visitors can watch minor surgeries and ultrasounds taking place. Inside, hospital supervisor Cheyne Flanagan is doing an ultrasound on an older female koala named Karly, who was admitted by the hospital’s 24-hour rescue service overnight.

She also has chlamydia.

‘‘One of the main reasons urban koalas are in trouble is because koalas and people like the same real estate,’’ Flanagan says as she gently probes the koala’s belly. ‘‘And when humans come in and remove all the trees for their housing developments, immense pressure is put on the koalas and then diseases become expressed, or they get hit by cars or killed by dogs.’’ Flanagan’s passion for the furry faced eucalyptus-loving creatures is clear. ‘‘This just started out as a job, but along the way I fell in love with the chilled-out little dudes.’’

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