Saving Our Wildlife
In Australia, we are fortunate to have urban wildlife living in close proximity to us. Suburban encroachment, however, has a great impact on our ecosystem and unintended consequences on wildlife.
A tawny frogmouth sees some delicious insects lit up by car headlights. He swoops to catch a large moth and is hit by a four wheel drive on a busy road.
A blue tongue lizard ventures out across the lawn to sit on a sunny rock and is attacked by a pet cat.
A rainbow lorikeet flies into the reflection of a fruit tree in a large window, falling to the ground stunned.
A small forest of trees is logged to make way for housing development projects. Sugar glider joeys and baby birds sleeping peacefully in their nests are killed as the trees fall.
Wildlife is injured due to urbanisation all around us on a daily basis. Only the lucky few are rescued and able to recover.
Koalas in Suburbs
With its cuddly, calm and bear-like appearance, the koala is Australia’s most loved nocturnal marsupial. They share their habitat with many other native species and are an important component of Australia’s biodiversity.
Despite the considerable public attention and their significant contribution to the tourism industry, koalas are seriously threatened by extensive deforestation, road accidents, dog attacks, diseases and climate change, such as drought and bushfire.
Although koalas are well known for spending most of their lives asleep in eucalyptus trees to conserve energy due to their nutrient-poor diet, they descend to the ground to change trees or to find a drink on hot days. During breeding seasons, males can travel a great distance in search of new territory and mates. Most of the time koalas walk slowly by moving diagonally opposite limbs in unison, but they can also run with a bounding gait much like a rabbit. It is at these times that they are particularly at risk of harm.
Currumbin Wildlife Hospital
In April 2016, two koalas (a young mother and her first baby) were admitted to the Currumbin Wildlife Hospital, requiring intensive care due to a dog attack. They were chased and attacked by four ferocious pet dogs. The little one luckily escaped through a gap under the fence with minor injury but she watched her mother desperately attempting to fight off the dogs. The mother survived with lacerations over much of her body including her head and face, suffering post traumatic stress (more on the story and photos).
This is one of the countless cases seen at the Currumbin Wildlife Hospital. Located on the east coast of Australia, it is one of world’s busiest wildlife hospitals, admitting over 9,000 animals a year. Over 40% of their patients are koalas.
We spoke to the diligent staff at the Currumbin Wildlife Hospital. In their well-equipped yet modest facility, the wildlife vets, vet nurses, volunteers and management/administration staff work around the clock to support and care for injured, sick and orphaned animals of a great variety of species – koalas, snakes, lizards, turtles, platypus, possums, gliders, bats, echidnas, and a wide range of birds including water birds and birds of prey. The list goes on.
Depending on the species, age, and condition, they require different veterinary care (tests, procedures, medication, monitoring), food, supplements (to meet their dietary requirements as they would receive in the wild), rehabilitation support and housing.
The enclosures in the hospital are built to satisfy a number of standards in terms of security, ventilation, temperature and design to be adequate for the period of care. For example, the critical ward has a temperature controlled enclosure for intensive care patients.
Perching birds require branches and terrestrial birds need to have ground cover and shrubs to feel safe. Wire mesh on the enclosure must be suitable for the species housed so they don’t get further injured by having their heads or wings caught. Turtles are ideally housed in an outdoor pond or a temporary tub with rocks or platforms that are as similar as possible to their natural environment. Hollow logs and nesting boxes are provided for arboreal species that hide during the day. Predatory birds require a large enough training aviary where they can fly some distance and build up their fitness to survive in the wild after being released.
In the hospital, different procedures are carried out for species with unique needs. What we found the most incredible is a procedure called Imping or Feather Grafting. When a bird sustains damage to its primary wing feathers, its flight capabilities are diminished. Waiting for natural replacement through moulting would prolong their captivity (it could take up to a year), making them too dependent on human care to survive in the wild again after release. They may develop secondary problems, such as stress-related conditions. Their territory would most likely be taken over by other birds. Imping uses good feathers from a donor bird of the same species that did not survive. The damaged feathers of the patient bird with good shafts still in the wing are cut and replaced with new feathers, spliced and glued to the healthy shafts. The result is a strong wing with good primary feathers. The patient is then capable of flight and can be released in a much shorter space of time.
A turtle’s shell is an integral part of its body. When it cracks, it can be devastating. Wired together for stability and healing, a fractured shell can take between six to twelve months to heal. In the meantime, the turtles have a safe haven, regular meals and medical care.
Not all animals can be saved. Post mortem of animals that don’t make it is carried out in order to collect research data for future treatment and prevention planning.
In some cases, critically injured animals that cannot be saved are surgically euthanased. If they are not diseased, they become food to nourish other wildlife patients (for example, a lorikeet that does not survive may feed a large bird of prey). In this way, wildlife have food that is similar to what they have in their own environment and the hospital minimises the need to take resources from elsewhere by purchasing killed animals as food.
Koala Rescue and Collaborating with Others
The work done by the Currumbin Wildlife Hospital is truly amazing and admirable. The immense complexity of it is impossible to be fully described in a short article. Each case is examined and triaged when the animal is initially admitted. The hospital closely collaborates with other wildlife rescue organisations to provide the optimal rehabilitation care.
For example, once a call is received at the Wildlife Hospital about an unwell koala, trained individuals from a rescue organisation are sent out to capture the sick animal who could still be sitting high up in a tree. While he is receiving treatment in the hospital, gum cutters with specialised knowledge to identify food that is appropriate for koalas go out daily to bring back enough food. An adult koala can eat 200 to 500 grams of eucalyptus leaves every day. Fussy with their diet, koalas only eat the immature leaves of a small number of the 900 varieties of eucalyptus species. Many koalas take months to recover. As the backlog of patients grows, those that have long-term rehabilitation needs are transported to the Australia Zoo Wildlife Hospital (about 200 km/124 miles north). Australia Zoo has a much larger facility to accommodate koalas, while the Currumbin Wildlife Hospital is only able to accommodate acute koala cases. The lucky ones that recover are released to an area within 1 km (0.62 miles) of where they were found so they can be introduced back to their familiar habitat.
As many as 70% of both male and female koalas are affected by chlamydia, a painful disease that causes blindness and infertility. Regular antibiotics have deadly side effects that kill koalas’ sensitive gut flora. Only one antibiotic has proved to effective in treating chlamydia in koalas, Chloramphenicol. Because it no longer had any use in human treatments, manufacturing of Chloramphenicol was phased out by the end of 2014. With no supply with which to treat the ever-growing number of their chlamydia stricken koalas, the Australia Zoo Wildlife Hospital searched desperately for six months for a pharmaceutical company to produce the antibiotic to treat their many chlamydia patients. Finally one company agreed to produce several batches a year. Even so, some batches are not useable due to poor quality control.
Wildlife Care and Volunteers
The hospital also works closely with Wildlife Care, a not-for-profit organisation originally formed as the Australian Koala Hospital Association in the early 1990s which now rescues and cares for various native wildlife. They provide excellent training programs and clear rehabilitation process guidelines to volunteers in order for them to set up facilities in their own home to help care for wildlife and share the large workload in wildlife rescue. Volunteer carers start with easy animals such as possums and gliders, and work their way up to more advanced care animals such as wallabies.
Emma Whitlock, Manager at Currumbin Wildlife Hospital, speaks about the volunteer carers with great admiration: “We are only a small part of a large number of people who care for and support wildlife. The carers don’t get paid. They buy everything themselves. They have full time jobs and they give up their houses… There are tree stumps in their living rooms with hanging bats. They are amazing. We will be nothing without them. Without them, we would be full on the first day.”
Educating the Public and Growing the Hospital
On top of the extremely busy schedules, the Currumbin Wildlife Hospital recognises there is only so much a wildlife hospital can do and the importance in educating members of the public. If more people paid attention to wildlife conservation and those who were able to invested even a small amount of time or resources they have, it would go a long way.
In the end, we will conserve only what we love. We will only love what we understand, we will only understand what we are taught.
Unlike wildlife hospitals in other states (e.g. Victoria), the Currumbin Wildlife Hospital does not receive ongoing funding from the state government. Two thirds of the staff at the hospital are unpaid volunteers. “We are very privileged to have a team of great volunteers”, says Emma.
When asked what the hospital would like to achieve in the next five to ten years, Emma tells us that she would love to
- double the facilities for koalas, to better assist the local population, and
- build a doughnut shaped round flight aviary where predatory birds in rehabilitation could train and build up fitness in a shorter space of time. The current aviary in the hospital is of a narrow rectangular shape. Whilst this improves straight flight, it does nothing to build up the muscles and coordination for sharp turns, a necessary skill for catching prey on the wing. Presently, large predatory birds need to be re-trained in lateral movement by staff using a lure.
One of the ways in which the wildlife hospital seeks to raise funds is from the sale of walkway pavers with personalised messages.
Wildlife and You
Not known to most people who live a comfortable suburban lifestyle, a large number of dedicated individuals continue to devote a tremendous amount of their energy and time on rescuing and caring for wildlife. In comparison, not nearly enough attention is given to wildlife habitat conservation. The very reason why such a great number of animals go into care is because of habitat loss.
While our forests and bushland are disappearing at an alarming rate, what chance of survival does an orphaned koala have once she is raised by the carers and released to the wild? There is much all of us can do to care for our wildlife, regenerate damaged habitat and protect our remaining forests.
The fact is that no species has ever had such wholesale control over everything on earth, living or dead, as we now have. That lays upon us, whether we like it or not, an awesome responsibility. In our hands now lies not only our own future, but that of all other living creatures with whom we share the earth.
~ David Attenborough
the drawings. See more at Perspective – View of the World through Illustrations