Meet Cheyne Flanagan, supervisor at the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital. Cheyne is a tireless worker, dedicated to the care and preservation of koalas and their natural habitat.
What is your position with the Koala Hospital, and how long have you been involved in this capacity?
I hold the position of hospital supervisor, and I have been doing it for 10½ years (we also have a team of six relief assistant supervisors).
The hospital supervisor is one of two paid positions, the other being the leaf collector, who collects / harvests fresh leaf every day for the koalas. We have five leaf collectors, who share the job. I have been working / dealing with wildlife on and off since 1973 and come from a herpetological background.
Day to day, what does your job involve?
The hospital supervisor is responsible for the care and treatment of all the admitted koala patients and oversees the volunteer team, who work in the yards. The job also entails assessing the koalas when they arrive, to determine what treatment they will require.
All of this is done under a set of protocols put together in conjunction with Dr Christopher Livinston, who owns the Port Macquarie Veterinary Hospital in Gordon Street, Port Macquarie. Chris does a lot of our surgery and procedures we cannot handle here at the hospital.
My job involves doing ultrasounds of the koalas (under anaesthetic, as they won’t lie still!), blood tests, swabbing to test for Chlamydiosis, taking samples, and collecting samples for the University of Sydney, among many other things. I also do some of the post mortem work to ascertain the cause of death of the koala.
I conduct training workshops throughout NSW and Victoria on wild koala rehabilitation work, teaching koala carers about the methods involved in assessing and treating all the reasons why koalas come into care. I also teach koala management in the Captive Animal Management – Zookeeping course, NSW TAFE. I deal / liaise with wildlife researchers, veterinarians, wildlife carers in all aspects of wild koala rehabilitation.
I work with government bodies in regard to legislation concerning koala habitat matters and write submissions on koala habitat issues. I work alongside the University of Sydney’s Veterinary Pathology Department in researching the various diseases that affect wild koalas.
A group called K.I.D.R.G. (Koala Infectious Diseases Research Group) was formed in 2005 by the University of Sydney in partnership with the Koala Hospital, Pfizer, Bayer, WIRES, Australian Koala Foundation, Symbion Pathology and the Australian Research Council to investigate and study these diseases.
The group managed to score one of the biggest grants in Australian research – 1.2 million dollars – to fund a number of PhD students to work on Chlamydiosis and Cryptococcucus (a fungal disease) that affect koalas. So far two PhD students have finished their work on the efficacy of drug administration in koalas, and currently three more students are working on the genetics of diseases and other more complicated things that are beyond discussion here!
We also have recently completed working in conjunction with RTA, NPWS and Dr Stephen Phillips (koala researcher extraordinaire) radio tracking nine koalas for six months, which was really interesting.
What’s the history of the Koala Hospital – how did it all start?
The Koala Hospital was begun in 1973 by a dedicated couple, Max and Jean Starr, who saw many wild koalas sick and injured throughout the growing township of Port Macquarie. They began caring for koalas in their home without anyone to turn to for information on what was the correct thing to do. They were indeed pioneers in the world of wildlife care and paved the way for the rest of us.
In 1986 it grew to the point that a building was established here at the Macquarie Nature Reserve to house the growing amount of koala patients; this was done with the assistance and hard work of a number of service organisations in town such as Apex, Lions club and Rotary.
In 1990 John Williamson, the Country singer, wrote a song called Goodbye Blinky Bill for the Koala Hospital (if you listen to the song, it mentions “a little hospital”). The royalties from the song built the intensive care ward.
In 2005, after a wonderful German lady bequeathed some funds to the hospital, we were able to rebuild the hospital into what we have today. Currently the hospital has an eight-unit intensive care ward, 6 outside intensive care wards, and 33 rehabilitation yards. We can handle 100 at the maximum – which would test us, but we could do it. Hopefully, we will never have that happen.
The hospital has a shop and big treatment room / clinic, common room and office, plus a big maintenance shed and education facility. The treatment room has a large viewing window designed so that adults can see into the room and observe whatever is going on. We felt that if the window was lower, children could easily see in and may see something they would find distressing. The parents can then lift their children up and watch if they feel it’s OK.
We tend to do pretty well everything in front of the public (even euthanasia), as we feel it’s all education on what actually is happening to our wild koalas. It’s not unusual for the public to watch us treating a severely injured dog attack or a koala hit by a car, and it can be quite confronting for them – but it certainly gets the message across. Our view is that if they cannot handle it, they can choose to walk away – which a lot do. Some stay at the window crying, but stay and watch it all.
Sometimes the visitors at the window can be really funny too. We were taking samples from a male koala’s genitals one day (the koala was anaesthetised) and a man looking in the viewing window suddenly got out his hankie and put it up to his eyes and pretended to cry in sympathy for the koala. It was so hilarious that we totally lost it, and he made the big crowd outside also fall apart laughing.
How many koalas does the hospital treat on a yearly basis?
Depending on the weather conditions, we can treat anywhere from 200 -300 koalas per year. In a bushfire season, we could hit the 300 mark. We all hope we don’t have bushfires, as they are absolutely dreadful and traumatic.
What are the most common injuries and / or diseases koalas at the hospital suffer?
The most common cause for admission would be the bacterial disease Chlamydiosis, which affects their urogenital tract and their eyes. This disease can render them not only infertile, but can cause horrific side effects such as renal disease, body wasting and maggot infestation. The eye form can causes blindness.
Second on the list would be being hit by cars, followed by dog attacks. Other causes are young animals who have no habitat and are found running up roads, or in dangerous locations. The more habitat we pull out, the more animals become displaced, get into trouble and die. We also strike various cancers in koalas, unusual fungal conditions etc.
A lot of diseases occur because the koalas are struggling to find nutrition, are under constant pressure from being forced to live too close together etc. and it suppresses their immune system and disease manifests. We also strike a number of joeys abandoned through habitat issues, or their mothers are killed by dogs or cars.
There must be plenty of ups and downs involved with your job. Do you have any particular patients who stick in your mind – and why?
Without doubt the best part of the job is releasing patients back to their home ranges – especially ones we have put a lot of work into and even ones we thought were not going to make it. It’s really satisfying seeing them scampering up the tree. It’s even better to come across them a year or so later with joeys or looking a picture of health.
One particular koala was a joey called Links VTR – a very tiny joey, who came here because his mother was hit by a car at the corner of Links Road and Ocean Drive near the Port Macquarie Golf course. This is the biggest motor vehicle trauma hot spot in our entire licensing area (which covers from Herons Creek to Walcha to Macksville). Our record is five healthy young sexually active koalas being hit in this spot in 24 hours – three died. The joey was quite traumatised on arrival, and as I wasn’t happy with his condition, I decided to take him home for the night to monitor him.
At the time I was riding a motor bike (and still do, but have a bigger one now!), so I stuck him down inside my jacket for the trip home and then back into the hospital next morning – he was warm and snug and thought it was simply a very noisy pouch. His name is a result of where he came from and the second part is the model number of the bike I had at the time (all our koalas have their location as the first part of their name, and the second part is usually the person who called the job in, or something to do with their rescue, or whatever).
‘Linksie’ turned out to be one hilarious joey. He ended up being hand reared by one of our star home carers, Barb Barrett. He had a few major setbacks in his treatment, but battled on. When we finally thought he was ready for ‘dehumanising’ and put in the joey yard, where they learn to be koalas, he fell out of the tree in a big storm and injured himself badly.
Back into home care he went – we found that he had suffered a penetrating injury to his nose, which became quite abscessed and took a while to heal. It resulted in a nose with a big dent in it – there is no way anyone could not identify him. He was such a stickybeak and was into everything, and he looked so funny with what we described as his ‘spare nostril’. He was finally released into a safe area with a number of other young koalas, well away from traffic.
Incidentally, he was not the only young koala to have a trip on a motor bike! As the public often drop off injured birds, lizards and possums at the hospital, and because a lot of the staff (including myself) are long term members of FAWNA (the other wildlife group in the area), the bike has also transported snakes, goannas, lizards and possums on the odd occasion too.
We do have a lot of fun at times naming the koalas, and some people become quite inventive. Names such as ‘Nulla Big Ears’ (for obvious reasons), Bangalay Roadrunner, Elizabeth Flats (Elizabeth Street, right outside a block of flats), Ocean Golfer, Livingston Bendigo (the manager of the Bendigo Bank rescued the koala from the road), Marbuk Freckle (he had a big black spot in a prominent place) and so on. When the koala is named after a person, they often are so chuffed or feel so responsible they come regularly to check up on their namesake – which we love to see.
One funny event comes to mind. We were out on a job one day relocating a koala and we got a call for a koala on a roof. As it wasn’t far away, we arrived reasonably quickly. The bloke came out of his house and said, “Struth – you got here so quickly, if I am ever going to have a heart attack I will call your ambulance, ’cause you will get here much faster than a human one!” Lots of laughter all round! Since then, we have had this comment repeated a few times. We must be efficient!
What are some of the biggest dangers a koala faces in the bush today?
The number one danger anywhere is humans. Full stop. Every tree that is pulled out is ‘death by a thousand cuts’ for all species of wildlife. We feel that koalas are the sentinels for all animals / plants, because if koalas are wiped out, then other animals that live with them in the same ecosystem are also likely to suffer. Ninety per cent of all bushfires are caused by humans – it is heartbreaking to have to treat a burnt koala, knowing some idiot started the fire.
The increase in wild dogs in the bush are a huge threat to koalas – every dog that is abandoned is a threat to a native animal. Domestic cats are also giving koalas a lot of grief and are quite capable of hunting and killing a young koala. All as a result of humans – the ultimate predator.
How important are volunteers in terms of the day to day running of the hospital?
There are 120 volunteers who work at the hospital, and without them the hospital would not exist. They play so many vital roles in so many fields; they are worth gold.
I personally am so proud of everyone here at the hospital; they are devoted and so caring to the koalas – and all wildlife for that matter. All the hospital staff are like one big family – we have our differences, but we all are close and very fond of each other.
What can members of the public do to help the Koala Hospital?
The main thing the public can do is to recognise that every tree has a vital role to play, even in urban areas. Each tree supports many species of animals, plants and birdlife. New developments should plan for the trees around them, rather than continually removing them to suit the home owner.
People should also accept that eucalypts will shed bark and branches and learn to live with this. Planting of eucalypts should go on all the time. It’s also all very well to say, “When we take down trees, we will replant new ones.” What do the koalas do for the next 10-15 years, before these trees are of use to them? Preservation of habitat is critical to the survival of the wild koala and all those other critters that share the same home.
Yes, donations are also vital to keep the work going. Without funds we cannot do the work that we do, as we do not receive any government funding at all. No wildlife rehabilitation group in NSW or Victoria receive any government funding.
Reporting injured, sick, orphaned koalas or ones that may look in trouble is critical and must be done immediately. Just like ambulance officers say, “Report any pain, ’cause you can’t die of embarrassment”, we say that we are happy to check out any worry, even if it is via the phone, to make sure the animal is OK. What may seem a silly report to the caller may in fact be a genuine problem to us.
Adopt a wild koala programme is a brilliant means to obtain vital funds, but it also has a great role in educating people about the issues koalas face, as every ‘adoptable’ koala has a story to tell. It gives people a sense of responsibility and ownership for the survival of koalas – it’s also a great environmentally friendly present, especially for those who receive all that crap that they shove in a cupboard and never use.
Are visitors encouraged at the hospital, and if so, what are the best days / times to visit?
Yes, most definitely. We are open seven days a week, 365 days a year from 7.30am to 4.30pm. The public cannot actually go inside the hospital itself (but can see in the viewing window of the treatment room, as explained before) but can wander round the outside of the yards and see what is happening. There is also a display area and the shop. There are usually one or two of the staff floating around all day to chat to.
If visitors come from 7.30am to around 9.30am, they will see the koalas being fed and yards cleaned out, and they can chat to the staff. There is also a walk and talk guided tour every afternoon – rain, hail, or shine – at 3pm each day. Sometimes we have so many visitors that we have to split the numbers up and have a few guides. Between Christmas and New Year we are inundated with visitors and have had 200 people on a tour.
Thank you Cheyne.
Interview by Jo Atkins.