The bear facts at Port Macquarie
A koala hospital is a thriving visitor attraction on the NSW mid-north coast
BARRY is giving me the eye. It’s a world-weary look from a bloke who’s seen hard times. I can see that even with his humped back and tattered ears he was something of a ladies’ man in his day.
His roaming days are over but he has a good life — shelter, plenty of gum leaves — and is popular with visitors. So popular, in fact, that he has a website so fans can keep in touch.
Barry is enjoying an afternoon nap when I arrive at Port Macquarie Koala Hospital on the NSW mid-north coast. In the treatment room, supervisor Cheyne Flanagan, with stethoscope reassuringly in place, is about to examine a patient with ‘‘wet bottom’’.
About half the koala population has the bacterial disease chlamydiosis, which affects the urogenital tract (hence the wet bottom) and eyes. Infertility and renal disease are just two of the many terrible side-effects. The eye form, which can cause blindness, is curable; wet bottom is not.
Flanagan is a specialist adviser to vets, zoos, wildlife care organisations and government bodies responsible for urban planning. And she’s working closely with drug companies studying koala diseases, including a growing number of cancers. The big goal is a cure for chlamydia; that alone could ultimately be the saviour of our furry friend.
Humans are the koala’s worst enemies and chlamydiosis (passed to the koalas from domestic animals) and urbanisation are the biggest killers. Attacked by dogs, hit by cars, starved and stressed by loss of habitat — not much of a life for Blinky Bill these days.
But there’s good news, too. This hospital is the world’s leading koala research centre. About 300 a year are treated here but thousands more benefit from the knowledge gathered by the hospital and its research partners. Animals are tagged before they’re returned to the bush so there is a growing body of research that will become crucial to managing the survival of these gentle creatures.
But life is hard in the wild. ‘‘Often they return [to the hospital] three or four times,’’ Flanagan tells me. ‘‘The record is 19 returns for one koala.’’
It’s worth remembering koalas were once hunted almost to extinction. In 1919, more than one million were killed with guns, poisons and nooses. The public outcry was probably the first wide-scale environmental issue to stir Australians.
There’s a viewing window into the treatment room, set at adult height so parents can choose the moments to lift up their kids. Flanagan believes it’s important for the public to know about the realities facing koalas. Seeing a starving, frightened joey that’s lost its mother can be confronting but it gets the message across.
In the ‘ ‘ wards’’, patients are carefully protected from public gaze. I am put through a security procedure before I can see them. The animals are triaged as soon as they arrive. If an operation is needed, Port Macquarie vet Chris Livingston does the j ob. The koalas then convalesce back at the hospital.
Flanagan has one of two staff positions (the other paying job is the collector, who gathers fresh gum leaves each day) and there are more than 140 volunteers.
Bob Sharpham ( fundraiser, website manager, IT adviser, odd job man and president of the board) runs a tight ship. Volunteers are rostered to replenish leaves, care for the sick, run the kiosk, maintain cleanliness and manage tourists, school groups, biologists and media.
The hospital hosts 25,000 visitors a year and is the region’s biggest tourist attraction; the daily Walk & Talk tours are always well attended. It relies on donations, and a substantial bequest from a German visitor has paid for a much-needed workshop.
People can see residents such as Barry and koalas on the mend who will soon be returned to the wild. Former media sales executive turned koala carer David Fitzpatrick sums up the enthusiasm of all involved. ‘‘I bounce out of bed to come to work for no wage, and I’m loving it.’’
A recovering resident of Port Macquarie Koala Hospital