The bear facts at Port Mac­quarie

A koala hos­pi­tal is a thriv­ing visi­tor at­trac­tion on the NSW mid-north coast

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - PAULINE WEB­BER

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

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