Christmas caring: our native wildlife is in good hands

By Cathy Finch 21 December 2022
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Caring for injured wildlife is a 365 day a year job, Christmas Day included. Here’s how some very special patients will be spending it.

For 364 days a year, Australia Zoo, located on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, draws visitors through its doors to inspire both young and old to make a difference in the lives of native wildlife. Conservation projects, crocodile research, wildlife warrior work and education and breeding programs go hand-in-hand with cuddling a koala, patting a kangaroo or extending your awareness to find that baby flying-foxes are, actually, very cute and that their role as pollinators of our environment is critical.   

A huge part of the work here also takes place in the Australia Zoo Wildlife Hospital, opened in 2004 by the late Steve Irwin. 

So, what happens to our healthy, sick and recovering wildlife on Christmas Day, the one day of the year when the doors are closed? 

“Of course, we are always open at the wildlife hospital,” says hospital supervisor and veterinarian, Dr Ludovica Valenza, who has worked with the zoo for four years. “We are open 24 hours a day, every day of the year. And if truth be told, many of us may choose to have an animal at home with us on Christmas Day, warming milk for Christmas lunch.”

This injured kangaroo joey is in good hands with veterinarian Dr Ludovica Valenza. Image courtesy Australia Zoo.

Although public entry to the zoo and wildlife hospital is closed on Christmas Day, staff continue to work behind the scenes and do accept emergency patients.

On any other day of the year, for a $2 donation, visitors can enter the ‘Sneak Peek’ area of the hospital to peer, from behind glass viewing walls, into the operating theatre, triage area and nursery. It’s a powerful tool to be able to connect with the work and the wildlife in this way.  During my time here, I view a minor surgical procedure on an injured koala.       

“Everyone is very passionate here,” says Dhwani Chandra, who accompanies me on my visit. “It’s a very different feeling to be part of something that is bigger than just yourself, and all of us here are working for the same goals – to educate more people and save our wildlife.

“We’re currently in the midst of what we call ‘trauma season’. Wildlife is more active during the period of September to February, resulting in more road accidents and injuries, and tripling normal patient admissions during this time.  Over the first six weeks of this season, 146 koalas were brought to us for various causes, such as road accidents, domestic pet attacks, and disease.”

Due to be fed in the ICU is ‘Peter Pan’, a grey-headed flying-fox that came to the hospital as a tiny baby, just a few weeks old. A recent cold snap killed more than 100 flying foxes in Peter’s camp – only 80 survived, many of them brought into the hospital suffering from low blood glucose levels, starvation, and almost frozen to death. 

“Flying foxes are very misunderstood,” says Ludovica. “They are actually super cute, and puppy-like in their behaviours.  What a lot of people don’t understand is that they are critical to our environment. In fact, without them, we wouldn’t have forests or habitats.”

The wildlife hospital began its life in an avocado packing shed on the Australia Zoo property, with approximately 10 staff. The current facility was constructed in 2008 and includes x-ray labs, surgical theatres, a nursery and ICU with 40 staff. Recently, a new koala, echidna and platypus ICU has been added – here, animals suffering from burns can go into a hyperbaric chamber, which speeds up healing and gets them back into the wild sooner.  Since opening, the hospital has treated more than 120,000 animals including 10,000 koalas.             

“There’s never a dull day here” says Ludovica. 

And while the ICU Christmas buffet will largely mirror the daily offering of warm milk and green leaves, we’d be naïve to think that a special treat won’t be thrown in, big fat worms included!       

Christmas Day treats may include an extra helping of worms for this noisy friarbird. Image credit: Cathy Finch

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