Wildlife emergencies peak as ‘trauma season’ intensifies at Australia Zoo
Cosy in its handmade pouch, an orphaned kangaroo joey is brought in for a check-up. (ABC Sunshine Coast: Megan Kinninment)
It is as busy as any hospital emergency room and has its own ambulance bay, but at the Australia Zoo Wildlife Hospital the patients have feathers or fur, and waiting times are never more than 30 minutes.
The custom-built wildlife hospital is one of the busiest in the world, treating an average of 8,000 injured, sick, or orphaned native animals a year.
In summer the emergencies peak as ‘trauma season’ takes its toll.
Trauma season traditionally begins when the weather warms up and more animals are on the move — many of them juveniles — looking for food or a mate.
The animals’ natural habitat comes with its own risks of injury through storms, fires, nest falls, and attacks by predators.
However, those risks soar when humans and habitat destruction enter the mix, with car strikes and pet attacks two major causes of injuries to native wildlife.
On the day the ABC visits the emergency hospital, a wildlife carer is waiting in reception with six orphaned baby wallabies and kangaroos in her charge — all bundled up cosy in handmade fabric pouches.
The orphans have a range of illnesses and injuries, including fractured legs and pelvises and skin conditions.
One joey has an injured tail after it was thrown from its pouch and attacked by crows when its mother was hit by a car.
An injured kangaroo joey being treated after being thrown from its mother’s pouch when she was hit by a car. (ABC Sunshine Coast: Megan Kinninment)
Today it is that joey’s turn for a check-up to see how its tail is healing and to have its bandages and splint changed.
The other joeys have come along too as they are still being bottle-fed and cannot be left on their own while their carer visits the hospital.
Third of admissions via public
As the joeys wait their turn, a couple arrives holding a small cardboard box and the receptionist takes the details of the injured noisy miner bird inside — found on the ground after a thunderstorm the night before.
Hospital director Dr Rosemary Booth said one third of the hospital’s patients were animals rescued by the public.
Another third come from wildlife carers and a third are brought in from the zoo’s dedicated wildlife ambulance, which has two staff driving it to rescue animals across the region.
Corona the boobook owl is prepared for an x-ray for a chest trauma after it flew inside a house. (ABC Sunshine Coast: Megan Kinninment)
In the next room, lights are dimmed and the door is closed as Dr Ludo Valenza opens a box and releases a young boobook owl.
It had been delivered to the hospital from Maryborough on the Fraser Coast after it became trapped inside a house, thrashing itself against windows and walls as it attempted to flee.
Unless the animal is in a critical condition and needs immediate treatment, animals are brought to this triage room, equipped with multiple perches for the birds to land upon and be assessed to see how they walk or fly and what injuries they may have.
As the box lid is opened, the boobook immediately flaps its way up to a perch, but while it has no trouble flying, when taken back into emergency and examined under anaesthetic, a problem with its chest is diagnosed.
The owl is carried to the radiography room where its sharp talons are covered and its wings spread and weighted down for an x-ray.
The x-ray reveals a chest trauma, fortunately bruising only, and four days later, after being given extra fluids and rest, the bird is successfully released back to the wild.
“We’re pretty happy with the outcome for this little bird,” Dr Valenza said.
Eros the koala must have the cast on his arm changed weekly as he recovers from a car strike. (ABC Sunshine Coast: Megan Kinninment)
Eros the koala is not quite as lucky. His stay at hospital will be an extended one.
The two-year-old — a teenager in koala years — was hit by a car and has head trauma and a fractured radius in his arm which is now in a plaster cast that needs to be changed weekly.
He will be in the hospital’s long-term koala care facility for at least six weeks while the fracture heals.
Wide range of injuries
Today the hospital has 45 koalas in care, but it can cater for up to 75 of the animals in long-term care and even has its own eucalypt plantation onsite to keep their patients fed.
Down the hall from the koala room is a state-of-the-art operating room for animals, both large and small.
It has glass walls, allowing zoo visitors to watch procedures if they choose which, along with organised tours inside the hospital, is designed to spread the organisation’s conservation message to the public.
Even the tiniest patients are candidates for surgery, such as baby Gonzo, the fuzzy whistling kite fledgling who fell from his nest and is recovering after surgery two days ago.
Gonzo the whistling kite chick fell out of his nest and needed surgery for a broken leg and wing. (ABC Sunshine Coast: Megan Kinninment)
Weighing only 410 grams and at only 130 days old, the bird had pins inserted into its broken tibiotarsus (shin) and ulna (forearm) and now awaits the next part of his journey — removal of the pins in two weeks’ time.
An x-ray of Gonzo the whistling kite chick after he underwent surgery to place pins in a broken wing and leg bone. (ABC Sunshine Coast: Megan Kinninment)
It will have a lot more care as a wildlife carer hand-feeds him fish while he recovers from his injuries and grows old enough to fend for himself back in the wild.
For now, Gonzo stays in the nursery ward housing the smallest of the patients needing the warmth of a humidicrib.
Next to Gonzo is Piggy the squirrel glider, bandaged up after tearing her delicate gliding membrane on a barbed-wire fence.
It is a common injury for the nocturnal animals, which do not see the danger as they glide from tree to tree.
“We’ve had 800 barbed wire injuries since we started, which is quite shocking,” Dr Booth said.
“There are 80 different species affected by barbed wire, but it’s primarily gliders, flying foxes, tawny frogmouths, and kookaburras most likely to get trapped in barbed wire.”
Wildlife versus development
The correlation between wildlife admissions and increased human development is backed up by data from 80,000 patients since the hospital opened in 2004.
In addition, other wildlife hospitals such as Currumbin on the Gold Coast have admission figures of approximately 11,000 per year.
The RSPCA in Brisbane is also recording a silent crisis unfold as native wildlife habitat is lost to human development.
At the state’s largest wildlife hospital, the RSPCA’s Wacol facility west of Brisbane, hospital admissions have tripled over the past five years, rising from 8,000 to 24,000 per year in a jump attributed to increased development.
Piggy the squirrel glider tore her delicate gliding membrane on a barbed wire fence and must heal before being released. (ABC Sunshine Coast: Megan Kinninment)
Numbers are also increasing at the RSPCA’s Sunshine Coast facility at Eumundi, with admissions rising from 1,700 per year to 2,700 in the past 12 months.
While the mission of a wildlife hospital is to help these animals, often the only way to do that is by sending them to their death, Dr Booth said.
A young orphaned pademelon joey brought in by a wildlife carer to be assessed at Australia Zoo Wildlife Hospital. (ABC Sunshine Coast: Megan Kinninment)
“Ending suffering is a big part of our job,” she said.
“If the animals are assessed as being able to recover and be released back to the wild, they come into care and their issues are treated.
“If they cannot be released back to the wild, then euthanasia is what’s required.
“But it’s a worthwhile thing to do because it’s very important animals are not kept with one limb missing, or unable to see.
“If you are a wild animal knowing what it is to be free and you suddenly find yourself living in a captive situation — it’s stressful, it’s depressing, it’s not good animal welfare.”