PORT STEPHENS, AUSTRALIA – It wasn't by any means an animal Amber (Hynes) Lilly expected to be working with.
But the Nova Scotia Agricultural College grad finds herself doing what she can for these intriguing creatures in the land down under.
Koalas have found a special place in her heart.
Lilly, who grew up in Truro and has a masters degree in animal science, now lives in Australia. She's recently been kept very busy caring for the koalas injured in raging bushfires.
“Koalas are already listed as a threatened species and are on their way to becoming endangered,” she said. “The situation is very bad at the moment as there have been a large number of bushfires early in the season that have destroyed key habitat known to be home to established koala breeding colonies.”
After graduating with her masters of science in 2005, Lilly moved to the United Kingdom with her husband, an Australian. Last year, they and their three sons moved to One Mile Beach, New South Wales, where they have wild koalas in their backyard.
She discovered Port Stephens Koalas, a local non-profit organization, and signed up for training in koala rescue and care.
“We not only care for bushfire victims but also treat ill and injured wild koalas that have been hit by cars, attacked by dogs, or are experiencing symptoms of diseases, such as chlamydia,” she said
“While they may look cute and cuddly, the koalas we work with are wild animals and behave as such. They have a strong bite and very long sharp claws.
“When they are very ill or injured they will often let us treat them without putting up too much of a fight.”
Because the goal is to return the animals to the wild, efforts are made to keep them from becoming too tame. But sometimes the problem is where to release them.
“If the rescued bushfire victims are successfully rehabilitated they cannot be released back into their home territory if it has been destroyed,” said Lilly. “As koalas are territorial and live in societies they cannot simply be released into just any eucalypt forest.”
Loss of habitat is resulting in a decrease in the numbers of wild koalas. Because they’re spending more time on the ground, they’re more susceptible to being hit by vehicles, attacked by dogs and developing disease due to stress.
“When members of the public see an ill or injured koala they will call our rescue line and we send out a rescue team,” said Lilly. “Rescuing a koala is often a challenge because even a koala with a broken leg has the instinct to climb high up a tree.”
Rescued animals are assessed and given care until they’re ready for release.
Lilly is still helping care for Eila, who was a bushfire rescue from last year.
“She suffered severe burns to her nose, ears, hands and feet,” she said. “Shortly after her arrival into care she gave birth to a joey who she then carried in her pouch for six months; she sustained this joey all through her intensive care and very painful recovery. While Eila's claws have not yet fully recovered from the fires, her little joey, named Patu, is now a back-baby who will hopefully be released into the wild after the threat of this year's bushfires has passed.”
Before she moved to Australia, Lilly hadn't worked with koalas on any level. Now she's a fan.
"They are a very unique animal and an Australian icon. They definitely have a special place in my heart now, especially knowing the threat they face as a species.”
Anyone interested in helping out through a donation, or by “adopting” a koala, can do so at the Port Stephens Koalas website. The rescue group is currently building the Port Stephens Koala Hospital and Sanctuary, which will open April 2020, where visitors will be able to see some of the non-releasable wild koalas and learn more about their plight.