When Hayley Shute first set eyes on Albert the koala joey, she wasn’t sure he would make it. “He was tiny,” says the Life Sciences Manager and resident ‘koala whisperer’ at the Australian Reptile Park on the NSW Central Coast. “I looked at him when he came out of the pouch and thought, ‘this isn’t going to be a happy ending’. He was five months old and 190 grams. The smallest koala I’d ever successfully hand raised was 290 grams. At that size, they’re so dependent on their mum. But I wasn’t going to not try. He looked up at me and I went, ‘Oh God, I’m already in love with him.’ So I took on the task.”
The task would be to separate the little joey from his mother, and to bottle feed and care for him for six months. It had come to this because Albert’s mother, Elsa, had not been thriving.
“Generally, they put weight on when they have a joey,” says Hayley, “but Elsa started to lose weight. We were watching and monitoring. You don’t want to take the joey if you don’t have to but also, if she’s losing weight, you don’t know whether she’s going to stop producing milk and the joey could die in the pouch, or she could throw him out of the pouch, which marsupials do if they’re fighting off a sickness and trying to save themselves.”
In the wild, a joey wouldn’t survive being “thrown”, but here at the Reptile Park, young Albert was scooped up and cared for, giving Elsa a chance to recover from what turned out to be a nasty bout of mastitis, and Albert the opportunity to gain weight and join a very welcoming family of humans, including Hayley’s three children, aged 15, 13 and eight. This is the fifteenth joey Hayley has hand-raised, so her human family is used to having a furry friend in the house. If there’s not a koala in the lounge room, there might be a possum, a Tassie devil, a quoll or a kangaroo.
Albert, however, required an extra level of care.
“It’s been a massive commitment,” Hayley admits. “He had only just furred. He cried if he wasn’t in a pouch up my jumper. Usually, he’d have been with his mum, feeling her moving around, hearing her heartbeat, having a drink whenever he wanted. So the only time he stopped crying was when he was in my jumper or shirt. Even at night, he wanted to be with me. Generally, you can put them into the heat box at night, but he just cried and cried. So I had to lie on my back and sleep with him up my shirt. He slept in there for the first month.”
Now, he’s seven months old and he sleeps with his toy koala. “He’s doing so well,” Hayley adds, “and Elsa is doing well too.”
Hayley and Elsa also have a special bond. Hayley hand raised Elsa when her mum, Irine, failed to lactate. “She was tiny too,” Hayley remembers. “I think she was about 290 grams when I got her, and she was such a character. She used to lie on my lounge like a cat. She’s the queen of the koalas now – boss lady koala.”
Elsa successfully fed and raised her own firstborn, Olaf, last year. So no one was expecting things to go awry with Albert. But Hayley is glad they were ready to step in because, to her, this little “insurance population” of koalas at the Reptile Park is incredibly precious.
“Koalas in the wild are in a lot of trouble,” she explains. “They have diminishing and fragmenting habitat. Then you have disease thrown in there as well. Generally, in a healthy, large population, chlamydia is just a population regulator and it won’t send a population to extinction. But when koalas are stressed and surrounded by urbanisation, their immune system is compromised, and then chlamydia can take over, and it’s just an awful way to die.
“The Black Summer bushfires also wiped out so many koalas. We don’t even know how many were killed, but the koala has become endangered in those parts of NSW that were affected. So they’re in a lot of trouble, which means that every breeding program is important.”
Hayley is also the Conservation Manager at Aussie Ark, which creates wilderness sanctuaries and breeds robust “insurance populations” of threatened species which can be released into the wild.
“We need to have areas that are just for wildlife,” Hayley says. “Australia has the single worst mammal extinction rate in the entire world, which is a pretty bad badge to have. It’s largely because foxes and cats are just wiping them out. When species have protection from predators and other threats, they do really well, and that’s exactly what we do at Aussie Ark. We have sanctuaries, and we have a species recovery unit, with breeding enclosures. And from there, if it’s suitable, they will go out into the wild. We had turtles that were rewilded into the Manning River last year. And Bettongs, Poteroos, Palmer Wallabies and Brushtail Rock Wallabies have all gone out into our wild sanctuary, and they’re just thriving.”
There are koalas in Aussie Ark’s wild sanctuary too, and a similar release program could possible for them in coming years.
“Koalas are so unique and so uniquely Australian,” Hayley says affectionately. “A koala looks like a teddy bear, it has a backward-facing pouch, it lives high up in trees and eats toxic leaves. It’s something you couldn’t even dream up. They’re so incredibly unique and beautiful and they’re on a downhill spiral. We need to be voices for them because we want our grandkids and our grandkids’ grandkids to be able to see these animals in the wild, not just in captivity.”
Meanwhile, Albert and his koala whisperer are getting ready for Christmas.
“I’ve just introduced him to a little perch in my loungeroom,” Hayley says. “So he climbs out of his basket, runs up and eats leaves, and then he gets scared and runs back to his koala toy. He will be on the tree in my lounge room on Christmas Day. He will be involved in the festivities. He will probably get some beautiful fresh leaves from Santa. He’ll be with lots of kids – mine and my niece and nephew – who absolutely adore him, so he’ll feel very loved.”
Then, not long after, Albert will transition back to the koala enclosure, and for the time being, Hayley’s work as a koala mum will be done.
“Hard as it is to leave them there,” she says, “it’s really nice to see them sitting in a tree and acting like a koala. You get that warm, fuzzy feeling that you’ve enabled that to happen. And he’ll do well there, I know. He’s a little legend.”