Raising Rescued Wildlife
Raising any young marsupial is not a job for the faint-hearted. All baby marsupials are very demanding of time and patience. Every time you feed them (and it could be every three hours for quite some time – and that's through the night as well), you then need to encourage them to urinate and/or defecate by a gentle massage. So, at 9pm, 12 midnight, 3am, 6am, etc, you're spending time feeding then massaging their genital area. If that's not dedication, I don't know what is!
Even adult koalas can be more difficult than other marsupials as their dietary needs are so specific. Once they're eating foliage, you need to find eucalyptus leaves. And not just any old eucalyptus, thank you. Koalas only eat leaves from certain species and they will starve to death rather than eat leaves they don't like. So, if there's an option, give serious consideration to taking a young orphan koala to a wildlife rehabilitation centre. Rescue it by all means but then try to get it to an expert – for both your sakes.
Wild koalas do not like being handled. They are quite capable of inflicting nasty wounds by biting and scratching. To lift a wild koala safely, approach from behind and grasp its upper arms so you are out of reach of teeth and claws. Carry it facing away from you. Smaller animals can be carried by grasping the fur on the back of the neck and supporting its rump with the other hand.
To remove a koala from a tree, enlist the help of at least one other person. One person holds a blanket or bag to wrap the animal in while the other uses a long pole of some sort to touch the koala on the head and encourage it to come down the tree. A fishing rod or extension pole works well especially with a rag or crackly plastic bag tied to the end. Once it starts to descend, try to keep it moving down. When it is within reach, at about shoulder level, wrap the bag round the animal and move it backwards into the bag. You may be able to place the bag over the head, then down over the rump and lastly up over the paws, unhooking them as you go.
A koala will travel safely in a car in a hessian bag. For a longer trip, a large, darkened box is a better alternative. If you give the koala a piece of strong branch to cling to, he will feel more secure and will stress less. A sick koala can be kept indoors with a thick, forked limb to sit in. If he is too sick to climb, a plastic laundry basket or padded box makes a good nest. Roll up a towel or small blanket and either give it to the animal or place it at one end of the container. Again, he may cling to it and feel slightly less ill-at-ease.
Aviaries are good for short-term periods. Again, provide upright, forked tree trunks, preferably of varying thicknesses, so he has somewhere to call 'home'. Wild koalas should be handled as little as possible. Stress can be as big a danger as many injuries.
Younger joeys may need two strong branches and a crossbar as a perch and to encourage climbing. By one year of age, the koala will need an outdoor enclosure with a variety of things to climb on.
Small joeys under 6 or 7 months can be given a soft toy to cling to. If you need to move it, take the toy and all and you should be able to avoid some scratches. Young joeys, when first taken into care, should not be fed until their body temperature is normal. Joeys which haven't developed fur should be kept at 32 to 35oC. Hot water bottles are best used only as a last resort as they start off too hot and lose heat quickly. A heat pad is better. For a furred joey, place the heat pad in the corner of the basket so the joey can move towards or away from the heat. Another option is to place a 25 watt lamp underneath a hotbox.
A young koala needs an artificial pouch. Use natural fibres if possible. Sewing up the neck and sleeves of an old sweater is one option. It can then be placed in a basket or suitably sized backpack, adding additional rugs if needed. Make liners by sewing up two sides of a hand towel. Make a few and change the liner EVERY time it becomes the least bit wet or dirty.
By eight or nine months of age, a baby koala should weigh about one kilo and will probably need heating only at night. By eleven months he should be able to maintain his body temperature without outside assistance.
At 13 weeks of age, baby koalas weigh about 50 grams and have a head length of 50mm. At 5 ½ months the eyes open and he will begin to pop his head out of the pouch. A fortnight later he will be fully furred and cutting his first teeth. At one year old, the joey should weigh 2kg or more.
A baby koala needs 10 to 20% of his bodyweight in milk over a 24 hour period. Feed every three hours until he is feeding well and a routine is established. Regular routines are important for baby marsupials. If he isn't feeding well, try feeding a little more frequently. Sometimes covering the eyes of the joey will lessen his stress and he may feed more easily.
In the wild, the mother produces a different type of faeces when the baby is about six months old and ready to start eating foliage. These soft faeces (pap) are consumed by the joey; the reason (apparently) is that pap provides the joey with the bacteria it needs to digest eucalyptus leaves.
If a new arrival is already eating leaves it has probably consumed sufficient pap for its needs. Otherwise you need to try to obtain pap from a female with a joey of a similar age. As a last resort mix fresh koala faeces into the slurry and offer it to the joey for about a month. You can mix the slurry with milk if you are feeding him from a bottle. The koala should be eating leaves by now and should start to wean itself from its milk feeds.
You may need to feed the joey his leaves by hand until he learns to search out his own. Use fresh, light green tips and offer at lest three different species each day. Foliage should not be collected from places where contamination could occur from exhaust fumes or sprays. Place the ends of the branches in water and once they dry out, throw them out. you will know if your koala is healthy by the number of pellets he excretes. A healthy koala should excrete 100 to 150 pellets per day. (Do you still want to keep a koala?)
Suitable commercial milk preparations include Wombarra, Biocal and Portagen. Marsupials are lactose intolerant so don't offer cows' milk. If you have trouble sourcing a commercial product, a mix of 1 part evaporated milk, 2 parts boiled water and 10% glucose can be given for a short time.
Hygiene is important with young marsupials as their immune system is very under-developed. Wash your hands before and after handling the animal. Use boiled water for his formula, sterilise feeding bottles and bowls, keep the joey clean and wipe off milk spills and excrement. Don't reheat milk and discard unused milk. After every feeding, gently massage the genital area to encourage urination and defecation. Apply Surfoplane to your joey if he hasn't yet grown fur.
Finally, check the legality of keeping a native animal in your state – and hone up on eucalyptus species!