Day 6

'We've got dehydrated animals everywhere': How Australia's Koala Hospital is racing to save animals from fires

Australia is facing its worst wildfires ever and koalas are being hit hard. Cheyne Flanagan, clinical director of the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital in New South Wales, says her team is digging in to save as many as they can.

Clinical director Cheyne Flanagan says her team is digging in to save as many koalas as they can

Rebecca Turner, left, Sheila Bailey and Cheyne Flanagan treat a koala named Sharni from Crowdy Bay National Park for burns at the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital in Australia on Nov. 29, 2019. Flanagan says koala bears are coming to the hospital traumatized and dehydrated as a result of the worst wildfire season in Australia's history. (Nathan Edwards/Getty Images)
Listen6:50

A recent viral video of a koala bear taking water from cyclists in Adelaide, Australia — in 40 C heat — is just one example of the desperate measures taken by animals to survive the worst wildfire season the country has ever seen.

Thousands of homes have been destroyed, thousands of people have fled the affected areas, and at least 23 people have been killed in the blazes, The Associated Press reported on Friday.

And conditions are only expected to worsen.

Cheyne Flanagan, clinical director of the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital in Australia, is on the front lines of the effort to rescue and save koala bears from the devastating fires.

She spoke to Day 6 host Brent Bambury about the conditions leading to koalas' injuries, dehydration and — in some cases — death.

Here is part of their conversation.

I can't stop looking at that video of that koala in Adelaide so desperately needing water and meeting those cyclists on the road. How unusual is it for a koala to approach people in that way?

Under the current conditions that are happening, it's not unusual at all.

They get most of their moisture from the eucalypt leaves they eat. And because we're in such severe drought, the eucalypts don't have the moisture and therefore the koalas have to come to ground to try to find something to drink.

All the the rivers are drying up, the dams are drying up. So they can smell water — so that's why they're chasing people for water. We've got dehydrated animals everywhere.

Watch as cyclists feed water to a dehydrated koala bear in Australia.

I read online that your facility usually treats 200 to 250 koalas a year. But since the wildfires have started ... how has that changed for you?

We've gone well over the 300 [mark] already. We've got 74 koalas here at the moment. We're getting close to 50 of them — bush fire koalas — and we're going to be receiving some more soon.

And we're just one of many places. I hate to think what's going on down the south coast of New South Wales and into Victoria — how many thousands and thousands of animals have died in those fires.

We just can't even go there at the moment, it's just horrible.

It is unthinkable. But the animals that you're trying to save, can you describe the condition that some of them are in when they arrive at Macquarie?

When they come to us, they're really quiet. They're so traumatized from the fires and they're just so flat. You know what it's like when you're really thirsty, you just sort of, you slow down. It's like your battery runs out.

And unless we get some fluids into them — because that's the first thing we need to do — they die.

It's just heartbreaking. It's horrible.

Is there one rescue that stayed with you, that gave you gave you a feeling of hope?

Quite a few really. There's quite a few animals here that we thought probably wouldn't have made the grade and they're doing really well. We've got one ... at the moment that has actually moved outside, he's done so well.

We have lost quite a few. And we've had to put a few to sleep. I'm sure you would have all seen the footage of Lewis, the koala that walked right into the fire ground himself and then that lady went in and took her shirt off and captured him.

He was pretty bad when he came.

We gave him a go, but it was not good to keep going with him, that's why we put him to sleep.

Watch Lewis the koala bear's rescue.

These stories, they're heartbreaking to watch, but you had a GoFundMe campaign. You were trying to raise $25,000. How much money did you raise?

Over $2 million. And it's already being used. We've built I think about 30 wildlife watering stations already. And they're being deployed around the state of New South Wales. We're getting inquiries from other places in Australia.

So we're trying very hard to meet the needs.

They're giving water to everything from a goanna to an echidna, right through to a bird. And of course koalas.

Summer has just begun though. I mean, we're hearing that this weekend could be even worse than it's been going forward. How different do the fires feel for you this year?

They are just apocalyptic. We've been through many fires and we've treated hundreds and hundreds of burned koalas, but we've never ever experienced what's going on now. No one has in this country. It's just beyond belief.

It's like a war, isn't it?

Well the fires seem to have their own ecosystem and they're deadly and advancing and unpredictable. And obviously people are taking shelter and animals don't have the same options that people have. There's estimates that hundreds of millions of animals have been killed. Is there any way to verify those numbers?

No. Not at this point in time. Once this sort of dies down we're all going to have to do a lot of mapping and work out exactly where animals are. And then ... a lot of survey work will be done.

But the estimate's probably true. I think we have really knocked around Australian wildlife — we really have.

The Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison is being criticized and publicly shamed right now. Do you sense that among Australians experiencing this crisis, that there could be a change in demands for policy or action on the environment or on climate?

Look, something's got to change. I mean, this is not a normal thing that happens. This is not just one of those weather patterns. This is incredibly abnormal.

Once this dies down and everything settles we're all going to have to come to a very big roundtable and sit down and talk about it. 

They're going to have to face it. There's too many angry people in this country.


Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. Click 'Listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.

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