Denise Friedman – Koala Lover

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Uralla lady Denise Friedman has spent the last twenty years providing rescue and rehabilitation to injured koalas. She invited the Focus crew into her amazing world for a day, where we witnessed a most selfless and wonderful community member at work.

How long have you lived in the region?

My husband Gavan, our two sons Simon and Nathan and I moved to Uralla in December 1979. Gavan was transferred here from Sydney as a bank manager for the Commercial Banking Co. of Sydney. In 1984 we purchased the Uralla Kentucky Wollun school bus run, which we still operate.

How did you become involved in caring for koalas?

I became a WIRES member (Wildlife Information, Rescue & Education Services) in April 1989, and I have been coordinator of WIRES New England since October 1989. In that time I have cared for almost innumerable kangaroos, wallabies, wallaroo joeys plus parrots, and of course, our beautiful koalas, since October 1990.

Our branch needed a permanent koala carer at that time and as I had the area to build facilities for them, I was more than happy to do it. Koala care is a huge commitment, and it requires regular training.

What major problems affect our koalas?

Koalas in the wild face many threats to their survival, mostly from habitat destruction and other human associated threats like cars, dogs and disease. Dogs and cars kill about 4,000 koalas per year.

Humans compete with koalas for land use throughout much of the koala’s range. Since white settlement, roughly 80% of koala habitat has been destroyed, and of the remaining 20%, almost none is protected. Eucalyptus trees are both homes and food for koalas, and without Gum trees they cannot exist. Stopping trees from being cleared and protecting existing koala habitat is the most effective way to conserve koala populations.

They are territorial animals and are in socially stable breeding groups, where each koala has its own home range. They breed between August and January each year and are nocturnal, so spend most of the day sleeping and are on the move at night looking for their food trees.

Describe a typical day for you.

My day begins at 3.30am each day, feeding whatever babies I have in the house at the time, before getting ready to be outside at daylight to feed the koalas in the gunyahs. They get 3 or 4 types of fresh branches each day. Then the pens are all cleaned out on a daily basis.

Usually twice a week, my husband and I go out to cut and harvest leaves – sometimes it takes several hours depending on how far we have to go. The branches are kept in buckets of water in the shade and hosed frequently to keep them as fresh as possible. Red Gum is their absolute favourite, so they get that daily, and I vary the other 2 or 3 leaf selections. Approximately every 3 months, we have to get new tree ‘forks’ for them to sit in, because they wear the bark off by climbing and urinating on them.

It’s obvious that you bond with your patients. Do you have a favourite?

My favourites would have to be koala joeys. I get so much enjoyment and fulfilment from caring for them. A particular favourite many years ago had been hit by a car between Guyra and Inverell and his lower jaw was broken.

Our wonderful vet in Uralla stitched up the jaw, which meant he couldn’t eat leaves for 5 – 6 weeks; so I had to blend his leaves and feed him through a syringe. I added electrolytes, vitamins and other additives, plus his milk formula. This kept him alive all that time, and the day he ate his first leaf was the most wonderful feeling (for me!).

What medical / nutritional care do you give?

If a koala is brought in with severe injuries after a car accident, dog attack or disease like severe conjunctivitis, then they are sent to the Koala Hospital at Port Macquarie for treatment. We generally meet the Koala Hospital Ambulance half way to Port Macquarie or at Walcha. Once the koalas are treated and are well enough, they are returned to me to either to keep a little longer or released.

Eye problems are very common, but with bathing and applying ointment and giving antibiotic injections, the infection can be cleared up and their sight can be saved (in most cases).

Is there anyone you would like to thank?

The wonderful vets in Uralla, plus the dedicated staff and volunteers at the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital, who have helped and supported me over 20 years. I would also like to thank my husband Gavan, who helps me get leaves weekly, as well as tree ‘forks’, that we collect every few months. He also builds and maintains anything that’s broken. I certainly couldn’t do this on my own!

Can the public contribute to your work?

If anyone is trimming a gum tree on their property or backyard (particularly in the Uralla area), please give me a call. I can always use leaves. Donations to WIRES help us to help our native animals. Please ring Denise on 6778 4994 or 0412 106 785. Please report any sick, orphaned or injured koala to me as soon as possible.

WIRES is a non-profit voluntary organisation. We rely on donations and fundraising for our costs. Anyone interested in becoming a registered WIRES carer can attend induction and training days – http://wires.org.au/get-involved/training-courses.html

Thank you Denise.

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