Doing up the last button on the pale blue shirt, I stood back and admired how dapper Danny looked. The poor little thing had been shaved bald, but a toddler shirt made the perfect replacement coat to keep him warm.
As a volunteer for Adelaide and Hills Koala Rescue, I’ve cared for 60 to 70 koalas over six years. But I’d never seen a koala with no fur. That was until one afternoon last October, when I received an urgent call from another volunteer.
‘There’s a koala covered in diesel,’ she said. ‘He wandered into a garage and poured five litres of engine oil all over himself. We need you to come immediately.’ Grabbing my keys, I frantically made my way to the vet, hoping for the best.
Multiple attempts were made to wash out as much oil as possible, but the vet came to the difficult decision to shave off the koala’s fur. If any oil got into his pores, it would be toxic and could cause him to suffocate. That day, it was decided his name would be Danny, after John Travolta’s character in Grease.
After monitoring Danny’s health overnight, vets gave him the all clear. The next day, Danny came to live with me so I could take care of him. Making my way up my driveway, I turned to Danny. ‘Welcome to your new home,’ I said.
Danny stayed inside the house mostly, but if it was a sunny day, he would go outside for a bit of fresh air in his aviary. I just made sure he stayed in the shade and I always put something on him to stop him from getting sunburnt. At first, I tried dog coats, but they were far too big and would slip off. That’s when I started experimenting with kids’ clothing.
I bought a whole new wardrobe of dressing gowns, T-shirts and cotton button-up shirts, all in different colours and fun prints. Some of them were still too big though. I wasn’t the greatest sewer, but I tried my best and managed to cut down the sleeves and sew up the hems as needed.
My favourite part of shopping for Danny was when I walked into a store and the shopkeeper would strike up a conversation. ‘Are you buying this for your grandson?’ they’d ask. ‘Oh no, it’s for a koala,’ I’d answer, smiling. Their reactions to this never got old!
When it came to Danny’s mealtimes, there was a lot of hand feeding. On lazy days, where he couldn’t be bothered to reach the leaves, he would expect me to get them for him! But one afternoon, when I went outside to look for him, he was gone. Luckily, he hadn’t gone far.
He’d managed to get the door of the aviary open with his claws and climbed up to the top of a gumtree at the side of my property. At the time, he was wearing one of his new outfits, fashioned from a fluffy dressing gown! From a distance, he looked like a toddler stuck up a tree and I was worried someone would call the police! So, quickly grabbing my phone, I called the local tree surgeon. ‘Sorry to bother you,’ I said, ‘but my koala dressed in a spotty gown has climbed up a tree and I need some help to get him down.’
The line went silent for a few seconds and I was sure they didn’t believe me and thought I was a prank caller. But when they came around, they started laughing. ‘Well, this is definitely a first,’ the man chuckled.
Danny had a lot of visits from local reporters and became a bit of a celebrity in Adelaide, but he also found fame globally. I had to send in photos to our koala rescue Facebook page to keep his fans updated. If I didn’t, people from all over the world would write in asking about his whereabouts! Most of the comments were written in French, Italian, Spanish and Russian.
Sadly, the road to recovery wasn’t always smooth. It took roughly four months for Danny’s fur to even start looking like it was going to grow back. He also suffered from a skin infection that required medicated baths with a baby sponge, three times a week. At one stage, we thought his fur wasn’t going to grow back at all. But thankfully, it began to sprout back patch by patch, and that was enough for me to get him ready for release.
While staying under my roof, Danny made friends with Charlie, a koala of about 10 or 11 months old also in my care. The two would sit together on a branch. Big Danny, at 12kg without fur, took 4kg Charlie under his wing. Although they weren’t related, Danny was like an uncle to Charlie.
I was shocked. It’s quite normal for mothers to look after baby koalas, but for males to have that paternal instinct for a stranger was something I hadn’t seen before. In May, we released them together, into safe bushland. Although Danny was an alpha male, he was the gentlest koala I have ever come across. I could put my arm around him, cuddle him and tickle his tummy.
It was sad to say goodbye, but I was thrilled he could restart his life in the wild. As for Danny’s wardrobe, I’ve kept every piece. I would have loved to have sent him off with a suitcase packed full of his favourite outfits. Hopefully I won’t have to use them again, but now I’m prepared for the next koala that comes to town needing
To keep up to date with Adelaide and Hills Koala Rescue's koalas search Facebook for '1300Koalaz'