As deadly bush fires continue to sweep the east coast of Australia, the future of some of its unique wildlife hangs in the balance. One species in particular danger is the koala; of which an estimated 25,000 are thought to have been killed since the bush fires began in September last year. 

Alarmingly, this number could have been higher if it wasn’t for the kindness and compassion shown by New South Wales residents. Among them is Sue Ashton, President of the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital, who is currently working harder than ever to rehabilitate koalas who have been rescued from the fire zone.

At present, Sue, who is in her late 60s, attends the hospital every day to help care for the koalas; the majority of whom are suffering from the effects of dehydration and burns. 

Although many other wildlife species have been affected by the fires, it is the way that koalas often attempt to cope – by climbing to the tops of trees and curling into a ball – that makes their chance of survival especially low. 

The ones that do survive are usually rescued by firemen or other crisis response teams, or are happened upon by passers-by if they manage to find their way out of the bush.

When a koala arrives at the hospital, Sue and her team will first work to rehydrate them and then treat any burns 24 hours later. To receive treatment for burns, koalas must first be anaesthetised so that any dead skin can be cut off, special cream can be applied and the burns can be wrapped in bandages, which are then changed every four to five days. 

The incredible work carried out by the hospital’s four paid staff and 150 volunteers aims to nurse each koala back to full health, so that they can be released back into the wild six to nine months later – where they will hopefully breed and continue their legacy.

“I love koalas. They are gentle, eat and sleep most of the day, rarely fight and are very attractive mammals; they deserve to live”

The Port Macquarie Koala Hospital – which is a non-profit organisation – is currently caring for 75 koalas on site and 10 off site; with zoos and home carers starting to take on the overflow brought on by the bushfire crisis. 

The hospital also takes in koalas affected by chlamydia, road traffic accidents and dog attacks, and tries to give them the best chance at a full recovery. 

Speaking to Rest Less, Sue said “I love koalas – they are so gentle. They eat and sleep most of the day, rarely fight and are very attractive mammals; they deserve to live. But the bush fires have decimated the wild koala population in the east coast of Australia and it will be very difficult to rebuild the population.”

Sue recently appeared in an interview with 7NEWS in Australia when she described her life-changing voluntary work as “one of the best things she has ever done.” 

During the interview, a little Koala – which Sue referred to as Mary – can be seen coming over to sit at her feet. Koala’s are usually solitary animals who avoid mixing with people and each other, but it seems clear that the hospital’s koala residents are keen to show their gratitude for the love and care provided to them by those who work there.

Unfortunately for Sue, as rewarding as her work is, at times it can also prove challenging. 

She told us, “The first burnt koala I cared for was a little female joey, Rue, who I’d cared for at home. She had severe burns and it was decided the kindest thing was to euthanize her, so that was a sad day. 

“Sadly, we lose more than we’d like. It can be heart-breaking, especially if you’ve cared for a koala for a long time. Saying goodbye to a koala who didn’t deserve to die, is definitely the most difficult part of the job.”

A big change for Sue

Whilst Sue has always loved wildlife, she spent 35 years of her career working for financial and IT services, in internal communication and PR roles. 

It was only after she retired from the corporate world and moved from Sydney to the countryside, that she considered fulfilling her dream of working with animals.

Sue explains, “I retired about six years ago and moved to Port Macquarie in 2017. In late 2017 a friend asked if I’d considered volunteering, which I had. He suggested the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital which I readily agreed would be ideal. 

“The hospital was looking for a Media Coordinator and with my working career in communications, it was an ideal fit. I was then appointed President in September 2019.

“I enjoy the leadership aspect of the President’s role, working with the coordinators who are a great team and trying to help the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital move from being a small charity to a small to medium enterprise. 

“I’ve committed to the president’s role for two years and will then step aside and let someone else lead the organisation. But I’ll still continue my involvement after that because I enjoy it immensely.”

Although Sue enjoyed living in the city and working in a corporate environment, she’s happy that she’s been able to embrace new opportunities at this stage in her life and would like to encourage others to do the same. 

As well as volunteering with koalas, she still finds the time to care for her 50 bonsai trees and also enjoys other leisure activities like walking, reading and going to the movies.

She says, “I love what I’m doing and haven’t regretted retiring. I’m using skills I’ve developed over many years in the corporate world as a volunteer in a wildlife organisation. 

“If you’re thinking about making a career change or trying something new then I say, go for it. If you try one thing and don’t like it, just try something else until you discover what’s right for you. Challenge yourself and find something you enjoy because it helps to keep you alive!”

The future of the koalas

At present, the future of the koala remains uncertain, as many fires continue to burn across New South Wales. The staff at the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital are doing all they can to help secure the future of these beautiful creatures, which are not found in any other country in the world.

The hospital has been inundated with donations from people worldwide and as well as using the funds to keep the hospital running. 

They are also directing some towards the creation of a wild koala breeding program that can help to breed wild koalas and try and repopulate some of the areas that have been burnt out. If you’d like to make a donation to the hospital’s GoFundMe page, you can do so, here.

If you’d like to work with animals yourself…

Paid work opportunities working with animals

From retraining as a Veterinary Nurse to becoming a Pet Nutritionist, there are many interesting and varied roles that will allow you to spend your days working with animals. 

Our article below will hopefully give you a few ideas!

Voluntary roles working with animals

If you’ve got some free time and a lot of love to give, then you could play a key role in transforming an animal’s life. 

Whether you’d like to foster a dog or cat that hasn’t had the best start to life or support animals during their stay at a shelter – there are plenty of ways you can make a difference. 

The volunteering section of our site will be able to give you more information about what’s available and how to apply.