Volunteering with FOK

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Do Something That’s Good for Koalas and is also Good for You!

We have about 130 active local volunteers who, for insurance purposes, are aged over 18 years of age and members of our organisation. Appropriate training, either one-to-one or through a more formal training session, is essential for anyone wishing to be involved with hands on care of koalas, and we provide this as needed. We also provide most equipment, apart from a good set of boots!

All our volunteers abide by our FOK Code of Conduct [31KB] to protect the health and safety of our koalas. In return, volunteering with us is well worth it for the experience of being so close to these special animals and also part of an organisation with great team spirit, lots of support and friendly faces.

If you’re interested in volunteering call Lola, our Volunteer Coordinator on 0412 753 739.

Care and Rehabilitation of Koalas in Care

volunteering with FOKOur volunteers clean koala runs, select appropriate leaf for them and ensure they’re eating the leaf. This can mean as little as 2 hours commitment each week and gives volunteers the privilege of connecting closely with (although not holding) these precious animals. With dedication and training, volunteers can assist with their medications and diagnosis.

Collecting Leaf for Koalas in Care

volunteering with FOKVolunteers learn how to identify the preferred koala food trees (KFTs) in this area and each weekday morning, working with at least one other leafer, harvest the required amount of leaf needed that day and take it to the Care Centre in our Rescue Van. This takes a commitment of about 3 hours, and we always need some young(er), fit people to take this on.

Rescuing Koalas

Volunteers staff our Rescue Hotline 24/7 and those in the Ballina, Byron Bay, Kyogle, Lismore, Richmond Valley or Tweed council areas can become experienced rescuers of injured and sick koalas. This requires significant ongoing commitment, as well as skills that we’re happy to provide.

Other Important Volunteer Roles

Volunteers conduct educational talks, maintain the nursery, lobby local Councils, draft submissions for funding or on legislation that affects koalas and complete necessary administrative tasks.

If you’re not already a member and want to volunteer, the first step is to become a member, and on your membership form let us know the area you would like to be involved in. Then keep an eye out for the next training courses advertised in our newsletter Treetops, on the web and in the Care Centre or email us at info@friendsofthekoala.org.

International and Interstate Volunteers

From time to time we have inquiries as to whether we provide opportunities for international visitors to volunteer with us. Yes, we do and we welcome them! We’ve had a number who have worked beside our experienced volunteers, which has been positive both for us and also for the volunteers. They become champions for koalas when they return to their own countries, and we have the opportunity to learn about their countries.

Most recently a young woman from Dusseldorf in Germany spent four weeks with us and left with much more knowledge and an even stronger love for these wonderful animals we’re privileged to work with. She was a delight and will be much missed by both us and our koala Diego, with whom she developed a strong relationship.

Requirements for international volunteers

Whilst we love having international volunteers, we’re a volunteer organisation with limited resources, so there are some basic criteria an individual would need to have before they would be accepted into our volunteer program:

  • commitment to volunteering daily for a minimum of five days a week for four weeks with us
  • willingness to learn and assist in the various activities we offer from our Koala Care and Research Centre in East Lismore, NSW
  • their own accommodation
  • transport to and from the Care Centre each day, and
  • a commitment to the FOK Code of Conduct.

If you’re interested and meet these criteria, and want to find out more about Lismore, possible accommodation and other things to do around Lismore click here. To express interest in volunteering, send us an email to info@friendsofthekoala.org letting us know when you’d like to come and providing us with some details about yourself.

Providing Home Care for Koalas

More experienced volunteers with some special facilities provided by us can either have koalas in ‘soft release’ prior to their being released to the wild or, if they have received exceptional training and have the right temperament, can look after orphan joeys until they’re old enough to go into care and then be released into the wild.

Anika is one of Friends of the Koala’s special orphan joey carers and as we are often asked about what this entails, we asked Anika to tell us her story.

‘I volunteered in the wildlife hospital with koalas for 4 years, learning much about them and also how to handle them with care.  I kept asking questions and the hospital manager thought she could get rid of me by saying I could become a carer, so with her 24/7 help I jumped into it. By that time I had been rescuing koalas for about 5 years and anyone interested in becoming an orphan joey carer will need to have some basic knowledge, a trusted network of experienced carers to call 24/7, to attend all workshops and keep asking questions.

A typical day for a carer starts at 5.30 am when I prepare for the last feeds of the night, feed the joey(s) and make sure their bedding is clean, warm and dry, so they can go to sleep. That’s when our job starts: washing the pouches and bedding, cleaning and sterilizing the bottles, teats and syringes that I have used that day, and making up fresh milk for the next 24 hours.

If the joey is small there will be another feed around 10-11am, and if the joey is big enough it will probably sleep until 2-3 pm and I will have a bit of time to myself. They will need fresh leaf for the afternoon, so we’ll go out and cut it (sometimes a 2 hour round trip). After the first afternoon feed we get rid of yesterday’s leaf, clean the leaf pots and put fresh leaf in. (Hopefully I’ll have time to feed the rest of the family before the evening feeds start). Most of the time we ‘feed by demand’ which means the joey will let us know when it wants a feed. This can be every 2 hours in the evening and 3-4 hourly through the night. Of course there will be play time too – usually anywhere between 11pm – 2am, and before we know it, it’s 5.30 again! This is a ‘normal’ day, as on ‘special’ days we drive to the wildlife hospital for a check-up or treatment, which takes another minimum 3 to 4 hours out of our day.

The best thing about being an orphan joey carer is knowing that you are making a difference to every single individual that comes into your care, getting to know their personalities, seeing them grow up, getting better and stronger and moving on to the next enclosure. And apart from the animal side of it, I have found some amazing friends amongst the carers. We feel the same, understand the pain, forgive any mistakes, help each other out and are always there for each other.

The worst thing about being a joey carer is losing them or having to watch them not thriving. Sometimes I wish I could carry their pain or discomfort. With all the equipment available to the vets, and all the tests that can be done, sometimes the joey has an issue that we don’t know about. You won’t know until weeks or months later when all of a sudden something is not quite right and they die in your care.

Another challenge is that koala carers all get to the stage where our shoulders go bad from cutting the leaf, every single day, big sticks and at least 5-6 per koala per day.

 If you decide to be a joey carer you will need to commit for a long time – sometimes up to a year or more – as we have a ‘one mum’ policy. You will need to know their food: i.e. your leaf species, and get it fresh every day, even when it’s bucketing down or go out at 5 am on those really hot days! If you care for koala joeys, a few things will be over-rated especially sleep and a social life. You will need to think about your commitment, be prepared to make long hours and live like a zombie - but OMG when it comes to a release…. That’s the very best part of it all! It makes everything worthwhile’.

If you would like to train to carry out this volunteer role call Lola, our Volunteer Coordinator, on 0412 753 739 or email her at info@friendsofthekoala.org.

International  Oxford student at the forefront of wildlife conservation with FOK

We were also fortunate to have Laure Boissat from France who spent four weeks full-time with us and gave us great joy. Here is her story.

I got the incredible opportunity to volunteer for two weeks at Friends of the Koala in September 2017. I still remember greeting each morning the dozen koalas present at the centre which now remains an unforgettable memory as I am back in Europe. I first heard of FOK when I was doing an internship at the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) Oceania, working with koala detection dogs. IFAW had partnered with FOK in an attempt to save the Ballina 200 koalas from construction of the Pacific Highway and, once I finished my internship in Sydney, I eagerly headed to Lismore, NSW to get hands-on, practical experience in animal care.

My volunteering experience was truly enriching as it touched upon all aspects of FOK’s work from the rescue, rehabilitation to the release of the koalas. A highlight was the rescue of Lightning, who was found trapped on top of a palm tree on a farmer’s property. Terrified by the three cattle dogs running around the tree, Lightning had not moved for a few hours. As Marley, an experienced volunteer, managed to make the koala climb down the tree, I caught him in a net before placing him securely in FOK’s rescue vehicle. I can still recall the adrenaline I felt as I realised that if the operation did not go well, there was a fatal risk for the poor koala!

During these two weeks, I learnt a lot about koalas’ biology – from distinguishing koalas’ favourite eucalyptus species to understanding the wide array of diseases they sadly suffer. What impressed me most was the selfless dedication of volunteers working at the Koala Care Centre, on call 24/7 in case of emergencies and ready to raise orphaned joeys. Surprisingly, FOK does not receive permanent/ongoing government funding – I originally thought the Australian government would do more to protect Australia’s iconic species. As FOK is run entirely based on donations, volunteer efforts or grants they gain for special projects, I realised the importance of each donation, regardless of its amount.

The path to freedom for Elsie

I am currently completing my Master’s in Biodiversity Conservation at the University of Oxford. My experience at FOK provided me with valuable knowledge of on-the-ground conservation. I feel more confident today to talk about animal welfare and conservation as I vividly remember the explanations of Susannah Keogh, FOK’s Care Coordinator, about the threats that koalas face – notably, the destruction of their habitats for human use. Once I finish my studies, I hope to work for an animal welfare NGO and my time at FOK definitely strengthened my motivation to choose a career path that would help vulnerable and endangered species.

I would recommend volunteering at FOK for many reasons – to protect Australia’s unique biodiversity, to get good work out when cutting eucalyptus trees, to gain a better understanding of koalas’ behaviours, to watch a joey learning how to climb a tree for the first time (which I was lucky enough to witness) and of course, to be part of a fantastic team of volunteers dedicated to saving threatened koalas. However, my most cherished reason remains the release mom-to-be Elsie back into the wild – a female koala who spent a few weeks in care and was released in the forest surrounding Southern Cross University where she was found (a key to successful release) and carrying her 5-day-old joey in her pouch! It was a breath-taking moment to set her free and admire how instinctively she climbed the tree. Halfway up, Elsie stopped to look down on us, as if checking that it was okay for her to carry on her ascent. I cannot put into words the incredibly rewarding feeling of seeing a koala finally being back in her natural habitat. Knowing that this animal is being given a second chance is a thrilling experience and for this simple reason that I highly encourage you to donate some of your time or resource to the very special FOK. 

Inside the demanding role of a Koala Care Coordinator

Koala Carer and Vet tend to rescued joey
Care Coordinator Susannah holds koala joey Frazer while Dr. Camille listens to his breathing.
Arranging the best care for rescued koalas is a huge job. “Some days it can be crazy with koala after koala coming in,” says Susannah Keogh our Care Coordinator. Susannah manages the care of 300 koalas brought into our Care Centre annually, but last year a spike in admissions saw 430 koalas in need of help from carers and veterinarians. Woefully, only one in six is fit to return to the wild, so the Care Coordinator’s role is charged with difficult decisions.

“It’s always a joint decision and never made by just one person, even the vet”. With a wealth of practical experience gained rapidly over six years, working in close consultation with specialist koala carers, veterinarians and hospital staff, and with thanks to incredible mentors, Susannah is guided by doing what is best for each koala. “It’s really sad. It’s part of the care we have to give, and the responsibility of giving them what they need is never easy when it means ending their life.”

It is tempting to think euthanising a koala may be the toughest part of the job, but it can be tougher explaining such decisions and complexities surrounding koala suffering to those involved. Furthermore, “dealing with naivety in terms of what koalas need can be frustrating,” says Susannah. Recently a small joey was found by a person who kept it at home for a week and feeding it on cow’s milk thinking this was the right thing to do, but the joey died as a result.

Although a thankless role at times, the rewards are great – friendship, learning and most importantly, successful releases. “Once you’re involved with koalas and learn how difficult they can be, talking to someone else who really understands, and revelling in the joys of a koala release is wonderful” says Susannah.