In 1994 Colleen Wood founded the Southern Ash Wildlife Shelter (SAWS) at her home in Rawson.
Colleen’s passion for koalas and wildlife started as a child. Her family was “animal orientated”, and much of Colleen’s childhood was spent helping stray animals. Colleen later worked in a veterinary clinic and studied zoology. She became known for her knowledge and active interest in wildlife and became involved in wildlife foster care. Colleen began to specialise in koala care following the retirement of a local wildlife carer, Ellen Anders, and since then has followed her passion – to make a difference for Victoria’s wildlife.1
Bushfire orphan Kyan being treated on the kitchen table at SAWS. Kyan came in with an ulcerated eye when he was rescued during the February 2009 fires. He is still in care at SAWS (Jan 2010), as he requires eye surgery.
Photo: Jennifer McNally / Source: Southern Ash Wildlife Shelter
Southern Ash Wildlife Shelter (SAWS)
The role of SAWS is to care for and rehabilitate injured, sick and orphaned native wildlife, specialising in koalas, and enable their successful release back to suitable habitats. Most of the work of SAWS is based on the needs of their local Gippsland region. As they have expertise in koala care and are one of only a few shelters that specialise in burns injuries, SAWS also accept difficult koalas and fire victims from across Victoria.
SAWS is typical of the voluntary, unpaid wildlife shelters across Victoria. It operates as a not-for-profit, volunteer organisation. Colleen manages SAWS in an unpaid capacity. The shelter receives no direct funding and while it is eligible to receive donations, this does not cover the total costs of operation. In addition to the significant contribution of their time and home, Colleen and John Wood also pay for any outstanding costs from their own private resources; sometimes this represents thousands of dollars a year.
Southern Ash Wildlife Shelter Incorporated in April 2009 and the SAWS Inc. Public Fund is overseen by a Committee of Management. SAWS Inc. is listed on the Register of Environmental Organisations and all donations over $2.00 are tax deductible.
A home and hospital
The home of Colleen, her husband and three children is also a hospital to many injured, sick and orphaned koalas.
Colleen’s kitchen, the heart of her home and family, is also the centre from which SAWS is managed. This is the communications hub, where the phones are busy with reports of recently injured wildlife, rescue teams are organised, and meetings are held. The kitchen also doubled as a treatment room during the 2009 fires. It was here that dressings were changed, medications and treatments applied, and joeys given their four hourly feeds.
The billiard room is used as an ‘Intensive Care Unit’ and ‘Recovery Ward’, where Colleen and her volunteers can closely monitor those koalas too sick to be placed in the outdoor enclosures or that need daily dressing changes. Each koala is placed in a specially designed pen. This area has the benefit of being air conditioned (and fly proof) and provides the necessary temperature control required for the recuperation of sick koalas. This room is also where many of the essential medical and rescue supplies are stored.
Once the koalas have stabilised and no longer require bandages they are relocated to external enclosures in preparation for release. Each enclosure can hold up to 5 or 6 koalas.
Colleen is determined that SAWS will eventually raise enough funds for a purpose-built hospital.
Caring for Koalas
The work of treating and rehabilitating sick, injured and orphaned koalas is constant - 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. SAWS has a regular team of 15 dedicated, unpaid, part-time volunteers (although this number swelled to about 40 during the 2009 fire season) who assist with the constant daily care required to rehabilitate koalas.
Reports of distressed and injured animals are directed to SAWS directly from the public, vets, wildlife groups and government agencies (CFA, DSE, Parks Victoria, etc.).
Once the fire zone is no longer active, and access is permitted by the Incident Controller, rescuers work closely with the DSE to locate and rescue the animal. After an animal is captured it is named and then taken to Animal Clinic Morwell for triage. The animal is transferred to SAWS with their medical records, once its condition is stabilised.
It is typical for injured and stressed koalas to lose up to 10% of their body mass, and so each koala is put on a feeding schedule and receives supplementary feeding. The koalas are fed regularly during the day. The joeys receive four-hourly feeds and the adults three times daily.
Burns victims have their wounds cleaned and dressed daily. The application of medication to burns can involve some challenging negotiation with those koalas that are in pain and would prefer not to be handled. It requires considerable patience and a good understanding of animal handling to manage distressed animals, especially given the strong and sharp claws of koalas. Therefore only experienced volunteers handle the koalas.
The koalas with open wounds remain in the shelter on average for three months. Joeys stay at the shelter until they reach a safe age for release, which is 15 months for males and 18 months for females.
SAWS are one of only a few shelters with the necessary experience to manage and care for burns victims.
Burns victims started to arrive at SAWS a week prior to Black Saturday. The Boolarra bushfires began in 28th January and by Saturday 7th February, there were already ten burns victims receiving treatment at SAWS, who joined the 14 koalas already in care. SAWS also treated a range of other wildlife impacted by the fires: possums, gliders, echidnas, wombats, birds and a tortoise.
SAWS have experienced an average yearly survival rate of 78% but their koalas from Black Saturday have averaged approximately a 90% survival rate. Of the 101 koalas cared for from the 2009 bushfires 67 koalas fully recovered and were released. A further ten were still in care in December 2009.
Goodwill, Generosity and Dedicated Volunteers
In addition to the experience, knowledge and dedication of Colleen Wood, the Southern Ash Wildlife Shelter depends on a team of skilled volunteers, the Animal Clinic Morwell and key partnerships with organisations including DSE, Parks Victoria and Healesville Sanctuary.
Dr. John Butler, of Animal Clinic Morwell, provides triage and expert veterinary assessment and treatment.
The shelter is supported by 15 part-time volunteers with various skills and experience. The volunteers were run ragged by the constant demands created by the 2009 bushfires. Fortunately their numbers swelled to some 40 following Black Saturday. They assisted in the never-ending daily tasks at the shelter: daily assessment and record keeping of each of the animals, veterinary consultations, koala transportations, dressing wounds, applying medications, nursing and feeding joeys (and the volunteers!) washing towels and “kylies” used in the indoor enclosures2, twice daily collecting eucalyptus leaves, cleaning both outdoor and indoor enclosures, identifying potential release sites and releasing, responding to the constant phone calls and emails, and managing, sorting and re-distributing donations of medical materials and other items sent from across Australia.
Nic Pullen Media Lawyer and Peita Elkhorne from TressCox continue to assist and support Southern Ash Wildlife Shelter with expert advice and media enquiries.
Bushfires were active in Gippsland for over 6 weeks with animals being searched for and rescued for 10 weeks. The volunteers caring for injured koalas at SAWS were extremely busy with the unprecedented number of burn victims; they also had the additional trauma of managing the ongoing daily stress of the fires. The wildlife shelter was under high alert for many weeks and some of the wildlife volunteers (including the vet) lost their homes to the fires.
Phillip Island Nature Park. (1998). Nature Notes: Everything you ever wanted to know about koalas, (Phillip Island Nature Park: Cowes, Vic)
Reed, A. (2002). ‘Koalas and Chlamydia’, Friends of the Koala Inc. Newsletter, 48, pp. 3-4.
Martin, Roger & Handasyde, Katherine (1999) The Koala. Natural History, conservation and management (AUNSW Book)
Phillips Ken (1994) Koalas Australia’s Ancient Ones (MacMillan)
Vogelnest, Larry & Woods, Rupert, Eds, (2008) Medicine of Australian Mammals (CSIRO)
Jackson, Stephen (2003), Australian Mammals Biology and Captive Management (CSIRO)
1. Based on the biography prepared by Colleen Wood for the Koala Conference in Lismore.
2. Washable, reusable absorbent blankets, invented for human use. These are used to draw moisture away from animals.