Australian marsupials begin rearing their pouch young in springtime. Many marsupials breed in winter with the joeys getting to a reasonable size by spring because the weather is warming up and food is prevalent allowing the animals to wander more. What that means is that the amount of animals we see hit on the roads increases and many of these animals could possibly have pouch young.
There are a raft of care persons and experienced professionals who will stop and check the pouches of animals that have been hit, it's also really warming to see so many of the Australian public that are inexperienced willing to check.
If that is you, we are very heartened by that, but there are some very strong facts that you need to know.
Unfortunately, it is all too often that we at The Australian Reptile Park receive animals that, with the best of intentions, have had things done to them during a period of care that has meant by the time we get them, they are at the point of no return of survival.
Many people think orphaned marsupials need to be fed milk, with the most common forms of milk being baby formula and cow's milk. Both of which contain lactose, which marsupials are intolerant to and will upset their stomach, dehydrate them and by the time we get them, not much can be done to help them survive.
Another key factor in helping keep a joey alive is warmth. Joeys during spring are often bald, or just starting to develop their fur and when out of a pouch, they cannot thermo-regulate, meaning that they get cold very quickly and can die - warmth is critical!
Some basic care principals to consider if you do find an orphaned marsupial are below:
- Do not feed the joey any form of milk consumed by humans.
- Keep the joey warm. To do that, keep it wrapped up in a beanie on your belly under clothes with contact on the skin with the beanie and the joey inside. Joeys need to feel warm to the touch. If it feels lukewarm, it is too cold and risks the chance of being hypothermic. Hot water bottles are often used, however they get cold very quickly, so skin-to-skin contact is recommended.
- If you feel the need to give the joey fluids, give the joey Lactaid (can be purchased from chemists) or rehydration solutions that can be mixed with water in small amounts to keep the orphan hydrated until such a point that it can be given to an expert.
- Get the joey to an experience care person within 24 hours.
In addition to this, many people often ask what the best and most safe way to remove a joey from a pouch is. The first thing to know is that, removing a joey from a pouch is not quite as easy as it sounds. If the mother is already at the point of rigor mortis (this is when the body gets stiff after death) the pouch opening can get quite tight, thus making is extremely hard to remove the joey. Being too rough at this stage also puts the joey at a risk of injury and this is not ideal for the joey's long term health. The main point to take away from this is to use extreme caution and care in the beginning stages.
The joey will most likely be attached to the teat inside of the pouch as furless while just furred joeys have their lips fused and are permanently attached to the teat. If this is the case, the best option is to use a pair of scissors to cut the joey free. Again, this presents some increased risk of injury to the joey in the case of fast movements, so extreme care is required. Insert your hand into the pouch and feel around for the teat at the end of the joey’s nose. Ensure that your fingers are between the scissors and the joey then make the precise cut very slowly. Remove the joey with the teat still in its mouth. If scissors are not readily available attempt to enclose the joey in your hand as much as you can. Then proceed to move your fingers to the end of the nose and gently push the sides and then ease the teat out of the mouth.
Please note that this action may rip and damage the mouth, so be very careful. The most important point to reiterate is that if you are inexperienced, do not try to rear Australian wildlife. Get it to a care network, wildlife park or vet clinic as soon as you possibly can.
Tim Faulkner is a recognised leader in the Australian Zoo industry and is the current General Manager and Head of Conservation at the Australia Reptile Park in Somersby NSW and The Devil Ark at Barrington Tops NSW. Tim was awarded Australian Geographic Australian Conservationist of the Year in 2015. Tim is also a regular on Network Ten’s program Bondi Vet.