How to operate on a Koala

Travel: Where killers go to be stitched up

IT'S probably hard to imagine a trip to Australia Zoo making you feel like a voyeur.

But I've seen and heard some weird stuff today and I have to concede it's been strangely fascinating.

A snake with a Muscovy duck bulging like a rugby ball in its stomach; a bird being treated for a broken leg, sucking down sleeping gas through little more than a cardboard toilet roll; a big dozy koala having a breathing tube inserted down into the depths of its stomach.

It's all in a day's work for the staff at the zoo's wildlife hospital, a small facility tucked over the back of the organisation's huge carpark.

Snake surprise: An incredible X-ray showing Ingrid the carpet python with a large flying fox she swallowed and which made her ill.
Snake surprise: An incredible X-ray showing Ingrid the carpet python with a large flying fox she swallowed and which made her ill. Outback Bob Photography

And tourists have the opportunity to view many of the goings-on inside the clinic, including great views of the main operating theatres through floor-to-ceiling glass walls.

To someone with no medical training, the set-up looks a replica, at least in mini version, of a scene out of a program like ER. There's the gurney, monitors, tools and tubes of all shapes and sizes.

The main difference is, of course, the patients are furry. Or scaly, or covered in feathers.

The hospital has come a long way since Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin converted an avocado packing shed in 2004 in memory or his mum Lyn. It was expanded to a larger treatment facility in 2008, though the old shed remains next door.

The zoo hospital is open 24/7 - it needs to be when you consider it treated more than 6000 'patients' in the 2013-14 year. And we're not just talking zoo animals, obviously - it collects sick, injured and orphaned native wildlife from around South-East Queensland.

Koalas are the headline act, with 600-800 going through a year, though birds make up about 80% of the admissions. Koalas are cute and with an estimated 10,000 in South-East Queensland, the chances are high you'll see one.

But people taking the opportunity to see the vets in action need to be aware of one thing - this is real. And the mortality rate of 'patients' is something like 50 per cent, so broken are many when they are brought in.

It's an eye-opener watching the vets in action, and hearing their tales, particularly of the more exotic creatures.

Like the snake in hospital not because the duck it swallowed is too big for its belly, but because the duck's partner attacked the snake, who needed treatment for a series of large cuts. Or the bird getting the cast removed from its leg.

Vet Danny Brown says the duck attack on the snake is, as you'd expect, rare.

''That's the first attack by a duck (on a snake),'' Mr Brown says. ''It's not high on our list of things we see.''

He also regales us with the tale, and x-ray proof, of the 3m carpet python that had its oesophagus ripped to shreds as it tried to swallow a flying fox. With each swallow, the claws ripped its insides.

It's intriguing stuff.

Koala care: A koala has a breathing tube put down its throat on the treatment table.
Koala care: A koala has a breathing tube put down its throat on the treatment table. Outback Bob Photography.

It's apparent though most of the workers are not ghouls like me. There is no shortage of volunteers to look after the animals, and a couple we met were in the process of training to become veterinary nurses.

The love of the job oozes out of everyone. There's people queued up to be volunteers, from the cage cleaners to the eucalyptus tree choppers responsible for feeding the koalas.

The zoo itself is one of the jewels of the Sunshine Coast, boasting a great layout, fantastic facilities and seemingly loads of knowledgeable staff for visitors to mix with.

But for a different experience, try the hospital.

It's for lives less ordinary. Take this message on the staff noticeboard as an example: ''A rough scaled snake was seen behind Warrina yesterday. Venomous.''

Now that makes for better work stories.

Bryce Johns was at Australia Zoo's Wildlife Hospital as a guest of AATKings, sponsors of the Wildlife Warriors koala rehabilitation project.

AATKings runs tours through Queensland which include time at the zoo, and a tour of the veterinary hospital:

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