Damage by sharks just part of the job

This is the first in the Grand Casino Business Series, profiling local businesses and charities.

Wildlife Hospital plays unique role in healing NZ's threatened native species.

It seems some hoiho, or yellow-eyed penguins, are not too good at evading sharks and that certainly was the case for poor Chrystall.

Chrystall, named because she was found on Otago's Chrystall's beach, has turned up to Dunedin's Wildlife Hospital three years in a row after being bitten by a shark three different times.

"I'd like to say, in her defence, the wounds each year were less serious," says the hospital's Trust Manager Jordana Whyte. "The first year she was shredded, second year it was serious but not as bad and then the third year it was like, 'Oh yes, you'll be ok."

So Chrystall got better at dealing with the sharks. She is one of 600 animals the Dunedin Wildlife Hospital treats every year. The hospital is the primary veterinary facility in the South Island for New Zealand native wildlife species. They get sick and injured animals coming through their door every week, mostly birds but also things like marine mammals, geckos, skinks and other reptiles.



"If there's a sick or injured native animal that's anywhere from South Canterbury to the West Coast and all the way down to Stewart Island, we're more than happy to take them in," Whyte says.

Up to 80 per cent of the native species in New Zealand are now under threat of extinction, so the Wildlife Hospital's role is crucial. They see a range of injuries on the animals: "With penguins, we see a lot of predator wounds, things like barracouta or sharks."

The hospital also treats a lot of human-equivalent collarbone-type injuries in kererū – because they often fly into windows. Reptiles have a lot of skin issues like fungal infections plus, Whyte says: "We see small back yard birds like tūī and bellbirds often attacked by cats."

Winter is the quietest period for the hospital but in the summer they are full with a lot of different animals – as it's the critical breeding period for a lot of species. The animals are mostly brought in by the Department of Conservation, especially the penguin patients, though conservation groups will also bring animals, as do members of the public who come across an injured patient and contact DOC for advice.


Before the hospital opened, many of these animals had to be flown to the North Island for treatment, a journey that seriously reduced their chances of survival.

"It's quite symbolic that within an hour of us officially opening our doors, we had two-yellow eyed penguins in the hospital, they're the species that we see most of in a given year," says Whyte.

These penguins are struggling as a species because they have a lot against them: "They have naturally occurring diseases like avian diphtheria to deal with and, because the temperature of the sea is changing, it's harder for them to find food in abundance."

Whyte says yellow-eyed penguins have a range of personalities. "None particularly like people – a good thing because we don't want them to habituate to people while they're in hospital. Some have a gentler nature and hand-feed quite easily but then you get some that are absolutely feral and just want to destroy you the whole time they're in hospital."


Whyte was a volunteer for years before extra funding for the hospital allowed her to come on as a paid employee:. "My workdays are never the same. Some days it's a mix of writing funding applications, planning events, helping out in the busy wards and then going out to give talks to a roomful of excited kids."

The Grand Casino in Dunedin helps fund the hospital and in particular the important work Whyte does in community engagement and education with people in community groups, schools and workplaces throughout Otago and Southland.

"The Grand supports us to go to many groups in the region to talk about our patients and the work we do. Education is a really important part of our mission and there's nowhere better to inspire people to get involved in conservation than schools," Whyte said. "Plus, I get to hear some pretty cool stories from schoolkids about their own wildlife experiences. The passion is contagious on both sides."

Because the public can't see the hospital, it's especially important to get out into the community to educate people about what they do – and Whyte loves sharing knowledge about the place.

"People don't really know what to picture when they think about a wildlife hospital, they think of someone in a back room putting a bandage on something but it's a proper hospital and a sophisticated operation and people are really blown away by that." The kids also learn what they can do individually and as a community to help native wildlife.

Whyte loves her job and says it's impossible not to get attached to the animals in a lot of cases: "You try not to but it's hard, especially when the patients are with us for a longer period, so you get to know them quite well; you do form a little connection to them."

As for Chrystall, the yellow-eyed penguin, she has been spotted by rangers in the wild – so she may just be the penguin with nine lives.



Originally published at New Zealand Herald