Never too late: ‘Last month was my record for collecting koalas. I rescued seven in 24 hours’

Name: Angela Christodoulou

Age: 57

Gift shop owner turned koala rescue and rehabilitation specialist

Since the age of 10, I’ve worked in retail. I grew up in Brisbane in a large Greek family. My mum and dad were busy running around after me and my seven siblings. My family owned and operated fruit shops and I’d help out every weekend during school term, and on holidays. I left high school in year 10 and worked full time.

From the age of 15 to 24 I worked three jobs. I was full time in the fruit shops and did beauty therapy from home. I was also working as a florist wholesaler, calling on Coles supermarkets throughout Brisbane. I’m definitely a workaholic.

I was 23 when I met an Italian man, Ermanno Nobilio. We dated for six years before marrying in 1993.

By the time I was 26 I’d given up the florist job, left the fruit shop and was managing a gift store. Four years later Ermanno and I opened our own gift store, eventually owning four. For 20 years, retail was my life. Because I am one of eight children, I didn’t feel the need to have kids.

In 2015, with 12 months left on the gift shop leases and a general downturn in retail, I was 50 and wondered what my next thing would be. I’m not the type to sit around and attend ladies’ lunches. I like to be busy.

The suburb I live in backs on to a large nature reserve. One morning I looked out into a palm tree in my front yard and saw a koala sitting in it. I phoned around to ask what I could do about this koala, but no one wanted to know. I ended up coaching the koala out of my tree and we crossed the road together for him to return to the nature reserve. I think from that moment I was smitten.

For as long as I can remember I’ve always been befriending animals. As a young kid I used to pick up lizard eggs and hatch them and find penny turtles in various creeks around Brisbane. It piqued my interest as to why there wasn’t anyone wanting to come and rescue this koala in my tree. After that, I signed up for all the classes and courses I could find.

I’d already started volunteering with the RSPCA in 2014, rehabilitating wildlife. I helped run wildlife workshops and was an ambulance driver, attending overnight rescues. We rescued hundreds of animals. And cared for many animals: bandicoots, echidnas, kookaburras, sugar gliders and emus.

I remember my first koala rescue in August 2015 was Napoleon, who was found wandering near train tracks. I enrolled in workshops with Wildcare Australia and continued to do my volunteer ambulance driving while studying to get my koala accreditation. Koalas are a specialist species, they’re quite complicated to care for, largely because of their diet.

Once I had accreditation I volunteered in a RSPCA Wildlife Hospital, focusing solely on koala rescues. Over four years I rescued 337 koalas and I went through two sets of tyres on my personal vehicle. Most rescues were on my own and it was exhausting.

One day, it occurred to me most of these rescues were in my own local area. So I thought why not start my own rescue group focusing on my backyard? Queensland Koala Society was established in August 2018.

From the sale of the gift shop businesses, we had a little money set aside for a rainy day. My husband and I still own our home, but in 2019 we used our “rainy day” money and purchased a two-and-a-half-acre property, specifically to rehabilitate wildlife. We have built enclosures on the property to house injured animals. And last year, I planted 300 eucalyptus trees from saplings, with seven varieties to feed the koalas.

When I receive a call out, I go to where the injured animal is and pick them up, then drive them to the vet who checks them over. If they recover, they are released back to where they come from. If they need rehabilitation, they come back to my place.

It can be busy, especially at night.

The first weekend in July (this year) was my record for collecting koalas. I rescued seven in the space of 24 hours. Unfortunately, only one survived. I get sad when the survival rate is like that.

There are days when you throw yourself on the ground and bawl your eyes out, but you have to pick yourself up for the next one. When I rescue a baby koala whose mum has been killed and I look in their eyes, I just can’t help but love them. If everyone had that chance to be close to them, they will be smitten too. They are just so innocent. And all they do is sit in trees. And people are trying to take their trees away from them. That is so devastating.

People think it’s fabulous to see a cute koala sitting on the ground in the wild. But for a koala to be on the ground and not moving towards scrambling up another tree, it usually means they’re sick. If you see a koala sitting on the ground for longer than five minutes, stay with it and phone someone like me immediately. The sooner we know, the better the chances are of the animal surviving.

Ermanno is the president of the Queensland Koala Society. I am the head honcho, the main rescuer – the hands-on person. I cut the food for the koalas and look after the injured wildlife at our centre. A handful of volunteers help out at the property a few days a week.

Without wanting to spruik too much or blow my own trumpet, I’m pretty good at rescuing koalas.

As a kid I would never have envisaged doing this, or even in my 20s or 30s. It’s a dream come true, that I didn’t even know I wanted. I feel like I’m the luckiest girl on the planet that I get to do what I love. I believe it’s my calling.