In late 2016 Muzammil Patel was out on his bike in the state of Victoria, south eastern Australia. When Patel cycled by the Barham River, however, he saw something struggling in its waters. And when he realized that that something was an animal, Patel decided to rescue him before he sank to his death.
But Patel wasn’t in the coastal town of Apollo Bay to become a lifeguard for the area’s wildlife. That was just a sideshow from the main event: acting as a volunteer for a cycling tour. He was doing this during a working vacation from his undergraduate course at Melbourne’s Swinburne University of Technology.
Specifically, that cycling tour was the Great Victorian Bike Ride. This annual event covers some 340 miles in nine days and attracts thousands of entrants during the Australian summer. Participants of the tour cycle between camp sites, taking different routes each year. And, in particular, it was while Patel was at the Apollo Bay camp site when he heeded the call of nature in distress.
Apollo Bay itself, meanwhile, is well known as a tourist magnet, thanks to its position on the Great Ocean Road walkway and its proximity to Victoria’s Surf Coast. But, that day, it was the Barham River on the edge of town that was getting all the attention. And that was all thanks to the small, unfortunate victim struggling to keep afloat there.
However, it wasn’t Patel who initially saw the victim on November 30; instead, it was a woman the volunteer described as a “local lady.” He said as much to Australia’s nationwide current affairs program 9 News the day after the animal was spotted. Along with Patel’s interview, moreover, the show broadcast film of the animal, which had been shot by a bystander.
Patel explained to 9 News, “We got here about 6:00 a.m. We were hanging around… and one of the local ladies went to the… river, and she saw a koala bear.” Patel added that, at the time of the sighting, the animal was adrift in the middle of the river. And, most alarmingly, the koala was “struggling to breathe” during his ordeal.
Indeed, while koalas can swim, they sometimes have difficulty getting out of the water again. They can also suffer from fatigue while attempting to escape, which further hinders their progress. In fact, according to the rescue service Wildcare Australia, koalas in water need something they can climb up onto to help them escape, or they will drown. And, unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for thirsty koalas to get stuck in residential swimming pools while looking for drinking water.
It wouldn’t have been out of the ordinary, then, for one to have managed to get caught in the Barham River. And, presumably, this particular koala had been washed out into the middle of the river and beyond his depth. Regardless of how he got in there, however, the poor thing was “struggling to get to the shore,” as Patel would later note to 9 News. The worried woman who had found the animal, meanwhile, didn’t know what to do.
Patel continued to the news program, “She came back over here to the camp site and she [asked them] to look out for the koala.” In the meantime, someone quickly alerted local wildlife officials to the koala’s dire straits. But there was to be some bad news for the animal on that front.
“The wildlife people [said that they] might [take] about half an hour to one hour to get there,” Patel explained. However, the woman who had first found the koala had reported that he had already been trying to keep afloat for an hour by that time. Any official rescue attempt, then, could have come too late. And Patel discovered as much when he cycled to the scene.
He told 9 News, “It was quite a [long] time to get there, and the koala was still struggling.” The volunteer then described how the koala’s nose was just above the surface of the water. So, as the poor creature didn’t look like he could survive much longer, Patel made a crucial decision. “We had no other options,” he told the program.
The 9 News reporter asked Patel how he reacted to the sight of the drowning koala, and he went on to tell them the story. “Actually, what happened is, the koala bear was not in the middle [of the river] at the time. When we came near [him], [he] was just coming towards the shore,” Patel explained.
Patel continued, “So what I did was, I just went inside the river with some of the branches. I extended the branches towards him so that he [could] grab the branch.” However, one of his main worries in doing so – and one that concerned observers can be heard warning him about in the video of the rescue – was being swiped by the koala’s claws.
And it was a very sensible fear, too. After all, Australian animal welfare charity Koalas In Care Inc. has advised that while koalas look cuddly, they will scratch and bite when scared. Mary Ann Forster can attest to this, as she was attacked by one of the wild animals in December 2014.
Forster was visiting north of Adelaide during that month and was out walking her two dogs when they were attacked by a koala. When she stepped in to try and protect her pets, however, the furious koala turned on her. It latched onto her leg with its teeth; in the end, she had to physically prize the wild animal off. And not only did Forster spend four days in hospital for her injuries, but she also needed 12 stitches.
But the effects of a bite from a koala could have even worse long-term effects. The communicable disease chlamydia is very common in the species, for instance; experts estimate that about 50 percent of the Australian koala population are infected. What’s more, the disease can even be spread to humans through an afflicted animal’s urine. Despite the dangers, however, brave Patel still acted like a hero when the exhausted koala let go of the branch.
“There was no other option, I had to jump in and save the koala,” Patel explained to the 9 News crew. “I had to grab him and bring him out of the water.” On the video footage, a number of people are heard advising the student on how to handle the koala safely. As a result, courageous Patel decided to grab the animal by the scruff of his neck fur.
Then, with his hands at a safe enough distance from the koala’s teeth and claws as he could manage, Patel hauled the wet and bedraggled creature on to dry land. And when the rescuer was later asked how he was feeling at that moment, he said, “It felt beautiful. The lady who spotted him was crying after she saw the koala had been saved.”
When it comes to the steps taken in saving the creature that day, meanwhile, those present were correct to call wildlife officials first – even though they were unable to attend the scene in time. Patel also acted sensibly when he put an object the koala could grasp within the animal’s reach. But where he definitely went wrong was in referring to the creature as a “koala bear.”
This is inaccurate; the species may look like teddy bears, but koalas are actually marsupials. In addition, in 2016 the International Union for Conservation of Nature reclassified the koala as “vulnerable” on its Red List of threatened species. So it was very fortunate that Patel managed to save one – and, thanks to him, one more adorable animal was able to survive what could have been a very grisly fate.