koala mittens

Since burned koalas sometimes need a year to recover, each one may go through hundreds of mittens during rehab. (Photo: IFAW)

Update — Jan. 12, 2015

IFAW is wrapping up its koala-mitten drive, issuing the following statement today:

"Our call for koala mittens has been incredibly successful and we are now being inundated with mittens from thoughtful people all over Australia and as far afield as Europe, Canada and the U.S.! Thank you to everyone who has dedicated their time to help."

"We have had such a great response we now have plenty of mittens available. So now we would like to turn our attention to other Australian native wildlife like possums, kangaroos and wallabies that are also at risk. Many are orphaned as a result of fires and come into care. These joeys need to be kept warm and quiet in a pouch-like environment so carers use sewn pouches. Pouches are changed regularly after each feeding and up to six pouches can be used per animal each day. So if someone has a few animals in care this can amount to a lot of pouches in the wash each day! With regular washing and daily wear and tear plenty of pouches are needed."

While koala mittens came from around the world, IFAW is focusing on local donors for its pouch drive, citing the expense of overseas shipping. People outside Australia who want to help should "consider donating to IFAW or signing up for emails so they can be alerted of opportunities to help animals in the future," the group writes. If you are in Australia, you can find pouch-sewing instructions here.

Fierce bushfires have swept through southern Australia in recent weeks, destroying dozens of homes and burning more than 30,000 acres of land. Fires like these can be a nightmare for anyone, but they're especially dangerous for koalas. The iconic marsupials often sleep in trees for 18 hours a day and can only move at about 10 kilometers per hour (6 mph), making escape from bushfires nearly impossible.

Koalas saved from fires typically have severe burns, especially on their paws due to contact with burning trees or grass. Several have already been taken to rehab centers in Victoria and South Australia this summer, according to the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), and four were recently rescued in New South Wales after flames ravaged a habitat that hosts a quarter of the area's koalas.

IFAW expects more such rescues as fire grounds are opened up to volunteers searching for injured animals, and now the group is seeking public help in nursing the animals back to health. Koalas' injuries need to be treated with burn cream and their paws need the protection of special cotton mittens — mittens that anyone with some extra scraps of cloth and a little spare time can sew at home.

"Just like any burn victim, koalas' dressings need changing daily, meaning a constant supply of mittens is needed by wildlife carers," says IFAW's Josey Sharrad in a press release about the group's koala-mitten campaign. "Some burned koalas can take up to a year to fully recover."

And don't worry about whether your sewing skills make you koala-fied enough to help. "Maybe you have some old cotton sheets or tea towels — just check that the material is 100 percent cotton," Sharrad adds. "These mittens are simple to make even if you've never sewn before."

The group is offering this pattern for sewing the mittens:

koala mitten pattern

It's unclear how many mittens will be needed after the recent outbreak of bushfires, but animal caretakers say a surplus would be welcome since they can be stored to use for future fires. "[B]ecause of the severity of the fires and the amount of fires around Victoria and Adelaide, at the moment we don't know what we're facing," IFAW's Jilea Carney tells Australia's ABC News. "We may not even use them all this year, but we know bushfires are a fact of life and we'll have a stockpile."

"We've got probably 400 mittens here," adds Cheyne Flanagan of the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital in New South Wales, "and if we had a fire, we'd go through them in a week."

Most of the mittens so far have come from Australia, according to Sharrad, but the campaign has also generated an international response. If you'd like to help, mittens should be mailed to IFAW, 6 Belmore Street, Surry Hills, Sydney NSW 2010, Australia. You can also email questions to info-au@ifaw.org.

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Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.