Holding a Koala

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May 8th 2011
Published: July 9th 2011
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I was so excited that only a 6 year-old late on Christmas Eve can understand how I felt. I had been excited for six months, since a traveller met in Fiji placed randomly in the conversation that in some states, koalas are on patting duty to be held! I have, however, had to internalise my excitement as no one in Australia seems to understand the emotion. In fact, only my dear Matthew knew that the silence on the long, windy, so-badly-signposted road up to Kuranda Koala Gardens was in fact the unreasoned fear that something may go wrong between the few minutes separating me from that long awaited, much strived for, koala grail.
You have to know that not only do just two states allow koala holding but also that this is a very regimented activity. Kolas are not handled, mostly, because it is of course disturbing for their development, however the ones you get to pat are hand raised and born in captivity. They are not getting wild koalas off the trees to do this, furthermore, koalas are out for a maximum of thirty minutes a day and the carers try to reduce it to less, most times. They also respect the koalas' will (yes Allen, the kolas' will) and do not insist if they do not want to come out of their tree fork! It is a way to raise awareness for their protection and to raise money for breeding programmes.
Believe it or not, kolas are not protected in Australia. Their numbers are decreasing steadily on mainland Australia as their habitat is progressively being destroyed. They have no predators except for dogs and humans. Fortunately, the fur trade that decimated the koala population in the nineteenth century was abolished in 1927. They could be doing very well if their trees were not cut down to build urban complexes and holiday resorts along the Australian coast.
Koalas live and feed in gumtrees. They eat only fifteen species of Eucalypt out of the eight hundred species native to Australia. Koalas occupy a very specialised niche in the food chain as they eat one kilo of poisonous eucalypt leaves a day that no other species can digest. Their metabolism is such that they require no other water than the moisture they get from the leaves. The word koala is, by the way, aboriginal dialect for no water.
Due to their poor food diet, their energy level is low and they sleep a lot. About twenty hours of their day is spent snoozing curled up in the fork of a very high gumtree, competing for the I-Am-The-Cutest-Thing-You-Have-Ever-Seen-Award. Their little body, four kilos on average for a female and eight for a male, is very well conceived for their purpose. They have a cartilage plate on their bum, like their closest relative the wombat (notice their similar bums next time you get to see a picture NB: I refer you to the exteeeeeeeeensive Ross collection of Aussie Wildlife Pictures 2011...), that allow them to be comfortable for hours.
Their very dexterous five fingered hands have got long claws that allow them to climb and move very agilely from one tree to another. They very seldom go to the ground as they would be most vulnerable. They are a delight to watch when they are awake! We were so lucky, we got an amazing video of their trapezist-like ability in Philip Island. They also have cats-like eyes to see at night. They curl up under all weather and do not have a den. You need to know that for this reason, southern Australian Koalas have got more hair and are smaller (and browner) to cope with the colder weather.
So, as I was saying, in most places, you pay a special fee to hold a koala but I was really relieved to see that I was not taking part in a commercial animal exploitation process. It is one of the reasons I wanted to do that too; I wanted to see how well the koalas were taken care of and I thought the carers and the pledge behind it was honest and respectful of the animal's welfare as much as it could. It was great to spend time talking to carers that were knowledgeable and passionate about what they were doing. Although, they did look a little frightened at my big, wide, ever-grinning face, but soon understood that I was part of the real koalas lovers' club. The ones who know them and love them. Plus they saw the T-shirt (I refer you to the pictures...).
Would you believe that while I was patiently, sorry, grossly impatiently queuing for my turn, some people came and went for thirty seconds poses and left again. Believe me, I planned on being there for as long as I could, asking as many questions I could think of in the hope that they forgot I was still holding the koala that they were meant to take away some five minutes ago...!!!!!
And it did work. In an amazing combination of lucky circumstances, the place was mine for what seemed hours of dream-like elation. I was doing what I most love, talking, patting, breathing koalas. Yes, I held two! How many tourists can say that? As I was queuing and silently cursing these idiots coming and going for their pictures, I was also trying to come to terms with the fact I was only a metre away from a real koala. She was beautiful and so very real in front of my wide-opened eyes and mouth. Her name was Juanita. I stretched my hand out to the young lady carer who was nodding me over for “my turn.”
With very hesitant fingers I caressed Juanita's little arm and felt the softness of her short luxurious fur. A second later, I was making the best gumtree impression and could feel in my left hand the soft weighty bum of this little ball of fur. Her front paws were resting over my shoulder and I could see her facial expressions and all her movements got my heart going with elation. She was very placid and quite happy to hang there.
It was explained to me that koalas are a dead weight. They do not have strong muscles in their front members, that is why, at rest, they lodge themselves securely in a tree fork. I tried to be a good tree fork.
It felt like an amazing treat to be in such close proximity and look at her little teeth, eyes, the colour and texture of her fur. Where did that girl ever get the idea that koalas are not soft? Juanita was like a warm cashmere Popple. (Does anyone remember the 90s cartoon with the Popples? Check it out. You will understand.)
I could now feel every one of her four kilos, as I continued posing for the numerous videos and photos Matthew was industriously producing. I kept talking to the carers and my cunning plan was working a charm. I was holding little soft Juanita for over five minutes.
I finally, reluctantly, handed her over to her carer and continued feeling her luscious coat and marvelling at her every move for another ten minutes while she was with the carer. Gently coerced a few steps away from the koala holding area, we then made our way to an enclosure where three other koalas were sleeping and competing for that cuteness award I was telling you about. They are so photogenic. I was, at the same time, monitoring from the corner of my eye, the comings and goings of people taking their turns to hold Juanita. I suddenly noticed Juanita doubled in size and walked over to peep at the new mascot.
He was an 8kg male called Hogan (named after Paul Hogan, the Crocodile Dundee actor... Grrrrrrrr!). Juanita was now off patting duty. Hogan was not as placid. He was known for not doing what you asked from him and the carers explained that they had special tricks to get him to climb on/off them or hand him over. Another carer could whisper in his ear to be mean to an annoying tourist and he would surely leave a mark of his powerful claws on their shoulder.
While listening to these stories with amazement, I ventured my hand forward and the carer let me pet him. He was sooooo soft! Such a different fur to little Juanita. Like a strong higher quality woollen carpet. Short and dense! The carer probably felt pity for me and from the kindness of her heart, gave me the best present ever. She asked me to make a gumtree and placed Hogan in my arms. He was so heavy! Hogan must have liked me though, as he seemed to be smiling with his semi-closed eyes and his head, twice as big as mine, was resting comfortably above my shoulder.
I cuddled Hogan for another five minutes. I had to remind myself though, not to give him a squeeze as I hugged him goodbye. Koalas have a floating ribcage, their ribs are not joined to their spine, and so their little chest is fragile. I then walked over to his enclosure with the carers, where we watched him munching over some freshly harvested eucalyptus leaves for a little while longer.
I had made a friend. It was really hard to leave. There was more to see in the park and I had to come back to reality. After all, Matthew had been watching me watch koalas for over three hours now... That is called love, I'd say.

Additional photos below
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Another koala friend

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