Dancing with Koalas

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When I moved back to Australia from the USA some years ago I brought my two dogs. This involved fulfilling a list of requirements that made the departure of the First Fleet and its convicts seem like the launch of rubber duckie in the bathtub.

Among the three thousand rules I had to follow was the purchase of two crates for the actual flight from Dallas to Sydney. They had to be large enough for the animal to be able to comfortably turn around during the voyage if the urge took him.

As one was a rather long Basset Hound and the other a not-tiny Springer Spaniel I forked out a whopping sum for two extra large cages. With the help of a company who transports pets around the world the whole thing went off beautifully smoothly and the boys looked well rested on arrival – although the Basset’s loud booming made the luggage arrivals guys jump.

But still, I had no great desire to repeat the experience. Too much bloody red tape.So I was left in possession of two very fine metal crates.

Some time later a local macadamia nut farmer asked if his daughter could have them for her koala rescue group. These tireless saints trek throughout the Northern Rivers rescuing orphaned, injured and other luckless koala bears. Eventually, if they survive, they are released back into the wild. hence the need for the cages.

The orphans are taken to the homes of foster carers who pop them into cozy blanket-lined baskets with a teddy bear for a mum substitute. They are often in the same nursery – aka the kitchen – alongside other orphaned joeys – little kangaroos who are housed in home-made pouches hanging off the back of chairs. Injured baby flying foxes in their own little beds with a dummy to suck on sometimes complete the menagerie. It is tireless, heart rending work for the carers.

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When the baby koalas are old enough they sometimes head off to a koala kindergarten – possibly the cutest thing on the planet – to hang out with other littlies and learn social skills. They have to learn how to walk along a branch and pass another kola coming the other way, for example. Out in the big wide world these animals are actually solitary, coming together only to mate, but presumably they occasionally will pass on a branch to somewhere.  

orphaned flying foxes

Apart from a former Australian Tourism Minister who once told the press that the country’s national symbol was a horrible little bugger that stank (they actually smell like nice cough drops) and pissed on you, most Australians are very fond of the cuddly marsupial.

So I was delighted to be heading down the driveway home one day when a large male wandered casually across the path in front of me and leisurely climbed a big gum tree. As I watched he settled himself on a branch, gripped it with both hands and turned his head in a classic koala pose. It was pretty funny.

It was also pretty unusual to see one in broad daylight. They are of course nocturnal and usually spend between 18 and 22 hours sleeping. This is to conserve energy as their diet requires vigorous digestion of rough and toxic eucalyptus leaves.

Since then I’ve seen a few others on the property but it really takes practice to be able to spot them as they are usually incredibly high up.

Romain my neighbour is great at spotting them. He has also heard them fornicating at night.

“What does it sound like?” I asked him.

“Loud,” he said. “He grunts and she screams.”

Hmmm. Maybe it was just the neighbours.   

But all the breeding in the world can’t keep pace with the calamity befalling this beloved species. Galloping urban expansion into koala habitat has forced them into smaller areas where they are under attack by dogs, disease and cars. 

In the Ballina area of Northern NSW a major road project is entering its final stages of completion. The dreaded remodeled Pacific Highway is finally about to see the light of day. But unless the agency overseeing the project agrees to a last minute change of course – a very minor one – the local koalas may not be seeing much light at the end of any tunnels. 

Literally just hanging on by the nails they will then have nothing left to cling onto at all. 

 As the old gag goes, how much can a koala bear?

 Friends of the Koala http://www.friendsofthekoala.org

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