Australian wildlife ranges from the utterly terrifying, like the deadly inland taipan, to the impossibly cute, like the bumbling wombat. But of all the terrestrial creatures down under, none is more enigmatic than the teddy bear-like koala, a treetop-dwelling marsupial known for its love of naps.
Despite being far from the innocent, adorable creatures they appear to be (they have an exceptionally high rate of chlamydia), koalas are the object of tourists’ affection wherever they’re found. One of the most prized souvenirs visitors seek is a photo of themselves embracing the small, gray animals, typically in a facility dedicated to this activity. A typical koala-hugging experience looks like guests lining up, passing the koala from one person to the next, and taking photos until the day is done.
Like so many creatures who had the misfortune to evolve into a form that somewhat resembles human babies, koalas are subject to excessive handling by people because of their perceived cuddliness. Their big eyes soften our hearts, their natural hugging position is just begging for a reciprocated embrace, and their overall look is like that of our childhood plush toy.
But they aren’t teddy bears. They are shy, wild creatures that do not naturally see us as their friends. It’s stressful to be handed between people, and as low-energy animals, any increased stress levels can have a detrimental effect.
In a Daily Mail article reporting on the effects of human-koala interaction, this assertion was confirmed with data. Dr. Jean-Loup Rault from the University of Melbourne’s Animal Welfare Science Centre said, “Our study showed that up-close and noisy encounters with human visitors resulted in koalas showing so called ‘increased vigilance,’ which is a common response to stress.”
From a human perspective that doesn’t sound too dramatic, but koalas aren’t humans, and in fact, it has a serious effect on their well-being. “This could be a problem as koalas survive on an extremely low energy diet — largely made up of Eucalyptus leaves — and minimize energy expenditure by sleeping 20 hours a day.”
Encounters wherein people interact directly with wild animals are on the decline around the world, and it’s time to allow koalas the same dignity of dwindling interaction with humans. Dolphin encounters are moving out of captivity and into the wild so the dolphins can exercise their own agency, and more and more people are opting to go birdwatching instead of snapping a quick pic with a random parrot perched on someone’s arm by the sea.
In the vein of birdwatching, going out into the wild to spot koalas in Australia is one of the most exhilarating and rewarding ways to experience these animals and the other creatures with which they share their ecosystems.
When I recently visited Melbourne, I was lucky enough to tag along on a koala-spotting expedition with Echidna Walkabout founder Janine Duffy. Janine is a wildlife guide by trade, who was the first to discover that koalas can be distinguished by their unique nose patterns, which led to the wild koala research project.
Since then she has championed conservation based on fostering appreciation of the environments in which these animals live, working with the Wathaurong, the local Aboriginal community, acknowledging that they are the land’s traditional stewards while receiving their mentorship and friendship. “Much of our understanding of wildlife, the bush, of community and of respect has come from their teaching, and we are grateful.”
Echidna Walkabout offers a multitude of tours that enable tourists to witness animals on their turf, but my experience was a little different, as it fell under the philanthropic arm of what Janine does. Koala Clancy Foundation is a nonprofit she launched in 2016 to address the fact that koalas are one of the top 10 species most affected by climate change, and expeditions with Koala Clancy Foundation focus on bringing out volunteers to help improve wild koala habitats.
Myself and a group of volunteers spent the morning in the You Yangs, a forest region about an hour from Melbourne, pulling invasive weeds out of the ground, weeds that prevent koalas from moving freely across the forest floor to move from one tree to the next. It was easy, fun, and of course the ideal setting for spotting koalas, among other animals. Janine’s effusive energy was contagious, and ensured everyone had a great time.
Perhaps the best moment was when our group of roughly 15 people gathered to look at a koala who was stretching and lounging in a tree nearby, and everyone fell silent in awe of what we were witnessing. No hubbub, no frenetic photo taking, just a wild animal captivating the hearts and minds of people taking the time to appreciate it for what it was. We left that moment with a deeper understanding of the animals and the satisfaction of having personally championed their survival.
We love the animals we want to interact with, but if we want them to stick around for us and our children and their children to continue to love, and if we want those animals to have lives characterized by dignity, then it’s time to graduate from what was once the norm for wildlife experiences. Let’s stop hugging koalas, and appreciate them in their natural habitats instead.