Holding the soft, fuzzy animal that I had been somewhat obsessed with since childhood, I became overwhelmed — not by emotion as I thought might happen, but by an abhorrent stench. It was a combination of dried urine and eucalyptus oil. Was this really the case? How could my favorite animal, a cute and cuddly koala, smell so bad?
Holding a koala was one of my top goals, along with learning to surf, when I arrived with my family in Australia to live for one year. At a young age, I had fallen in love with the animal that isn’t really a bear but a marsupial. When I was 11, I had even written and illustrated my own children’s book called, “Koala Knowledge.” For several years, I wanted to be a zoologist just so I could take care of koalas.
Consequently, it was a mission. I had to cuddle a koala. At the very least, I needed a photo to put on the book jacket of my children’s book if it ever became published. There was ample opportunity because every reserve, zoo or wildlife park offered a photo session with koalas.
Long ago Australians realized the marketing potential with their cute, freakish, one-of-a-kind animals. No other country in the world has an echidna, koala, wombat, platypus, dingo, wallaby or kangaroo. Selling stuffed animals in tourist shops and zoos, alone, is a huge bonanza. Charging people who want to hold a koala and get their photos snapped is just another logical business move.
Nevermind that many Australians think of koalas like Americans think of squirrels. Aussies will humor you when you tell them how cute koalas and kangaroos are and that you want to pet them. Secretly, however, many Australians couldn’t care less about them. Some Aussies even think koalas are dumb, dirty, moody beasts.
At any rate, we went to Cleland Wildlife Park, just 15 minutes from Adelaide, South Australia. The line to get a photo with a koala was crazy — it was like waiting in the receiving line to greet the bride and groom of a massive family wedding. My husband, Kurt, knowing the importance of this encounter, was patient and trooped off with our five-year-old Eddie to see the Tasmanian devils rip apart raw meat during feeding time. Our daughter, Kasey, waited with me. At three-years-old, she was just as excited to help hold the koala.
Just as Kasey was threatening to go find the Tasmanian devils on her own, it was finally my turn. The wildlife keepers at Cleland rotate the koalas because they are really nocturnal animals, and they get tired during the day. And surely, they must get sick of being handled but gushing tourists.
Roxy, one of the keepers, brought out a refreshed koala, Arthur, for me to hold. Arthur was much bigger than I expected a koala to be. I had put on this heavy green smock — sort of like the lead apron you wear during an X-ray. It made sense since koalas have incredibly sharp claws to climb eucalyptus trees. I got a good look at the claws. Definitely, evisceration of any opponent or tourist would be no problem for a koala.
When the keeper handed off Arthur, it was a bit awkward. “Arthur is our biggest koala,” she said. Then she plopped Arthur’s arms around me. I could feel the presence of those claws curled around. No sudden movement was the key. A furry velociraptor was draped over my shoulders.
Then came the smell. I tried to breathe out of my mouth while I hoisted Arthur up a bit more. He was heavy and I didn’t want him sliding down my arms and chest since he might use his claws to stabilize himself. My daughter Kasey was stationed at his back. I tried not to think of Arthur’s bum since many of the koalas we saw earlier in the display areas had butts that were soiled and wet with had to be their own feces. I gulped breaths of air when I could.
I don’t know if it was because he just woke up, but Arthur was not interested in turning to face the camera. Roxy coaxed him with some eucalyptus leaves, but Arthur didn’t really care. Finally, maybe to get her to leave him alone, Arthur began to turn his head. I was turning my head, too. Then we sort of collided into each other — face to face (it was about as literal as that expression gets.) We definitely nosed each other. After our “moment” Arthur looked at the camera. The photographer was good because he captured the only second that we were all looking in the right direction.
Ultimately, I held a koala and got my photo, and I knew the truth about them. Koalas stink.