Of all the direct wildlife interaction opportunities available in Australia, koala handling or “cuddling” is probably the most well-known and widely advertised.
But koalas, even those born in captivity, are wild animals with wild instincts and behaviours. They are solitary animals in the wild, yet in many captive venues they are kept in enclosures in inappropriately close proximity to one another.
They are not adapted to having close contact with humans. The naturally docile nature of koalas means that they can appear quite calm as they sit in someone’s arms or on a prop, but this does not mean that they are not experiencing stress.
The cruel reality of koala handling is obscured by using words like ‘cuddling’, a term used by many venues which creates the impression of a pet, young child or cuddly toy.
It is inherently deceptive as ‘cuddling’ implies mutual agreement and consent in the interaction, and the idea that both parties are enjoying it. The reality is that the koalas are being forced into the interaction and held against their will.
Ben Pearson, Country Director, World Animal Protection said:
“The reality is that people pay to cuddle a koala because they love them, but they are unaware of the silent suffering these animals endure. Forced visitor interactions with an animal like a koala simply adds a layer of cruelty to their life of captivity.
“There is a reason koala cuddling has been banned in several other states. The idea of using a koala as a photo prop is reflective of our broken relationship with animals and the natural world.
“Wild animals are not an endless resource for profit driven venues to commodify and exploit. And while a few venues do some genuine conservation work, this is out of step with their current business model. Promoting ‘koala cuddles’ does not aid conservation."
An investigation of some of the most well-known Queensland wildlife venues was carried out earlier this year assessing the close encounters taking place.
Dr Jennifer Ford, Zoologist and animal welfare expert said:
“During my investigation, what surprised me the most was the degree to which koalas are used as photo props with little regard for the welfare of the animals.
“We must understand that koalas are wild animals and are not adapted to close contact with humans. They are also naturally solitary and rest up to 20 hours per day. Studies have shown that koalas become stressed even in close proximity to humans, so forcing them into stressful interactions where they are hugged and used as photo props is completely unacceptable from an animal welfare perspective.
“Observing these encounters, I saw was several koalas showing clear signs of distress, not wanting to be removed from their branch, being handled by the public in a noisy, unnatural environment. This inevitably results in stress and hence compromised welfare.”
Recognising the animal welfare impact of close encounters and changing community sentiment, travel companies such as Flight Centre are removing these activities from their websites, instead introducing a ‘Look Don’t Touch’ approach to wildlife instead. In response to shifting public attitudes Expedia, Trip Advisor and Booking.com, also refuse to sell experiences with direct interactions with wild animals.
The Queensland Government must immediately ban the practice of allowing koalas to be handled by humans, with exceptions for keepers engaged in welfare-related activities or veterinarians.