Wombat Pats

Every year the high school at the Singapore American School shuts down for one week in February so that all of the students can have an “interim” experience embarking on an adventure, usually outside of Singapore. So I’ve spent the past week chaperoning a group of nineteen students on a trip to Queensland, Australia. The focus of this interim trip was three and a half days at the Australia Zoo, a.k.a. the Steve Irwin (a.k.a. the Crocodile Hunter) zoo.

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We went for a combination of service (think picking up sticks, raking, sweeping, food prep, and manure scooping) and animal encounters. Steve Irwin, who inherited the zoo from his parents and turned it into a mini-zoo empire, believed that people are most likely to want to serve and preserve animals if they get to know them up close and personal. So this zoo offers more animal touching, feeding, and other such interaction than any zoo I’ve ever seen. You could, for example, see plenty of koalas just sitting around in trees (they’re remarkably snoozy, sleeping for over twenty hours a day) …

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… and you could even spend time watching a baby koala …

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… but you could also hold a koala in your arms (this particular animal encounter came with a real photographer and a background setting like you might find in prom pictures):

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Koalas, by the way, feel like very soft scrub brushes.

I have mixed feelings about these animal encounters, which feel like unnatural ways to engage with wild creatures. To what extent is this exploitation, and to what extent do these encounters help to promote animal conservation? We spent many hours talking with the kids on our trip about these sorts of questions. In the meantime, I let my enthusiasms take the day and interacted with animals of all sorts. They had sessions for patting (it’s “pat” rather than “pet” in Australia) a rhino …

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… Aldabra giant tortoises (which are incredibly soft) …

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… a wombat (his name is Milo, and his fur is very bristly) …

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… and an echidna (which is a monotreme — an egg-laying mammal):

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I have lots of questions about this, of course. Does that echidna want to be lifted up in the air? What does the rhino make of the experience? The wombat clearly seemed to be opposed to the whole patting scene, while the tortoises appeared to be having a grand old time. But how can I know any of this for sure?

I do know that animals like to be fed, and those encounters were lots of fun. We stood up on a platform over the giraffe and zebra enclosure …

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… and fed carrots to this giraffe:DSC_4639DSC_4643

We also got to feed milk to the tigers! Not a baby tiger, but real adults (with real teeth and real claws). We fed them using a syringe, the end of which we placed up against the bars of the cage. But we were not allowed to take photos. I’m guessing that this is because the zoo has been criticized for the size of its tiger cages, but it might also be a safety protocol. I’ll never know the answer, because the zoo’s PR department has its patter down to a science.

The easiest animals to encounter at the Australia Zoo are the kangaroos and wallabies, because these animals sit around in a large space and just wait to be fed. Here are the instructions:

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If you could coax them out of the heat (it was humid and in the early- to mid-90s our whole time in Queensland), these bouncy friends were pretty wonderful:

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My favorite animal encounter was the one for which I paid extra: a session with the black and white ruffed lemurs. Wow, are these guys fun! They climbed all over us.

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Lemurs have incredibly soft fur.

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These guys are highly food motivated, and it will surprise no one to learn that they gobbled the peaches and strawberries right up and left the beans and peas sitting in my hand:

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While the SAS students worked in pairs behind the scenes with zookeepers, I spent time wandering around the rest of the zoo. Highlights included this green python …

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… a kookaburra …

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… the tawny frogmouths …

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… the tigers…

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… and the ring-tailed lemurs:

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The meerkats put on quite a show, both in their work as sentries …

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… and playing (while looking wholly ferocious) in the shade:

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These water dragons, native to the area, are all over the place:

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I also saw a cheetah out for a walk. The cheetahs are no longer on display — apparently, too much human interaction makes them nervous — but their daily exercise sometimes gets them out in front of the viewing public:
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The one species that they kept at a real distance from us was the crocodile:

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I really liked the warning signs by their cages, which suggest that nearly everything results in being eaten by a crocodile and dying:

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My least favorite parts of our zoo visits were the animal shows, which seem to be all about entertainment and very little about animal conservation. The crocodile show — shown here on the Jumbotron and viewed from stadium seating — seems to me to be the least defensible:

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And while it was truly awesome to see a swooping Andean condor in flight before the croc show — and while I loved the book H is for Hawk — I’m still not sure how I feel about keeping and training raptors.

The tiger show is billed as “enrichment activity,” because the keepers need to play with the tigers every day to keep them from getting bored. So they play with the tigers as if they were giant cats (which they are, I know), having them bat balloons and run after things. We saw the tigers trying out — and demolishing — giant rubber ducks for the first time:

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It was awe-inspiring to watch tigers leaping into the water after large toys, but I wasn’t entirely comfortable with the idea of the notion of “play” here. Do adult tigers play in the wild?

Overall, while the zoo raised a lot of moral and ethical questions for our group, it was a great trip. Here’s my team after a hot couple of hours of laying turf and raking bamboo leaves…

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… and hanging out as we wait to get assigned our next task:

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We were sorry to say goodbye!

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