I do not remember exactly how old I was when I saw my first photo of a koala—no more than eight and I instantly fell in love with the cuddly creature. As I grew older, and became aware of other animals, in particular, kangaroos and wallabies, I became equally fascinated with them as I was with koalas. By the time I was twelve, I had a stuffed animal collection, of which over 100 comprised of koalas and kangaroos.
I discovered that I had a talent for writing creatively when I was ten years old when my teachers informed my mother she believed I was a gifted writer and she suggested that my mother encourage me to write more often. When I was in sixth grade, my middle school had a writing competition, and the winning author and would have an opportunity to present their story at a young writer’s conference at the local university (Michigan State University) where they would meet other local young writers as well as established authors. Combining my talent for writing with my love of koalas, I about a mamma koala Kristi, and her joey, Kandi. The whole experience was an amazing learning opportunity because it was the first time, I wrote a story where it would be potentially read by someone other than my mother or my teacher, but more than that I had to do preliminary research about koalas in order for the book to be realistic and believable. Prior to writing the story, I mistakenly thought they were bears, and I knew they were cute, they lived in Australia, and that they and they ate eucalyptus leaves, but that was about the extent of my knowledge. The most important fact I learned from my research was that koalas are marsupials, meaning they carry their young in a pouch, and they are not bears—despite the worldwide misconception. My mother took me to the library, and she checked my facts, and spelling, but I had to do the work myself. I knew koalas ate a special kind of leaf, and I knew the name, but long before the days of spell check, I had absolutely no idea how to spell it. I knew better than to ask my mom for help, because she would have told me to sound it out. Only after spending an hour with a dictionary trying to spell eucalyptus—first with a “u” then with a “y” did my mother finally assist me. One can only imagine my surprise when I learned I should have been looking in the “e” section of the dictionary. My life would have been much easier if I had known then that gum leaves and eucalyptus are used synonymously. In any event, my teachers and principal selected my story to represent the school at the young writers workshop in 1985. It was quite an honor, but I am embarrassed to admit that other than the names of my characters, I recall nothing about the story, and sadly it was lost in one of the many moves we had since I had written it.
Unfortunately, by the time I entered high school and college, analytical and nonfiction writing took priority, and I had little time to write creatively, and becoming a political activist replaced my desire to be a writer. As an activist, I fought for the underdog, or underrepresented-primarily for women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, and labor rights. I fought for the underrepresented against the establishment, so not too different for my desire to work on behalf of animals. In both situations, I exerted energy in effort to give a voice to those without one.
My love for animals remained consistent throughout my life regardless of my age, where I lived, or where I worked. I still remained obsessed with koalas and kangaroos, but I had yet to make the trip to Australia to see them in their native habitat, and actually hold or touch one. The flight either from California or Europe is a long and expensive one, and I suffer from chronic migraines which are aggravated by flying, so my fear of the trip outweighed my desire to go. Nevertheless, I vowed one day I would make it, and I would see my beloved koalas and kangaroos in their natural habitat, and I would hold and pet one, and finally September of this year that dream came true.
On September 6, 2023 Brian and I boarded a plane for the eighteen hour flight to Sydney via a short layover in Doha. Our tour group of 30 (including the tour director) was set to begin with a group meeting at our hotel in Sydney at 4:30 on September 8th. However, Brian and I arranged to arrive in the evening (although our flight was two hours delayed) on the 7th, so that I could spend the day of the 8th before the tour began at a koala hospital in Port Macquire, Australia. I had heard a lot about the hospital, and “adopted” many koalas in their care over the years, so I wanted to visit it firsthand. Established in 1973, it is a licensed wildlife rehabilitation facility. Since it is open to the public people can visit the exhibition enclosures (where koalas they treated can no longer return to the wild) rehabilitation yards, a museum, a gift shop and a café. Luckily, because a friend of a German friend that I “met” online in one of the koala groups had volunteered at the hospital, she put me in touch with Mick. Mick is a long-time volunteer at the hospital, and he gave Brian and me our own personal tour of the hospital and grounds. He introduced us to the koalas (from afar), showed us the exam room, the ambulance, and the exhibits. He gave us a tour of the museum, and we talked for a while at the facilities’ café.
After we visited the museum, Mick took us to a local shopping center to visit the Lewis sculpture (more information about this significance will be discussed in the chapter specifically on the 2019 fires) where I took a few photos, and we had lunch. Admittedly, the little we did see of Port Macquire in between the hospital, shopping center and the airport was beautiful, and I wish I had had more time to spend there, but my primary purpose had been to visit the koala hospital and see the Lewis sculpture, which I can happily report I accomplished.
The next day our tour group received a tour of Sydney—where we visited the famous Harbor bridge, and opera house. We even stopped at an opal outlet store where we received a brief presentation on opal mining and could purchase items at discounted price. We returned to our hotel late afternoon and had the rest of the afternoon free. I found that wildlife Sydney Zoo was a fifteen-minute walk from our hotel, so Brian and I immediately headed over there. By this point, it was 3.30, and the last admittance was 4.00, so we ran as quickly to ensure we arrived in time. Upon arrival, our first stop was the kangaroo walkout area where six female kangaroos could hop around freely, and the public could pet and interact with them—under the watchful eye of the zookeeper. Here I excitedly got my first opportunity to pet a kangaroo when one hopped over to where we were stood. I was amazed at how soft her fur was and how sweet she was. We stayed until she lost interest and hopped back to the cool dirt she had been laying on, so Brian and I took that as our cue to go see the koalas.
Since koalas sleep approximately 18 hours a day, I was especially excited to see that a mamma koala and her joey were quite active while we were there. They climbed down one tree and wandered over to the glass where we stood and stared at us for a couple of minutes before the baby hopped on her mama’s back and up, they climbed another tree where they continued to eat the leaf the zookeepers left for them. I took videos and as many pictures as I could, and I found myself teary eyed at being able to finally witness this firsthand.
After a while, I could tell Brian was bored (although he never said a word) so we went back to see the kangaroos before we left. Since it was so late in the day, we were the only ones in the enclosure. I told the caretaker that my sole purpose of coming to Australia was to see the wildlife, and I had waited 45 years for this trip. She smiled very broadly, and said, “I absolutely love it when people tell me me this”, and she walked over to the center area where they kept the food and water for the kangaroos and she grabbed some carrots and sweet potatoes and said, “I am not supposed to do this, but since nobody else is here,” she lured the kangaroos over to where we were and she introduced us to each of them a nd told us an interesting fact about all of them. Truthfully, I was so overcome with emotion I don’t remember too much, other than her showing me one kangaroo, Julie, who she said had had a wasp fly up her nose earlier in the day. I asked her if Julie had been stung, and the zookeeper said, “I don’t think so, but she is feeling quite sorry for herself:” Anyway for the next ten minutes or so, I had the attention of all six of the kangaroos the zoo had, and I was able to pet, and talk to them, while Brian took photos and videos. It was without a doubt one of the most memorable experiences of my life. We finally left when the zoo closed, and they pretty much had to throw us out.
The following day, we had free so I had booked an “encounter” with a penguin caregiver and a koala caregiver at Featherdale Wildlife Park, a park about 45 minutes outside of Sydney. Here I paid money so that I could get up close with the 16 penguins the zoo had, meet with the caretaker, and help her feed them. Luckily the zoo provides gloves, because truthfully as cute as the little penguins were, the fish they eat is pretty disgusting. It was common for one penguin to eat the head off the fish and leave the rest of it, and another penguin would come and nibble a couple of bits, and after the fish was ¾ of the way eaten, the care giver was say, “they’re done with that fish” and she would throw the remains in the trash. Despite being disgusting, the penguins bit as they grabbed their food, so the experience was a bit uncomfortable as well. However, it was so amusing to see these adorable animals up close and watch them waddle as they tried to get around. It was definitely a memorable experience—despite the awkwardness.
After my penguin encounter, I had my koala encounter. Here I spent 20 minutes up close with a koala and her joey. Because the laws in Sydney strictly prohibit it, I could not hold her, but the caretaker allowed me to pet her (not the baby) and take as many pictures and videos as I wanted. At that point, as I left the caregiver after my twenty minutes was up, I thanked her, and told her she helped me to complete item number one on my bucket list. The most surreal thing about the whole experience is when I saw the photos I took and I realized those were my photos—not ones I had seen on social media or in a book, but photos I had taken with my own camera.
A couple of days later our tour group traveled from Sydney to Cairns. Most people were excited about diving or snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef—not me. I was ecstatic because Cairns is one of the few places in Australia where it is legal to actually hold a koala. Even though it is permitted, it is heavily regulated, and the koalas are limited to thirty minutes per day of human contact, so the time slots fill quickly, knowing this, I scheduled my appointment several weeks earlier.
Our tour group arrived in Cairns—an hour late, and I feared Brian and I were going to miss our appointments to have our photos taken holding a koala, but luckily, we all managed to get our luggage and get to our hotel in record time. Since our hotel was only a fifteen-minute walk from Cairns Zoom and Wildlife Dome where we had our scheduled appointment, we ended up early. Therefore, we had some time to waste so Brian and I walked around the Zoo/Aquarium. They had a lot of lizards and reptiles which for me, I fear and loathe as much as I love the koalas and the kangaroos, so I looked quickly at them and off to find the koalas so I could spend more quality time with them before that defining moment where I could actually hold one. Finally, the time arrived, we went downstairs, all of us that had the 3.30 time slot (probably a dozen of us) we got a brief introduction on the proper way to hold a koala, and shortly thereafter the caretaker arrived with the koala. Brian likes animals, and he has always been more than patient with my obsession with furry critters, but he does not have the passion for them that I do, (few people do) but even he muttered, “awe” at first glance at our koala, Pavlova. I admit that as much as I had waited for this moment my entire life, the event itself was anti-climactic. They had about twelve of us all lined up to have our pictures taken with her. They had us hold our arms down in koala position, hands looped together down by our stomach, so she would feel safe and secure like in a tree. We could not even pet her, and they put the Pavlova in our arms, snapped a photo, picked her up and in the next person’s arms it went. It felt like an assembly line for the poor girl, and I really felt bad for her, but I reassured myself that they regulated this for a reason, and if the caretaker or anyone thought that was too much for the koala, they put the koalas’ safety first, so I was not doing anything wrong. In any event, a lifetime of waiting was over in a split second, but I did get my photo taken holding a koala. Brian had his picture taken right after mine, and based on the expression on the koalas face, it looked as if she really liked him. In fact, the caretakers commented about how much she appeared to like him. Needless to say, I was more than a little jealous because his picture turned out so much better than mine.
My last koala encounter came on our third city—Alice Springs, in the middle of the Australian Outback. Our group had a planned visit to Hartley’s Crocodile Adventure. Like many of the zoos in Australia, they had a walkout area where the public could feed and interact with the kangaroos. I lost track of how many kangaroos they had, but I was really focused on one—a mama with a joey in her pouch. I was determined to get a couple of really good photos of the mama and joey, but after a long time and several tries, I had to settle with many ok photos of mamma and joey. In the meantime, I was able to feed and pet the other kangaroos that hopped around the encounter. I could not believe how much fun they were. The highlight I think of the trip was when Brian sat down to take a selfie with a kangaroo in the background, and the next thing he knew, he had a kangaroo reaching over and put its paw on his shoulder-an ultimate photo bomb by a kangaroo.
I had always maintained I thought koalas were cuter than kangaroos (marginally) but truthfully I fell in love with the kangaroos after interacting with them. They were so much fun and so entertaining. I could have watched them for months. I tried to get a good video of them hopping a decent distance, but they are so quick and unpredictable, so not an easy task. I took several videos of them hopping short distances, but nothing like across a field like I had hoped for.
While we were there, I also got a photo taken patting a koala, and our tour group had a special presentation with a koala and her caretaker, so I got to pat her as well. By the end of our trip to Australia, I managed to hold one koala, pet 3, and have my picture taken with four. I am uncertain of the number of kangaroos or wallabies I petted/played with, maybe a dozen. At the end of the trip, I totaled the number of photos I took of koalas during the trip beginning with the koala hospital in Port Macquarie, and ending in the Crocodile Adventures in Alice Springs, and I had 112 photos of koalas, 12 videos, and 95 photos of kangaroos and 22 videos, and approximately two dozen photos of the little penguins.
While in Alice Springs we had our first camel ride, a sunrise trip to see Ayers Rock via camel, a once in a lifetime event that I adored, but still did not compare to my experiences with the koalas or the kangaroos. Unfortunately, I had also hoped to see dingoes, platypus, and quokka’s, other animals unique to Australia, but they were always hiding or the zoo did not have them so I was unable to see them.
I knew my trip to Australia would do one of two things—it would either satisfy my obsession for the Australian wildlife, and I could say I had a dream of going and see and touching, and after having done that, I can move on to something else, or it would do the exact opposite—it would make my even more fascinated with these amazing creatures. The fact that I decided to put my book about the Berlin Wall and the Irish Peace Walls on hold to write about the importance of saving the Australian wildlife speaks that the latter occurred. Since I have returned from Australia, I look at the pages of my friends who rescue animals or run sanctuaries or work in zoos and I become nostalgic and want more than anything to be back in Australia helping them, being on the front line caring for the animals.
For a variety of reasons, that is not practical for me, so I have to find an alternative solution, and this book is it. I lived in San Francisco. I live in Europe; I have seen some of the most beautiful opera houses and theaters in the world. I have visited some of the most famous museums and cathedrals in the world. Every country in the world has these things—what is unique to Australia is their wildlife. They are fortunate enough to have some of the most beautiful and precious animals that are found nowhere else in the world, and people travel all over the world to see it. Yet, many Australians take it for granted, and many of these animals are on the brink of extinction due to climate change, land clearing, bush fires, and human indifference. As a result of these factors, experts estimate that koalas, could become extinct by 2050 if people do not act now. Moreover, even for the animals that are not endangered such as the kangaroo, they face continue obstacles from people including fence injuries, and being hit by cars. As a result, these animals still need care and rescues are at their limits on how they can help. Australia would not be Australia without any of these animals, and I am writing this to show the challenges these animals and the people who care for them face, and urge people to take an active interest and act to save and appreciate these unique animals before it is too late. This planet belongs to all of us, and since they cannot speak for themselves, they rely on humans to do it. Not only can humans do it, but they have an obligation to do so. After all, we all live on this planet together, and there is no reason why we cannot continue to coexist.
I encourage everyone to follow me on my next writing adventure with We live here: The struggle to save the Australian wildlife. As part of the writing process, I plan to interview caregivers of different animals all across Australia and share their stores. I intend to donate a portion of the sales of the book to various wildlife refugees, and while it is too soon to tell for certain now, if all goes according to plan the book should be available in the spring.