News of the catastrophic bushfires in Australia is heartbreaking and upsetting. So much so, I participated in the Koala Encounter at ZooTampa.
Australia’s Devastating Bushfires
Since September 2019, an estimated 25.5 million acres have burned in Australia, at least 29 people have been killed, and an estimated one billion animals and plants are feared to have perished including an estimated 25,000 koalas. Bushfires are an annual event in Australia and the season is typically October – May but this season’s devastating event is unprecedented.
Images and videos of kangaroos and koalas injured and killed by the bushfires flood my social media feeds and top news reports making me feel sad and helpless. Recently, I began seeing uplifting stories. There are stories of dogs rescuing injured koalas and a couple of teenagers filled a car with injured koalas on Kangaroo Island.
How Can I Help the Koalas?
Living more than 9,000 miles away, I wondered what I can do to help the wildlife impacted by Australia’s bushfires. I also wanted to learn more about koalas and get up close to one. A quick Google search led me to ZooTampa at Lowry Park and the Koala Photo Encounter. This is where I met Heathcliff, a Queensland koala.
ZooTampa at Lowry Park’s Koala Photo Encounter
On a sunny Sunday morning, he sat in his perch munching on the tips of fresh eucalyptus leaves. He surveyed his surroundings and appeared unfazed by the half-dozen humans in his open-air sun yard. It was probably a typical Sunday for him at ZooTampa at Lowry Park but atypical for us observing him.
“Look at Heathcliff,” the zoo photographer instructed. Doing as I was told for a perfect Instagram post, I briefly locked eyes with the 9-year-old marsupial. He looked away as if he could not be bothered with this photo shoot.
A Koala Eats…
Heathcliff and his female companion, Ceduna, are ambassadors of their species at ZooTampa. The encounter allows visitors to ask zoo staff questions, learn, and get a little closer to a koala. For instance, koalas only eat leaves from certain types of eucalyptus. Specifically, they only eat the tips because that is where the most sugar is found which provides the most nutrients, which is minimal.
Eucalyptus is toxic to most other animals but the koala’s digestive system can safely process them. Digestion consumes energy and since the leaves provide minimal nutritional value, koalas sleep up to 22 hours a day. They consume the equivalent of a head a lettuce a day and the ZooTampa koalas consume eucalyptus grown in Southwest Florida.
Before meeting Heathcliff, we saw Ceduna and their joey (baby koala) named Sydney, who was born about a year ago. Heathcliff arrived at ZooTampa in 2014 and she arrived in 2015. She is a first-time mother and Sydney is the first koala born at this institution. These koalas are part of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Species Survival Plan. This program ensures survival of specific species in aquariums and zoos and seeks ways to enhance conservation of these species in the wild.
When born, Sydney was about the size of a gummi bear and climbed his way up into his mother’s pouch. Today, he is about two-thirds the size of her.
Interestingly, all koalas in the United States and elsewhere, belong to Australia and are on loan from that nation. Because of this, there are restrictions on who can touch, handle, and interact with them. During the photo encounter, there is no touching Heathcliff, visitors need to stay at least three feet away, and cameras cannot be put in front of his face.
Is ZooTampa’s Koala Photo Encounter Worth It?
The Koala Photo Encounter is about 30 minutes and absolutely worth the opportunity to observe and learn more. As to how I and others can assist wildlife impacted from Australia’s bushfires, zoo staff suggested donating to Zoos Victoria. The not-for-profit established the Bushfire Emergency Wildlife Fund and will use donations for habitat restoration, building space for new patients, extra vet training, and supplementary feeding for animals in the burned areas.
Threats to Koalas
In addition to the bushfires, habitat fragmentation, feral cats, domestic dogs, and cars also threaten koalas. The zoo’s participation in the Species Survival Plan is helping ensure the koala’s survival.
Some of ZooTampa at Lowry Park’s Accomplishments
The koalas are just one example of ZooTampa’s success stories. Earlier this month, an endangered white rhino was born as part of the Species Survival Plan. Last year, the zoo successfully bred and released threatened Florida indigo snakes. It is home to the David A. Straz, Jr. Manatee Critical Care Center which has provided critical care to more than 400 wild manatees and release of 258 since 1991. It is one of the state’s top facilities for rehabilitating endangered species like Florida panthers. The Catherine Lowry Straz Veterinary Hospital is the only veterinary facility inside a zoo accredited by the American Animal Hospital Association.
Nat Geo WILD’s “Secrets of the Zoo: Tampa”
These are some of the zoo’s accomplishments which most likely helped it land on Nat Geo WILD’s television show, “Secrets of the Zoo: Tampa.” It debuted Jan. 5 and is a six-part series offering an authentic look behind the scenes. Joyful moments are celebrated, such as Heathcliff, Ceduna, and Sydney and the koala keepers featured in episode one. But the realities of aging animals are addressed, too. Season two is currently being filmed.
More than 1,300 animals live within the zoo’s 56 acres and range from stingrays to macaws and Bornean orangutans to African elephants. The zoo has the feel of a small theme park without the hefty price tag. Activities are perfect for children and adults, like the Tasmanian Tiger Coaster, Roaring Springs, Macaw Flyover, and Expedition Africa Safari Tram Ride. It is also a photographer’s dream with residents living in landscaped habitats.
Participating in the Koala Photo Encounter fulfilled my goal of learning more about this adorable animal and how I can help them. Learning and seeing the good ZooTampa is doing for koalas and other species, I have a better appreciation of zoos and their role in the world.
Nuts & Bolts About Visiting ZooTampa at Lowry Park
ZooTampa at Lowry Park
1101 W. Sligh Ave.
Tampa, Fla. 33604
Tel: (813) 935-8552
Open 9:30 a.m. – 5 p.m. Daily.
Single day purchase made through the ZooTampa website:
Children 3 – 11: $26.95
Pay for a single day and get the rest of 2020 free.
Children 3 – 11: $29.95
Parking is free.
Book your Koala Photo Encounter in advance. Reserve online at https://zootampa.org/encounters. The encounter is available weekends and select weekdays. Cost is in addition to the zoo’s entrance fee and varies depending on the day and ranges from $10 – $15 for ZooTampa members and $20 – $25 for non-members. The fee includes a printed photo of you and Heathcliff.
“Secrets of the Zoo: Tampa” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on Nat Geo WILD.
Support Recovery Efforts Following Australia’s Bushfires
Several organizations are assisting wildlife injured and/or orphaned by the Australian bushfires. Some include:
Bushfire Emergency Wildlife Fund
NSW Wildlife Information, Rescue and Education Service Inc. (WIRES)
Australia Zoo Wildlife Warriors Hospital
Terri Irwin, wife of the late Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter, owns this zoo.
Other Places in Florida to See Koalas
Palm Beach Zoo – Koala Experience
1301 Summit Boulevard
West Palm Beach, Florida 33405-3035
Zoo Miami – Meet the Zookeeper at the koala habitat to ask questions and learn about them during a designated time.
12400 SW 152 St.
Miami, Fla., 33177
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