The Amateur Naturalist:  Australia (Book Intro to a non-fiction animal conservation adventure book)


Cassidy was the type of girl who would pull a snake from a bush just to show you its scales. Unfortunately, she had left me in the car. But I wasn’t about to sit around while she went into the Australian wildlife rescue facility back rooms without me. I had expected a neat back room of exotic animals, but I did not expect a lone koala to be running around when I snuck in the side door, Cassidy and the hospital staff nowhere to be found.

The koala skitters across the room, its long nails sound like a poodle’s as I attempt to round him away from pointy objects. He crashes past a cart launching tweezers, clamps, and broken glass to the floor with a bang. 

I'm pretty sure he's not supposed to be back here, but hey, neither am I. Truth be told, I'm afraid to launch myself in his direction and attempt to pick him up. I don't know the proper protocol for tackling loose marsupials. 

Maybe this is why Cassidy was nervous to let me back here-- lest we get kicked out and never allowed to return. I was just trying to help. I’m here in Australia for three months to assist Cassidy with her biology honors project (the Australian version of a master's degree) investigating plastics in seabirds who are dying in record numbers. The hospital tries to save them, but when they can’t, they call Cassidy. She picks up the marine birds discreetly, and takes them for autopsy, trying to figure out what’s killing them.

A voice from down the hall startles me, followed by rushed footsteps. "What’s going on in there?" 

I slip and my head crashes into the bottom of a table, as the koala crawls away and skids against another rolling cart, knocking a metal tray to the ground as he makes a break for the door.

A glass wall separates the examining room from the hall, and I look up to see Cassidy and a nurse coming down the hallway. I rush out the door and down the hall to intercept them before they see me with the koala.

"What are you doing back here?" Cassidy looks both startled and upset. “You were supposed to stay in the car.”

I act natural and introduce myself to the nurse, “Hi, I'm Julia, Cassidy’s research assistant." 

Before Cassidy can scold me, the nurse is already validating my presence back here. "Ah, visiting us, are you? What's been your favorite thing about Australia so far?" 

"Well, I love how your animals are so... free-ranging." 

"How you reckon?" She looks puzzled. 

I decide to break it to them. "You know, the koala in the other room." 

The nurse's eyes widen. "What koala!?" 

She rushes past as Cassidy and I follow her down the hall, to the examination room. Through the glass, we can see the fuzzy grey toddler about to leave the room. The nurse blocks the exit, so the koala responds by pivoting and trying to run up the glass wall, its paws paddling on the glass, which is very adorable.  

The nurse swiftly scoops him off up into her arms like a big baby. Or, like a koala at home in a eucalyptus tree. Now calm, the koala allows me to stroke his grey fur, so dense and soft. “Ah, Luke! He’s a naughty teenager.” The nurse coos. 

"Sorry about the commotion!" I say.

“Nawr, Koalas can be very sneaky. This little bugger is always slippin' outta his enclosure. We just bring ‘em right back." 

Although the nurse isn’t upset, Cassidy is fuming at me for disobeying her previous instructions. We follow the nurse through swinging doors, past a room with a pelican in surgery, to an outdoor area. The nurse gently returns Luke to an open enclosure with a very small fence surrounding a faux eucalyptus tree climbing stand. Fresh, real branches cover the structure, where the koalas can sit, eat, and sleep. Several koalas are happily munching in similar enclosures next to his, and don’t seem to notice Luke’s return. 

We chat and I learn that even though koalas are adorable, with their big noses covering half their sleepy-eyed faces, they are one of the least intelligent mammals ever. Studies show they have a smooth brain and low cognitive functioning and are the only animal that doesn’t run away during a forest fire. Sorry to bum you out with that sad fact… though in a cartoonish way it is a little funny. They are simply a dopey cartoon creature, and it simply delights me that they exist. Though there is a disease going around, which has become a serious problem for koala survival. Known as “dirty bum disorder”, it is an STD like chlamydia. To protect the wild population and prevent it from spreading, infected koalas, like Luke and the others here, are collected by wildlife rescue facilities, and live out the rest of their days in quarantine. Unlike a zoo, they are not here for human entertainment.

"Well, better be getting back to the specimens now,” Cassidy says, and we went to collect our bag of bird samples and headed out. We had work ahead of us. Did I mention we still need to check them for gut plastics? 


© Julia Lesel


Bio: Julia Lesel has a passion for nature and travel, a country-heart always challenged by life in the big city. She has a Master's in psychology, always trying to get to the root of the human experience. She loves to hike, cook, and read (especially Anne Rice).