Tales from Down Under

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Lindsey has her hands full with a koala!

G’Day! I’m Lindsey. At the San Diego Zoo, you’ll usually find me working around the Polar Bear Plunge and Elephant Odyssey areas, but for a little over a month I’ve had the pleasure of working with the Australia Bush team at the Melbourne Zoo in Melbourne, Australia. This story may sound familiar, as two keepers before me have also had this incredible opportunity. In 2008, Adam Ruble re-ignited the keeper exchange program at the San Diego Zoo, and it is due to his spirit and dedication, and the wonderful support of Zoo management, that I am able to report to you now from Australia.

When folks think of Australia, a place of kangaroos and koalas first comes to mind. As you can imagine, I was very excited to delve into the world of marsupials, having spent the last five years working with carnivores and ungulates. You can’t get much more Australian than the Aus Bush team! I now spend my days looking after Kangaroo Island kangaroos, red kangaroos, emus, parma wallabies, quokkas (another type of small wallaby), and a few species of birds. Very soon I’ll be introduced to rounds including the koalas, echidnas, tree kangaroos, platypuses, and wombats. The excitement is almost too much to contain!

In case you were wondering what a bandicoot looks like...

There is, however, one little known Australian critter that has caught my attention: the eastern barred bandicoot, or EBB. Now, I didn’t even know what a bandicoot was before I arrived here, and I was assured that I may not even see one during my time here, since they spend the majority of daylight hours tucked into nests. Bandicoots are a small marsupial weighing around 800 grams (28 ounces) at adult size. Their lifespan is two to three years in the wild, where their biggest threats are red foxes, habitat loss, and drought. The Victorian population of EBBs is considered extinct in the wild and only survives in three reintroduced populations. The Melbourne Zoo has been a part of a collaborative effort for captive breeding and release of EBBs for over 20 years.

A bandicoot receives a nail trim.

The Melbourne Zoo currently houses 29 EBBs that are being prepared as the next breeding group. Since they are nocturnal, the team was right: you really don’t see them up and about during the day, but once a month they are caught up, weighed, and assessed. It just so happened that one of these monthly weigh-ups occurred during my second week of work, and it was like watching a well-oiled machine as the Aus Bush team moved through the pens from one animal to the next with ease. The process begins by carefully moving so as not to crush the animal under foot as you search for its nest site and follows with selective placement of the net before coaxing the critter out of its cozy burrow. Once caught up, they’re transferred to the scale and then back to the keeper for a health assessment and nail trimming.

Strangely enough, this process has become one of the highlights of my time here and has spurred an interest in an animal that a few weeks ago I didn’t even know existed. Just last week I even got to sit in on a meeting of the EBB Recovery Team and learn more about the challenges of the reintroduction process and participate in discussions of how improvements can be made. I’m also hoping that I’ll be able to visit one or more of the release sites while I’m here.

All in all, very exciting times here in Australia, so thanks again to everyone who’s made this adventure possible!

Lindsey King is a San Diego Zoo keeper currently on a keeper exchange with the Melbourne Zoo.