Tonahleah: A Special Koala

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Tonaleah has a new joey in her pouch!

Tonaleah has a new joey in her pouch!

Now that everyone has settled in at the San Diego Zoo’s new Australian Outback habitat, which opened in May 2013, we are absolutely thrilled with all of the positive feedback we are getting from our Zoo visitors. In fact, over in our koala harem yards we have some exciting news: one of our females, Tonahleah, has a joey in her pouch! This is the first confirmed birth in our Australian Outback. Koala joeys stay in their mom’s pouch for about six months, so we will not likely see the baby until early 2014.

Dr. Clippinger carefully replaces the newborn joey into her mother's pouch.

Dr. Clippinger carefully replaces the newborn joey into her mother’s pouch.

What makes this news even more special is the unique story of how Tonahleah came into our koala colony. In August 2009, koala Nariah was due to give birth. Being a new keeper to the Zoo, I asked my supervisor, Chris Hamlin, to accompany me to check Nariah for signs of a birth. As luck would have it, at that moment Nariah was hunched over in a birthing position—a rare sight to see. Koala joeys are about the size of a jelly bean when they are born and travel to mom’s pouch completely on their own, where they do most of their developing. Being that this was Nariah’s first joey, we didn’t want to make her nervous, so we gave her space and checked on her throughout the day. As part of my last check, I looked down at the ground and, to my surprise, a tiny pink koala joey had fallen to the ground below Nariah! The good news was that it was still moving.

We rushed Nariah and her joey to the Zoo’s Jennings Center for Zoological Medicine. Our veterinary staff quickly made the decision to put the joey back in Nariah’s pouch. It was a bit tricky, but one of our vets, Dr. Tracy Clippinger, did a wonderful job of getting the joey attached to the teat. Once it was secure, you could actually see the milk immediately enter into the joey’s stomach. It was a success! We are so lucky here at the San Diego Zoo to have such a wonderful vet staff. Our veterinarians, vet techs, and hospital keepers do an amazing job at keeping our animals healthy and handling emergency situations.

Tonahleah is now attached and filling up with Mom's milk.

Tonahleah is now attached and filling up with Mom’s milk.

Six months later, a perfectly healthy female joey emerged. All of our koalas have names with Aboriginal meanings. We decided to name this koala Tonahleah, which means “sun.” We thought this name was appropriate, given the fact that I found her lying on the ground in a ray of sunlight, which probably kept her warm and helped her stay alive.

This will now be Tonahleah’s third joey, and it is so special to think of all the koalas we saved by finding her on the ground that day. Those of us involved realize how lucky we are to be a part of her story, and we love telling it every chance we get. Who wouldn’t, when it has such an adorable and happy ending?

Katie Tooker is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo.

Download our free ZOONOOZ app from the iTunes App Store or click here to check out the June 2013 issue. It’s all about koalas!