Monday, July 6, 2015

Recap: G'Day from Australia!

I hope everyone will indulge me in a brief hiatus from our usual posts to do one of my "recaps", this time about my own reality, my visit to the Australia Zoo last week. My reason for doing such a personal recap is because there is a pretty strong connection to our chatter on this blog and this zoo. Number one, Kate Plus 8 filmed some episodes of the show in Australia and had their own spin on what goes on at the zoo which may not have been entirely accurate. Secondly, Bindi Irwin is probably Australia's most exploited child, even attracting attention from legislatures there who are concerned about her welfare, and for that reason alone I think it's interesting to keep up with what that family is up to.

And I guess a third reason is I think you'll enjoy hearing about this as I enjoyed my day there.

I won't bore you with the long details about how I ended up in Australia. The short version is I was given a wonderful opportunity to work here for a couple weeks, an opportunity which also included some leisure time such as a visit to the Great Barrier Reef and a stay on a cattle station, and I couldn't pass that up. This was one of those right place and right time things that came my way and makes me feel very lucky and appreciative. 

So last week I stepped on that 14 hour flight out of LAX bound for Sydney with several other colleagues. I'm not going to lie, that flight was brutal, but there were lots of new movies to watch and enough episodes of Veep to have me giggling a good two-thirds of the way across the Pacific. ("How much would I love to speak my mind on this campaign  Can you imagine if I did that? 'Mississippi is chock full of assholes, I don't trust the Chinese, and I gotta tell you something. I'm not going to be able to pass a single piece of legislation that's really going to make any fuck of a difference in your life.' How's that for a campaign platform?") Going back, the flight was more than an hour shorter which was a difference you could feel. Every hour counts when it's that long I guess.

After a few days recovering from our jet lag in Sydney, where not me but some of us were unfortunately vomiting for a few days (airplane food, we decided) we headed up on a short flight to Brisbane, near where the Australia Zoo is located. We made our home base in the gorgeous seaside surfer town of Caloundra, which hosts an old ship wreck the S.S. Dicky that is probably the most beautiful thing you will ever see at sunrise. A few of us managed to get up to witness it two days in a row. This was the prettier of the two mornings though both were spectacular. 

We planned almost an entire free day at the zoo and nearby koala hospital, and hit the ground as soon as it opened at 10 a.m. the day after we arrived in Caloundra.

My first impressions of the zoo was that it was extremely clean, very large, and quite classy. There was very little that was tacky about it as some attractions like this tend to be. It is of course heavy on Steve, with his photo plastered pretty much everywhere, but the heir apparent Bindi is everywhere too. Overlooking a croc infested creek there's Bindi's treehouse, which you can look at but not actually go up in, and coming later this year is something called Bindi's island. None of us bothered to figure out what that was about. A lot of people were commenting that Robert, her younger brother, is hardly anywhere. Neither is Terri for that matter. The marketing team knows what sells, and that's Steve and Bindi. Some remarked that they felt bad for Robert, who perhaps might feel like he plays second fiddle to his sister and dad. (I suppose it's also possible Robert doesn't want to be a part of this, though I doubt it.)

In the morning we wandered from exhibit to exhibit, just checking out whatever was nearby. We saw the crocs, several different birds, and snakes. They had camels you could ride and a sleepy tiger you could get your photo taken with, which I believe is the same one Kate got her photo taken with. It was kind of funny to see three zookeepers in there with the tiger, the people just sitting there on the ground hanging out like it was the most normal thing in the world. We speculated the tiger might be drugged, but I hope not. We saw koalas, one with a little baby riding on her mommy's back that was ridiculously adorable. Zookeepers were everywhere in the zoo, answering questions and often bringing the animals out of the enclosures for a closer look. We saw one worker actually walking a perfectly content wombat like you might a dog.

They were moving him for some reason. I asked if that's how they always move them and they said yes. Well, that seems more humane than sedating it and throwing it in a crate, as long as it's happy to walk with you.

I have to say I was impressed with the zookeepers. Most of them were very young, enthusiastic, and had the most nurturing touch with the animals. I watched one young woman remove a dozing koala from a tree with such a gentle hand, like a mother might wake up their sleeping toddler. There are also many areas of the zoo that are hands on and encourage you to touch and pet the animals, which Steve Irwin was so big on (and at times, criticized for) and there was always someone nearby to monitor everyone and make sure the animals were okay. I heard a few zookeepers speak up and ask people to step back when they felt the animal was getting too crowded, but I never saw the animals themselves act uncomfortable. The spirit of Steve and how he believed we should interact with wildlife, whether you agree, carries on. 

Now to what I imagine the zoo would consider its highlights. They have a huge enclosed area with a bunch of little kangaroos ranging from about three to five feet tall. They just hop around of their own accord and are perfectly tame around people. We bought some feed and went in and hand fed them. 

It was really fun and the roos had such personalities. I have a hysterical selfie with one where he looks like a silly kid photobombing me. Some of them had babies in their pouches and I saw them kicking in there like a human fetus kicks his mother. Someone else in my group saw one poke a little head out but sadly I missed that. I took a lot of photos in there and I didn't have to approach a roo, they would approach me and mug for my camera. I felt very much at ease in that exhibit. 

There is another similar roo feeding area with a different breed of kangaroos. I think it was Red Kangaroos. They were just as outgoing, but because we stopped by that later they were pretty full and not interested in eating. After that our group all took a turn holding a koala.

It was like holding a sleepy toddler, they were adorable and clung to you instantly. It was very special. I said they looked like sleepy babies, others said they looked like sleepy drunks. Whichever you prefer!

At noon we gathered in the "Crocoseum" for the croc show.

I imagine the show we saw was similar to what was shown on Kate Plus 8. This part was probably the least enjoyable for me. There was a lot of teasing of the crocs with bait and even trainers to get them to come out of the water or do certain things. Shades of Sea World. I did enjoy the birds, who flew very close to our heads.

Australians in general I've found to be honest, inviting, and curious. They also love to tease and laugh and when I asked some zoo staff where the "restroom" was they burst into giggles and said, "Restroom! You don't rest in it!" They just call it "the toilet" there and thought the Americans and their Americanisms were good fun. Which reminds me, the Australians we were with remembered it was the Fourth of July, which none of us expected them to (after all, most of us don't have the first clue what their holidays are or when), and made us a beautiful flag cake. I think most of us cried when they brought that out, it was just so kind.

It was fairly crowded at the zoo the day we went, although to be fair it was the first day of winter break for Australian school children, so it's hard to judge what it would look like on a regular day. The winter weather was beautiful, in the high 60's, with just a light shower in the morning we barely noticed because we were so absorbed in hanging out with the roos.

Australians are also chatty and love to tell you what they think if you ask. They don't have some idea that they best not say what they think to strangers out of politeness, as some cultures do, including to some extent our own. They are my sort of people! I had chatted up several of them throughout the trip and found out some interesting dirt about Terri. I met someone who knew Steve and said he was just as he was on TV and that everyone loved him, but that most people were not too keen on Terri. He found her to be standoffish and was never able to form any kind of friendship with her as he did Steve. I found myself wondering exactly what Steve saw in Terri, since everyone describes him as so genuine, and she as, frankly, a hot mess. Australians are very aware of the criticism of the Irwins and it makes them uncomfortable. The zoo has been struggling even before Steve's death, and the turning point as one Australian thought, was when Steve held baby Robert near a croc. He said from that moment on they never recovered.

Terri is estranged from Steve's father and he has washed his hands of the zoo, however under Australian law he apparently still has access to and sees Bindi and Robert. The zoo staff is, according to those I talked to, quite concerned about Terri's handling of the zoo's finances. This I had heard in the press, too.

Many locals were also vocal that they didn't like the zoo either, in particular the way you are allowed to touch and hold some of the animals. They said if you encountered a kangaroo or koala in the wild (which I did, incidentally, at about 11 o'clock at night I ran into three roos bigger than me--although that's another story!) you should quietly walk way around it or they'll claw your eyes out. I quietly walked around the three I saw! Way around.

At the end of the day a zoo is a zoo and I don't find them particularly necessary, but if you must have a zoo, they did as good of a job as you can with it. I give them credit for getting rid of some of the most exploitive exhibits, like the elephants, even if it were more for financial reasons, and for taking care to hire a staff that treats these animals like their own children. I also know many people who had a stake in the zoo have lines they won't cross. For instance, Steve Irwin's father has been very vocal about his disgust with Sea World. I've been to Sea World San Diego as well and I never felt the level of comfort there that I did at the Australia Zoo. This zoo has its issues, but it was not Sea World.

After a nice lunch in a big food court near the Crocoseum we headed over to the Koala Hospital, which is just a short walk over on the other side of the parking lot.

Here is where my heart just swelled. This is a real living working hospital that takes in injured animals and restores them to health. Many are released back to the wild. If they cannot return safely to the wild they are absorbed into the zoo or go to other good homes. They have it all open for viewing with huge glass windows, and some of the vets were working right at that moment on a sea turtle. You can see in the photo a great example of the gentle, loving touch of the vets. One of the doctors was actually soothingly rubbing the turtle's back. I don't know if a sick turtle responds to a back rub, but it's worth a try. 

The vets came over to the windows to talk to us and show us the turtle up close.

When we were there they were treating several animals including a koala who shattered his pelvis when he was hit by a car. He was doing well enough to rest in a little tree they had set up for him. You could see little shaved spots on his tiny back where they had been working on him. The turtle was suffering from excess air in its body and shell. Apparently a defense mechanism when turtles are injured is to retain excess air, however too much can kill them. There is treatment for it that can help it get better. They did not know how he was injured but guessed maybe a boat.

I'd love to see the zoo focus much more on this rehabilitation, but I suppose the other exhibits help fund this great work. We asked ahead of time if the hospital needed anything, and they said they could use office supplies like post its and pens, and that they could always use new or gently used towels. Well, my group delivered, and brought over from the U.S. with us the motherload pile of supplies you see here in front of one of the vets. I'm very proud of these Americans.

All in all it was a wonderful day, I learned so much, and we all felt so good about being able to help out the hospital with supplies. 

Thank you everyone for your patience while I've been absent from the blog. I'm glad I'm able to share with you some of the cool things I did while you were stuck on the same post! Australia may be a progressive country but it could use some work when it comes to its wifi! It's nonexistent in many places and slow as all get out in most others. Incidentally, one of the few times we had really good wifi was at the zoo (thank you, Terri, for that), but of course when that happened we were too busy seeing the zoo to be online much. Thanks again all you blokes and g'day!