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Is it cruel to cuddle a koala? Sanctuary stops hugs amid debate.

4 days ago 37

Koalas — Australia’s iconic marsupials — have been petted by princes, pop stars, presidents and a pope. But one of the country’s oldest koala sanctuaries has stopped offering cuddles with the furry animals in response to strong visitor feedback.

The move by Brisbane’s Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary highlights a growing debate about whether the welfare risks to animals of “selfie-style” tourist encounters — those centered on photo opportunities — outweigh the benefits of encouraging conservation.

Lone Pine opened in 1927, aiming to draw attention to the plight of koalas at a time when they were being culled for their fur. Since the early days with its two original resident koalas, Jack and Jill, the sanctuary has offered koala cuddles to countless visitors, including a young Taylor Swift in 2009. Now, it is replacing hugs with more extended — and educational — experiences that teach visitors about koala behavior, ecology and daily care.

“We love that there is a shift among both local and international guests to experience Australian wildlife up close, but not necessarily personal, just doing what they do best — eating, sleeping and relaxing within their own space,” said Lyndon Discombe, the sanctuary’s general manager.

Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary is in Queensland, where it is still legal for wildlife and entertainment venues to offer koala cuddles after some other states banned the practice decades ago.

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The decision to stop the close-up encounters was made following “increasingly strong visitor feedback,” the sanctuary said in a statement. Asked whether visitors had expressed concern about whether holding koalas was harmful, a spokesperson said only that guests wanted more educational and immersive experiences.

Wildlife advocates argue cuddling koalas is cruel because it upsets their normal solitary routine. In the wild, koalas sleep for most of the day to conserve energy for the slow process of digesting the tough leaves of eucalyptus trees, their main food source.

“Close encounters where wild animals are used as photo props, riding, bathing, all of these are stressful and harmful activities. We’re calling for those to stop. And not just here in Australia, but around the globe,” said Suzanne Milthorpe, a spokesperson for the nonprofit World Animal Protection, which is petitioning the Queensland government to ban koala cuddles. The petition has garnered about 5,000 signatures, she said.

Although people have a tendency to anthropomorphize animals, Milthorpe said, koalas are adapted for life in the wild, not captivity. They have sharp, hook-shaped claws evolved to help them climb the tall, slippery trunks of eucalyptus trees. While they might seem cuddly, their fur is scratchy, and they prefer solitude, she said.

Elephants are another wild animal that, left to their own devices, wouldn’t offer themselves up for close encounters with humans, according to Milthorpe. She recently toured a wildlife park in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where the group is helping the owners move away from keeping elephants captive for riding to an ethical tourism model in which the elephants are able to behave as if they were in the wild.

“What we’d really like to see is a future where people see wild animals in the wild,” Milthorpe said in an interview.

Koala numbers in the wild have declined dramatically in recent years because of habitat loss, predators and disease. In 2022, they were officially listed as endangered along the country’s east coast after catastrophic wildfires ripped through forests.

Steve Irwin — the late crocodile-wrangling conservationist and TV personality — once said that “when people touch an animal, the animal touches their heart. And instantly, we’ve won them over to the conservation of that species.” His Australia Zoo still offers “cuddly koala encounters.”

But there is increasing global awareness about the potential stress and suffering of animals in wildlife venues. Last year, a Florida zoo apologized for offering an “encounter” in which visitors could pet a kiwi, New Zealand’s national bird, after an online petition collected more than 10,000 signatures in two days.

The push to limit koala encounters is not universally supported, however.

Tourism websites still promote places where koalas can be cuddled as a quintessential Australian experience. The Lone Pine move prompted backlash in a local newspaper article that polled readers on whether they thought koala cuddles were acceptable or not. “What’s next, are we going to provide compensation to Koalas?” one reader wrote.

The Queensland state government said it has no plans to change the law on koala cuddles.

Steven Miles, the state premier, who has had his photo taken hugging a koala in the past, quipped to reporters that the marsupials have “the best union around” — with strict rules including on the amount of time they’re allowed to be held and regular rest days.

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