Cuddling koalas is at the top of many tourists’ to-do lists, but the author of a new welfare report is urging visitors to Australia to instead admire them in their natural habitat.
While Tourism Australia has spruiked the “unforgettable wildlife experience” on its website for the past six years, World Animal Protection argues the practice can be stressful for the koala.
The charity’s country director Ben Pearson said the idea of “using a koala as a prop” highlights society’s “broken relationship” with nature.
Report author Dr Jen Ford visited several Queensland sanctuaries which offer animal encounters, where she alleges koalas were forced against their will to interact with tourists for photographs.
“I saw some cases where the handlers had to really just peel them off the branches; they clearly didn't want to go,” she told Yahoo News Australia.
“You might have the odd animal that enjoys and encounter, and certainly some venues may say it’s enrichment, but is it really?”
Tourism Australia reviewing koala cuddle webpage
While the tide against hands-on encounters with Australia’s cutest marsupials appears to be turning, “koala cuddles” remains a very popular search term internationally.
Victoria and NSW have outlawed koala cuddles. The experience is limited to one sanctuary in Western Australia, three in South Australia, but Queensland continues to defy the trend, with 13 operators offering tourists the opportunity.
Koalas are federally listed as endangered in Queensland, NSW and the ACT.
Tourism Australia has translated its koala cuddle advice into 17 language and country combinations, although in response to changing public expectations, it has been reviewing this webpage since May.
The words “Where to cuddle a koala” have recently been replaced with “Where to have a koala experience”, although the page still leads with a list of Queensland koala cuddle operators.
“Some of our public facing content is currently under review to ensure it continues to reflect the changing sentiments and needs of international visitors to Australia as well as the wider community,” a Tourism Australia spokesperson told Yahoo News Australia.
Under its own policy, Tourism Australia remains opposed to the use of live animals at its own events where their primary use is entertainment, and there is negligible conservation or education value.
While changes to the government page have been slow, travel companies including Flight Centre, Booking.com, Tripadvisor and Expedia now limit the types of animal encounters featured on their website.
Flight Centre has a "look but don't touch" approach to the wildlife activities it promotes, while Tripadvisor does not allow “intentional or physical contact” with wild or exotic animals.
Report author visits Australia Zoo and Dreamworld
As part of her research, Dr Ford visited a number of world-famous animal attractions in Queensland, including Dream World, Australia Zoo and Sea World.
While she commended all three for their conservation work, she remains concerned about the direct encounters they offer with wild creatures.
At Australia Zoo, a number of hands-on wildlife activities are on offer, including photos with koalas at $49 per person.
Dreamworld continues to allow tourists to feed wild tigers for $55, or “get up close and cuddly” with a koala for $24.95.
Dreamworld said it could not provide anyone to speak with Yahoo News Australia, directing questions about its animal encounters to its website.
The theme park, owned by Australian-based Ardent Leisure Group, offered a statement on its conservation work.
“Dreamworld is committed to conservation and makes meaningful change via the Dreamworld Wildlife Foundation, which has raised over $3.5 million for animal conservation and continues to fund important conservation projects in Australia and internationally,” a Dreamworld spokesperson said.
Australia Zoo has been contacted for comment.
Sea World says captive animals ambassadors for species
The issue of captive dolphins also remains controversial and concerns have been highlighted by World Animal Protection in their report.
Sea World on the Gold Coast has Australia's largest collections of marine mammals in human care and offers a number of interactions, including a private couple’s dolphin adventure for $699.
While World Animal Protection has commended the theme park for its rescue and rehabilitation of wild marine mammals, it is critical of the park’s dolphin shows, and close encounter packages.
Sea World argues that its “exhibits, presentations and animal adventure programs” are “conservation-based” and animals at its park are “ambassadors” for their species.
“Through these presentations and programs, guests are provided with an opportunity to get an in-depth appreciation and understanding of the species while building connections which will encourage them to take action to assist in greater animal conservation efforts,” a Sea World spokesperson said.
Zoo association responds to animal encounter concerns
Peak body, the Zoo and Aquarium Association (ZAA), executive director Nicola Craddock told Yahoo News Australia its members are "uniquely placed" to foster "meaningful connections between people and animals".
She points to a survey that found direct interactions with animals resulted in 60 per cent of respondents feeling "more personally connected to the animal and its species".
Another 57 per cent said they learned about conservation of the species they interacted with during the experience.
Ms Craddock said every animal interaction "animal welfare should always be considered first and foremost".
"This can vary greatly depending on how the interaction is designed and managed, which species are involved, and which individual animals are involved (they have their own personal preferences just like us)," she said.
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