The koala is one of the best-loved of all wild animals and perhaps the favourite of mankind,}
The koala's comical appearance has, undoubtedly, contributed to its unique status, but what is it that makes the koala more appealing than almost any other animal. The koala has been the subject of countless children's books, cartoons, songs and poems. There are literally billions of cuddly koala toys around the world and it has starred in many advertising campaigns. Whether it be celebrities or royalty the koala has captivated the imagination of people throughout the world, so in this chapter we explore the changing attitudes to the koala that has made it what it is today, an international icon.
Two hundred years ago, the koala was far from achieving icon status, or even from being considered 'cute'. Early explorers and naturalists often described it as 'sloth-like', as prowling rather than walking and, even, as having a 'fierce and menacing look'. They also had no great respect for its intelligence, as can be seen by the name given to a fossil originally described as a species of koala. The specimen was named Koalemus ingens in 1889 by the then Curator of the Queensland Museum, Charles De Vis.2 Koalemus is derived from the Greek for 'stupid or foolish fellow', but we now know that De Vis was mistaken in describing this fossil as a koala as it appears to be from a now-extinct group of marsupials known as diprotodonts.3
Of course, not all early natural historians were so dismissive of the animal John Gould referred to as a 'remarkable creature',4 although the tide of public feeling towards the koala would not begin to turn until the beginning of the 20th century, when the sheer weight of numbers of animals being sacrificed to the fur trade started to cause concern. As we will see in Chapter 9 the last open season in 1927 caused nationwide public outrage.
But what brought about this change in people's perceptions of the koala? Its appearance is a major factor. The koala's physical proportions are very similar to those of a human baby. A newborn infant has a relatively large head and eyes, a medium-sized body, short legs and tiny feet. The human growth pattern reverses this scale as both the legs and feet become longer. The human head grows at a slower rate than the rest of the body, so its relative size actually decreases. Human babies elicit or release a strong maternal response, a response stimulated in part by their head-to-body proportions, and some researchers, including Roger Martin and Kathrine Handasyde, consider the body proportions of a sitting child aged 12 to 18 months to be similar to the relatively large head and forward-facing eyes of a koala.5 Ronald Strahan and Roger Martin argue that the koala's physical appearance acts as an 'innate releasing mechanism for the human care response', and suggest that the extraordinarily high degree of protection granted to the koala by state and federal legislation is based on an emotional attitude rather than a rational assessment of the species' status.6 We will see the importance of this in the forthcoming chapters.
The koala features in The Exciting Adventures ofDot and the Kangaroo, arguably Australia's first conservation text, written by Ethel Pedley and published in 1899. During her adventures Dot meets the 'funny native Bear':
Then Dot opened her eyes very wide and looked round, and saw a funny native Bear on the tree trunk behind her. He was quite clearly to be seen in the moonlight. His thick, grey fur, that looked as ifhe was wrapped up to keep out the most terribly cold weather; his short, stumpy, big legs, and little sharp face with big bushy ears, could be seen as distinctly as in daylight. Dot had never seen one so near before, and she loved it at once, it looked so innocent and kind.
'You dear little native Bear!' she exclaimed, at once stroking its head.
'Am I a native Bear?' asked the animal in a meek voice. 'I never heard that before. I thought I was a Koala. I've always been told so, but of course one never knows oneself. What are you? Do you know?'
'I'm a little girl,,' replied Dot, proudly
The Koala saw that Dot was proud, but as it didn't see any reason why she should be, it was not a bit afraid of her.
'I never heard of one or saw one before,' it said, simply. 'Do you burrow, or live in a tree?'
'I live at home,' said Dot; but, wishing to be quite correct, she added, 'that is, when I am there. . .'
'You make my head feel empty,' said the Koala, sadly. 'I live in the gumtree over there. Do you eat gum leaves?'
'No. When I'm at home I have milk, and bread, and eggs, and meat.'
'Dear me!' said the Koala. 'They're all new to one. Is it far? I should like to see the trees they grow on. Please show me the way.'
'But I can't,' said Dot; 'they don't grow on trees, and I don't know my way home. I'm lost, you see.'
'I don't see,' said the native Bear. 'I never can see far at night, and not at all in daylight. That is why I came here.
I saw your fur shining in the moonlight, and I couldn't make out what it was, so I came to see. If there is anything new to be seen, I must get a near view of it. I don't feel happy if I don't know all about it. Aren't you cold?'
'Yes, I am, a little, since my Kangaroo left me,' Dot said . . .
'Then you ought to be black,'argued the Koala. 'You're not the right colour. Only blacks have no fur, but what they steal from the proper owners. Do you steal fur?' it asked in an anxious voice.
'How do they steal fur?' asked Dot.
The Koala looked very miserable, and spoke with horror. 'They kill us with spears, and tear off our skins and wear them, because their own skins are no good'
'That's not stealing,' said Dot, 'that's killing,' and, although it seemed very difficult to make the little Bear understand, she explained: 'Stealing is taking away another person's things; and when a person is dead he hasn't anything belonging to him, so it's not stealing to take what belonged to him before, because it isn't his any longer—that is, if it doesn't belong to anyone else.'
'You make my head feel empty,' complained the Koala. 'I'm sure you're all wrong; for an animal's skin and fur is his own, and it's his life's business to keep it whole. Everyone in the bush is trying to keep his skin whole, all day long, and all night too?'7
The first person to recognise the koala's comic potential was the Australian artist Norman Lindsay, who in 1904 began to caricature the animal in his cartoons for the Bulletin magazine. For several years, this very human koala remained nameless, but eventually he was christened Billy Bluegum. 'Billy' would become 'Bunyip' in Lindsay's 1918 classic, The Magic Pudding: Being the adventures of Bunyip Bluegum and his friends Bill Barnacle and Sam Sawnoff. This much-loved children's tale about a walking, talking pudding that likes to be eaten and never runs out has never been out of print. The pudding is
owned by three companions (Bill Barnacle the sailor, Bunyip Bluegum the koala, and Sam Sawnoff the penguin) who wander about Australia eating happily, and who are often forced to defend their property from pudding thieves. Lindsay illustrated the book himself with numerous black and white drawings.8 Many would argue that the publication of The Magic Pudding, which still ranks among the bestselling Australian books, made a significant contribution to the koala's growing popularity.9 In 2000, The Magic Pudding became a movie, directed by Karl Zwicky.
Some might have described it as 'fierce' or 'threatening', but the koala's mild nature was immediately apparent to Arthur Lucas and Dudley Le Souef, who describe their first encounter with one in their book The Wild Animals of Australasia:
The native bear is surely the mildest, simplest, and most unsuspecting of our native mammals. I shall not easily forget when I was fresh from England, and rambling alone in the Gippsland forest. I turned around and, to my surprise, saw suddenly an uncanny creature with big hairy ears and grave looking eyes gazing at me from a low stump at the distance of a few feet. In England one does not see wild animals of such a size, and I had to rub my eyes before I could believe in the reality of the vision. I was fortunate in getting a close view of the Bear, and view him I did to my heart's content, while he also seemed interested in an unimpassioned sort of way in the new chum.10
In 1926, the koala's growing popularity was recognised by Albert Le Souef (younger brother of Dudley) and Harry Burrell, who wrote that the koala 'holds the affection of Australians more than any other of their wild animals—a fact for which its innocent, babyish expression and quiet and inoffensive ways are largely responsible. It has been portrayed in caricature and verse, and its hold on the public is used effectively by advertisers'.11
As we saw in the previous chapter, the 1920s and 1930s saw the establishment of three fauna parks, each founded by individuals concerned about the impact of the fur trade on the koala, and the real possibility that the species might be in danger of extinction. The first was Brisbane's Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, founded in 1927, followed in the same year by Sydney's Koala Park and then, in 1936, by Adelaide's Koala Farm. Noel Burnett, founder of the Koala Park, believed that the 'bears possess individual personality; they are almost human, their expressions captivating and actions lovable. No two bears are alike. American visitors insist they are live toys. Australia possesses a unique novelty in the koala, and humanity would be so much poorer if the little bear passed away for ever'.12
The 1930s also saw the birth of perhaps the most famous and best loved of all fictional koalas, Blinky Bill. The character was created by the New Zealand-born author Dorothy Wall, who first published Blinky Bill: The Quaint Little Australian in 1933.13 Unlike the grown-up Bunyip Bluegum, who can be
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