Hello Banjo (or: Making good use of downtime in a pandemic) Danny Nolan
Mt. Evelyn Zoo and B&B or The Yarra Valley Nocturnal Zoo as it is now referred to had big plans for the year 2020 but like most things on the planet this year, these were disrupted and postponed until further notice. Or so one would assume. When most businesses that involved public attendance in the state were being shut down due to Health Authority isolation procedures the zoo still needed to continue the massive task of feeding and caring for the animals (though the Bed and Breakfast section needed to close). Thankfully, most of the zoo’s helpers are all involved with the NDIS. The majority of whom are young, have some learning disabilities and crave routine (as well as being devoted to the zoo’s owners Steve and Loo) this was great for all involved. Since there would be no customers for the B&B and School and aged centre tours were halted, plans that were in place but just needed time to implement could be now considered. That time was now available. One of these projects, a new information/learning centre was built for the school tours, complete with a small store. In the guise of a barn, it also became the new morning meeting place for the team members. It has a high ceiling with walls decorated with corrugated tin and life-sized animal statues scattered about. At the opposite end to the entrance are glass doors that open up to reveal the undulating fields below where the pens for the kangaroos, dingos, wedgetail eagle and potoroos among others could be viewed. Spread out below, the mountains of the Yarra Valley stretching out in the background completing a perfect picture. Another huge change that occurred due to the Lodges of the B& B being unused, decisions were made that all but one was transformed into reptile houses. The reptiles have now taken over. An unexpected influx of snakes, frogs and frilled necked and monitor lizards that had become available had new digs in the once comfortable lodgings of weekenders. The decision to scale down the B & B was a planned event as it can be very labour intensive and heavily regulated but since the zoo was even more regulated and labour intensive one gave way to the other. The B&B in this case losing out. Then came something no one predicted. Back in January of this year, I was talking to zoo owner and operator Steve Handy about the then devasting fires that were affecting the country at the time and the massive loss of wildlife in particular koalas on Kangaroo Island and regional New South Wales.
I asked if the zoo would be able to take some that were rescued but alas there are strict rules in place for koalas that have been rescued, whether hurt or saved from a fire zone, by the Victorian Department of Agriculture. All animals eventually must be rehabilitated back to the wild. Those unable to be (mainly due to ill health) must be euthanised. Did you know it is illegal to have in your possession a dead koala? let alone a hide or skeleton. So imagine the regulations for owning a real one. Steve said that all these things would always work against the zoo getting a tree-hugging marsupial but the odds were always stacked against them because only koalas bred in captivity were allowed in certain collections and that koalas only like specific kinds of gum leaves. Koalas can only live in bushland where their favourite trees are growing, and they will only eat a few of the hundreds of species of eucalypts which grow in Australia. Koalas in different areas of Australia like to eat the leaves from specific types of gum trees. For instance, koalas in Victoria eat the leaves of different gum trees from those eaten by koalas in Queensland. So, when it came to having a koala as an attraction, the zoo wouldn’t hold their breath. Well like most things this year, the unexpected happened. The zoo was offered and was granted permission to house a male koala approximately seven years old. With this came the information not known earlier that koalas from different areas had tolerances to other types of gums, notably Stringybark blue-leaved, thin-leaved and swamp gum (or Ovata). Gums readily available locally at Lillydale Lake. The local council has been very generous in letting the zoo prune swamp gum from the lake when it wants. It was then discovered the zoo had a good supply on its own property’s outer border. Of course, with the new arrival, a proper habitat needed to be built. Steve. for such a laid-back type of guy. knows how to design and build with a speed that never ceases to amaze me. On April 30 Banjo had arrived (he kept his name from his previous residence) and was an instant favourite of all the zookeepers. Banjo was used to humans and had no problem being handled or being patted. Which was an advantage because everybody wanted to hug Banjo.
I was lucky enough when the first lockdown ended to be able to visit Banjo. The first thing you realise is that a koala’s fur is like a little kitten. So soft and fine. Up close they are the most amazing creatures. It is also obvious that when a koala is comfortable, they do not wake up or move for anyone. With the recent Summer fires there was a decimation of a large number of koala’s and their habitat, for example, according to the Government of S.A Dept. of Environment web site, before the fires there were an estimated 50,000 koalas on Kangaroo Island – about half in native vegetation and half in blue gum plantations. Large areas of their preferred habitat have been burnt, and a substantial number of koalas are expected to have died, add this to the Southern New South Wales carnage, and it has highlighted how vulnerable these and other native animals are. I’m pretty sure Banjo doesn’t know what he’s in for when the zoo starts night tours when this whole pandemic thing clears up. Because a chance to have a cuddle with a koala.