The main attraction of Port Macquarie, in my mind, was not the beach but the koala hospital, and once I’d learned that such a thing existed, I was determined to go there. The hospital nurses its patients but also allows the public to access and tour the facility, which raises money to keep the operation going. The intensive care unit of the hospital is restricted to staff, but koalas who are close to being released or who are permanent residents of the hospital occupy quarters where the public can observe them.
“Does anyone know,” asked the tour guide, “what the number-one ailment of our patients is? Why do you think most koalas end up in the koala hospital?”
The two guesses that came to my mind were animals injured by vehicles or bush fires. And both calamities had brought koalas to the hospital, but not nearly on such a scale as chlamydia.
“Mom, what’s chlamydia?” Emilia asked loudly. The tourists and staff around us snickered.
“It’s something that makes you sick,” I whispered.
“Can people get it?”
As sure as I knew my child, I knew what she would say next. The same thing she says when learning of any ailment or tragedy that can befall a human. And she broadcast it loudly.
“I sure hope I don’t get chlamydia.”
“Me too, sweetie. Me too.”
The sex lives of koalas are far more dramatic than one might initially think. The animal is threatened not only by STDs like chlamydia, which can prove fatal if not treated with antibiotics, but also a form of HIV. If you were a female koala who managed to stay disease-free, you would still have to deal with aggressive male koalas who might physically rip you down from a eucalyptus tree to have their way with you at any moment. And while the male koala makes a deep grunting sound you’d expect from an elephant or large pig, the female has an eerie scream. If yanked from a tree, she’s apt to scream and fight off her would-be mate. These screams attract other males, who then duke it out for the spoils, while the female hangs back to try to figure out which one is the dominant male and future baby daddy.
Koalas were often called koala “bears” because they resembled teddy bears, but the more I learned about these creatures (through my own research—koala hospitals and rehabilitation centers don’t give all the gory details, though they did cop to chlamydia), the more it became apparent that comparing them to sweet and cuddly objects of comfort is nothing more than wishful thinking on the part of humans. Take motherhood, for example. Not only does the joey cling to the female koala’s teat, but at six months, the joey also begins to eat a fecal pap that the mother produces. In essence, mom must lactate and poop special food. Motherhood is demanding enough as it is. Having to provide food for your child from more than one orifice is downright cruel.
All mothers know that giving birth severely compromises our bladder control ever after. That’s why we women who have given birth try to quickly cross our legs before we sneeze. But on top of that, koalas have a rear-facing pouch, so designed by Mother Nature so that the joey can reach the aforementioned fecal pap. If the mother is upright, gravity therefore endangers the joey of falling out, requiring the mother koala to have an additional sphincter in the form of a ring of muscles around the opening of the pouch. She must be able to clench that sucker shut to protect her young. I’m not denying that baby koalas are cute. Baby anythings are cute. But come on. An added sphincter? The care and protection of these babies seems terribly taxing on the mother. Then again, she doesn’t have a minimum of eighteen years of said taxation.
The Sex Lives of Koalas is an excerpt from Vagabonding with Kids: Australia.