Going to a zoo sucks. I effing hate Zoos.
If you work at a zoo, or are involved with them in anyway I am sorry. I know you do wonderful work and without you and your trained team of dedicated experts all the animals in the world would be dead like five days ago.
It’s just that because of my career I’ve been to South Africa and had the incredible opportunity to play with baby lions and romp with a baby tiger. I even got bit by that little bastard tiger. It broke the skin and I bled. Not very much but I did bleed and therefore I was in fact bitten by a tiger and you can’t take that away from me.
While I was there I also got to pet a cheetah. No shit. Do you how fast you have to be to pet a cheetah? Actually not very fast at all. They’re super demure and like a good scrichy-scratch right behind their ears.
So to sum up, I have frolicked joyously with smiling, golden-hued lion cubs, I have leisurely stroked the fur of the fastest land animal on earth, and to top it off I haver survived a (baby) tiger attack.
How the hell is a zoo going to impress me after that?
"Oh, look! The tiger came out of its hiding place and is standing a mere 50 yards away from me, safely behind 20 foot tall iron bars and razor wire! Wow, what a unique, up close experience! I’m shaking with awe!" - not something I’ve ever said.
I honestly thought I was done with zoos. Seriously, how many times can you experience “Holy shit, monkeys are cute!” and “Wow, that’s a fantastic looking bear I can almost see over there inside his enclosure that makes me feel sorry for him because he’ll never leave it” before you stop paying the 40 bucks admission and go bowling or something else for the afternoon?
Then I went to Featherdale Wildlife Park. It’s in a nondescript part of Sydney (Blacktown) and it has a nondescript looking exterior. Everything else about it is super “descript”. Or descriptive. Whatever. It’s awesome and I mean that in the fullest sense of the word.
Featherdale isn’t the biggest zoo I’ve ever been to. It is not the fanciest. Nor does it have the most variety of species. In fact it only has animals native to Australia (which I think is pretty cool) so there are no lions or tigers or bears because none of those live in Australia.
But that’s okay, because the animals that live in Australia are like nothing you’ve ever seen and Featherdale Wildlife Park has the largest collection of Australian animals anywhere in the world. Only having animals from Australia might sound limiting but it’s the opposite. I was there with my Rachel and we remarked that we had never before seen more new animals in one day. It was like watching Avatar only the creatures were real. Apparently Australia has way more cool critters than just koalas, kangaroos and baby-eating dingos.
We are not the first people to notice this about Australian Wildlife.
The animal kingdom as developed in Australia presents us with anomalies and peculiarities perhaps even more remarkable than are exhibited by the plants.
Alfred Russel Wallace, Australasia, 1893
What he’s saying is this - the animals in Australia evolved over millions of years spent apart from the rest of the animal kingdom and they did so under a unique set of circumstances. So they are the definition of exotic. Every time we went to a new animal habitat Rachel or I said a variation of, “Wow, I didn’t know that animal was a thing that was but boy is it cool looking and I’m so glad it exists.”
Like the cassowary. Say hello.
This bird is the size of a small ostrich and it’s the most insane color of blue and pink you will ever see on a living creature. Also, like most animals in Australia, it will kill the shit out of you. It’s inside claw will disembowel you most likely if you ever get attacked by one.
So don’t get attacked by one. Which you probably won’t because they only live in a tiny (like smaller than Rhode Island tiny) part of northern Australia. And also at Featherdale Wildlife Park. In fact it’s the first thing you see when you walk in the door. I gotta give it to ‘em. Featherdale knows what animal to go with to open the show. You go with a freakin’ 6 foot tall, giant, dead-eyed death-dealing blue bird straight from a galaxy not of our own deign. That’s how you do it.
After you look at the cassowary and are done grooving on its majestic deadly awesomeness, you will probably look to your left or right and notice wallabies just sort of hanging about, like teenagers lounging outside a mall only way less threatening. They are not in any cages or anything. It’s sort of disconcerting and it feels like maybe you should alert the zookeeper that hey, THERE’S AN ESCAPED WALLABY IN YOUR ZOO!!!
However they are not escaped at all. Rather they live in that part of the park! Sure they have a place where they can go to get away from people when they want but otherwise they have the run of the whole area. It’s awesome. You can wander over to them because they’re insanely used to people and you can proceed to PET A FREAKING WALLABY. Or you can just watch them loll about in the lazy Australian sun.
I chose to pet them immediately.
You have now been at Featherdale for about 10 minutes and you have already seen the strangest looking, deadliest, most beautiful bird in existence and you have MADE AN EMOTIONAL CONNECTION WITH A WALLABY. You could turn around and leave right then and it will probably still be the greatest “going to the zoo” experience of your life.
However I recommend you continue, because waiting around the corner from you is a parcel of land that I wish was outside every building everywhere. It is an area of the park that is so hard-core adorable, so amazing, so giggle-inducing that you could take an emo kid, a goth, a clinically depressed person and an angry Adolf Hitler, drop them there for five minutes and when you came back the goth and the angry Hitler would be hugging each other and jumping for joy while the emo kid would be smiling from ear to ear as the clinically depressed person laughed and took pictures.
What is this place? Why it’s the koala enclosure. And screw Disneyland, the Featherdale Wildlife park’s koala enclosure is the happiest place on earth. I’m telling you straight up, if you can visit the koala enclosure and not experience childlike wonder and pure, unadulterated joy, then you are most definitely dead inside and probably a terrible person who punches children for fun.
Here’s what it looks like in the koala enclosure - complete with Rachel’s almost tearful, childlike reaction to it all.
It’s actually a pretty simple set up. There are a bunch of short eucalyptus trees and a veritable plethora of koalas lounging about, looking adorable, sleeping (koalas sleep 20 hours a day which OMG makes them even more adorable) and perhaps moving slowy from one branch to the other. They are very close to you. You’re only about four feet away from most of them. It’s the closest you’ll ever get to a koala in your whole life, you think to yourself. And if this was all the koala enclosure had, it would be enough.
However when you are there you can also do this…
Yeah. They let you pet them. And smell them. And gaze into their eyes and baby talk them and whatever else you do while going out of your mind from overdosing on 100% premium grade adorable. They let you do this for as long as you want. And they don’t charge extra (which they totally should but don’t tell them). Let me repeat - you can do this for as long as you want and it is included in admission. What? Seriously? Yes. Seriously.
Throughout the day they rotate different koalas in and out of the petting zone and the koalas seem to genuinely, sleepily enjoy munching on sweet eucalyptus tips (they like the tips best) while tourists give them loving pets, pats and scritchy-scratches.
You will notice that they feel soft like wool and that they seem to be very blasé about the whole thing. To be honest, koalas have a brain the size of a walnut, so they’re pretty blasé about most things in their life. In other words koalas are really dumb. Like way dumb. Like so dumb they make dogs look like Mensa members. But that’s okay because dumb things can still be cute and a lot of wildlife in Australia is not very smart in the noggin’. This is because it’s very hot in Australia and thinking burns calories and requires energy. So if you can evolve to a state where you don’t have to think, you do that. It’s like the American South in that way. It’s hot, so what’s the point of thinking? Kangaroos are like this too, by the way. If you thought deer were dumb, wait until you meet a kangaroo. Which you will do next. But right now you’re posing for a selfie with a koala.
Or the staff is helping you make a koala look like it posed for a selfie because the Featherdale staff has a sense of humor and this is a great picture…
If there is any animal on earth that deserves to be cuddled more than a koala then I’ve never heard about it and I consider myself a connoisseur of cute animals. They look like a teddy bear crossed with Benjamin Franklin (the cuddliest of all the founding fathers except maybe James Madison and Madison is only cute because he was tiny).
You say they slow loris is cuter than a koala? I say you’re wrong and challenge you to a duel at sunrise. Guns or swords, you pick. I will fight you over this. That’s how much I believe in these little tree-sleeping, bags of awesome.
Besides being cute, koalas are also exceedingly endangered. That’s the problem with being a slow animal that isn’t very smart. When your habitat is taken away at the rate theirs is and you have to figure out a new place to live and you’re not terribly bright or fast, well you’re probably going to wind up getting eaten by a dingo or hit by a car before you can close escrow on a new tree to live in. It also doesn’t help that out of hundreds of kinds of eucalyptus, koalas can only eat a select few varieties. Plus it takes them forever to digest it, which is why they sleep so much. They’re basically in an adorable food coma for about 90 percent of their life.
Unfortunately because of deforestation, hunting (gross, if you hunt koalas I hope you die in a tractor accident) and also chlamydia (more on this later) the world koala population is down from the millions to the thousands.
Never fear, though. Because Featherdale isn’t just a place where you can find out what a koala smells like. It is also breeding koalas in an intensive, awesome koala breeding program. In other words, not matter how shitty things get in the world for these poor, dumb, helpless, adorable wooly critters, as long as Featherdale is around, there will always be koalas to pet. This makes me like Featherdale even more. Not only are they a place where you can see and interact with animals, but they work closely with many conservation groups to ensure the animals you are interacting with will alway be a thing that is instead of a thing that was. This is a very good thing.
But enough about koalas! It is time to do this with a kangaroo!
As if the cassowary to wallaby to koala opening salvo wasn’t enough to make you wet your pants with glee, the next part of Featherdale is a kangaroo/emu/wallaby feeding and petting area. I have wanted to pet a kangaroo literally since I was three years old and found out kangaroos existed. I have now done that. A lot. I have petted kangaroos more than 99 percent of people ever. I love you Featherdale, for making this true about me. I love you tons!!!
But even more than the fact that they fulfilled a childhood dream of mine, what I love most about this part of Featherdale (other than the obvious kangaroo fondling that occurs) - is you never, ever for even one second get the sense that the animals are stressed out or under duress by interacting with you. They have plenty of space they can hop off to (literally) if they get tired of being loved on by gushing tourists from around the globe. It’s a petting area with spots the kangaroos and wallabies can go too if they need a time-out because you’re getting to clingy. And you will get clingy. Total side-effect of petting a kangaroo is that you fall in love with them and get clingy.
That eases my guilt and I am always looking for something in a zoo or wildlife park to feel guilty about. I never found it at Featherdale. Much like everything else in Australia, the kangaroos seemed like they were getting a “fair go” as the Aussies call it. I’ll write more about “fair go” at some point. It’s a huge part of what makes Australia so wonderful. But for now let’s get back to the animals.
So you have now been at Featherdale Wildlife Park for maybe an hour. You have seen the most shockingly beautiful, deadly bird of all time. You have also no petted at least three animals (wallabies, kangaroos and koalas) that most people will never, ever get the chance to pet. Not only have you pet them, but you never felt sleazy about it and you never felt taken advantage of.
Admission to Featherdale is a mere 26 Australian dollars or about 24 American. That’s it. All included. Spend as long as you want with the koalas and the ‘roos. No one is hurrying you along or demanding more money for the experience. In fact they are probably sharing their love of the animals with you and patiently answering questions they’ve probably answered a million times before. Like “What is the deal with koalas and chlamydia and is it the same kind fraternity boys get?
The answers are no, it’s not human chlamydia (thank god ewww can you imagine) and the reason it’s an epidemic and such a problem is that when a species gets reduced to so few in number, a disease will come in and take care of the rest. For instance Tasmanian Devils are all getting facial tumors now. Yeah. I know. Facial tumors and chlamydia? All I can say is Death is not choosy in her methods.
Featherdale and other places like http://www.devilark.com.au/ are trying to stop the facial tumors from wiping out Tazzy Devils. They are doing a hell of a job. They are also isolating their koalas to make sure none of them gets chlamydia - which apparently causes a koala to go blind. Koalas are already fighting a losing battle against predators. They’re slow, they’re not too bright and their only defense mechanism is a cute attack. Going blind pretty much assures a koala will die.
But as I said before, as long as there is a Featherdale, there will be koalas. So go there. Give them your admission fee so they can continue to be awesome in all they do. Even the food there is good. How many zoos have good food? Zero plus Featherdale is the answer.
Let me give you a rundown on how to go do this because it can seem overwhelming at first glance.
1. Fly to Sydney, Australia. You were meaning to anyway, this just seals the deal. You’re going now.
2. Take a train to Blacktown. It’s easy and if you’re lost ask an Australian for directions. They are very good at directions and speaking.
3. Take a cab or a bus to Featherdale. Both are very clean and inexpensive.
4. Enjoy Featherdale in all its insanely outrageous, majestic glory.
5. Leave Featherdale and go back to your hotel in a childlike state of joyous ecstasy whilst smelling vaguely of koala musk.
6. Upload Instagram and Facebook photos and videos of your day.
7. Wait for your friends back home to wake up and see these pictures and videos.
SIDE NOTE -
****Do all of this on a weekday as the park will be insanely uncrowded and you will be unhurried as you experience this unbelievably life changing experience. Seriously, Rachel and I were like the only people there. It was awesome.
If I haven’t convinced you to go to Australia with this post, or at least convinced you to think about going to Australia, then I’m not sure how to make you go to Australia other than kidnapping you and physically making you go to Australia.
Just know that when you get there, Featherdale will be waiting for you and there is a koala who needs petting with your name on it, just waiting to be loved on (not Ruben, though. Ruben is my koala and you can’t have him.).
I don’t love a lot of things but I love Australia. I love it so much it hurts. I love that this experience happened to me there and I love how happy I am right now writing this and remembering my day at Featherdale. I love that I’m on fire for animals and wildlife conservation again. I love that right when I got home I re-upped my Sierra Club membership that I’d let lapse and that I joined the World Wildlife Fund again.
I will be back to Featherdale as soon as I can. Until then I make it my mission to get you to go. What are you waiting on? Go now. Go soon. Go tomorrow! Just go. Yes, it’s a long plane flight. But so what? When you get there you get to PET A KOALA FOR AS LONG AS YOU WANT TO.
Listen to Sean Kent every week on his podcast “The Midweek Meltdown”. Available on iTunes or for Android and Windows.