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Up Close and Personal with a Koala

Behind the Scenes with a Koala Handler at Palm Beach Zoo

Meet Brian Putnam, a zoo keeper at the Palm Beach Zoo. With over 17 years of experience and a Master’s Degree in Marine Biology, it is safe to say that Putnam is an animal expert. He is also one of the koala handlers for the Koala Experience at the Zoo. During this half hour experience, visitors will learn about this fascinatingly unique animal and have the opportunity to see one up close.

 

What makes the Koala Experience unique?

We are unique in the fact that there are very few places where you can get up close with a koala. There are only a few zoos that have koalas. We are one of the only places where you can have an experience with koalas outside of Australia. This experience is great because it is much more difficult to see the koalas in their exhibits when they’re behind glass, curled up in the eucalyptus pile and usually sleeping.

 

Why are koala exhibits so rare?

All of the koalas that are in the United States are still owned by Australia. Very few places are allowed to keep them and there are a lot of rules. For example, you can’t touch the koalas. Since they are an animal native to Australia, they are more susceptible to U.S. diseases. People touching them on a regular basis could lead them to disease.

 

Do koalas ever bite people?

Koalas can be aggressive. We have a mild mannered male koala, Oz, in the Koala Experience. We know the warning signs when a koala is becoming aggressive—they go down to the ground. I have yet to have that happen, fortunately.

 

How did you become a koala handler?

I had to learn about koalas. I have 17 years of experience as a keeper. This is the first time I’ve worked with koalas, but I got all of the background information from the original keeper. If someone had less than a year of keeper experience, it would be a bit longer before they’re doing animal experiences. I went with the primary keeper and did several experiences with him before I started doing them on my own.

 

Do keepers become attached to the animals?

We all have attachments to certain individual animals. It’s very common. You have to have the passion for what you do. If you enjoy working with animals, you’re going to become attached.

 

Are there any specific animals that you’re attached to?

There’s a younger howler monkey that I’m very attached to. And two of the tigers. Each animal has individual responses once they get to know us [the keepers].

 

Does Oz, the koala, like you?

I have a good relationship with him but he’s kind of indifferent to what’s going on. But its more of a comfort level, which is typical for koalas.

 

What is a common misconception about koalas?

The biggest misconception is that a koala is a bear, when in fact, it is a marsupial. Another misconception is that they’re all mild mannered because Oz is. But they can become extremely aggressive.

 

What makes koalas so interesting to the public?

I think partially it’s the way they look and how unique they are. They’re an interesting animal and one of the most commonly thought of animals. 

 

- By Ettractions Digital Content Editor PAULA MARINO   

 

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