Cool jobs: Head Koala Cuddler

Training, playing and caring for over 100 Australian natives is all part of a day’s work for Karen Nilsson, head koala keeper at Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary. Karen openly admits that the only downside to her job is the addictiveness – and who wouldn’t be a workaholic when your daily to-do list involves cuddling koalas?

We’ve caught up with Karen to see why she has the best job in the world.

What’s a typical day in ‘the office’ for you?
Every morning starts with a health check of all the koalas. After that we write a roster for koala handling for the day so that the koalas rotate through photography duty. We have to work within strict union rules so they aren’t overworked – each koala ‘works’ no more than three hours a day, no more than three days in a row. I also spend part of the day training new koalas to ascertain which ones are suitable for handling. This is a great part of the day because it involves a lot of one-on-one time with the animals.

The afternoons are always spent feeding the koalas – a lengthy process as each koala eats approximately half a kilo of leaves each day. The koalas are fed using special baskets on long tree branches so they can reach out to grab a handful of leaves, similar to how they’d feed in the wild. Of course there’s always ongoing cleaning to do every day.

Lone Pine has a reputation for breeding and longevity of its koalas, have you had a hand in this?
In captivity koalas tend to live longer than their counterparts in the wild. We find our koalas live on average for 12-15 years, but we did have the world record holder Sarah with us for 23 years! As for the breeding program, I play a part in koala match-making. It’s part of my daily duties to match up koalas with potential suitors. Fortunately koalas aren’t too fussy, so it’s really a matter of looking up their family tree to ensure blood lines are pure and testing a few suitable mates.

What’s been the most memorable moment since you’ve been at Lone Pine?
I have been really fortunate to see a number of koala births. Usually koalas have their babies in the middle of the night and we don’t get to see the little joeys until much later. There’s nothing more rewarding than seeing a little koala come into the world, climb into mum’s pouch and then emerge a few months later as a grey bundle of fur.

It’s also really special to watch someone cuddle a koala for the first time. So many people come to Lone Pine because cuddling a koala is on their bucket list and they may have travelled from the other side of the world to Australia just for this experience. The look on their face when they get to handle a koala is one of the best parts of my day.

How did you get into this business?
I studied a Bachelor of Science and Zoology and started out as a volunteer at Lone Pine. A couple of months later, I was lucky enough to have a permanent position here and have been working with these cuddly creatures for two decades now. My advice to future koala keepers is to study a wildlife science degree and start volunteering to get a foot in the door.

Do you have favourites, and why?
Shhh … I can’t speak too loudly but I do. All the koalas have different personalities so it’s easy to develop relationships with them. Some of the koalas are pretty cheeky too and it’s hard not to love their little personalities. Sometimes when I am cleaning their enclosure I’ll feel a nibble on my ankle and I’ll look down and one of the young boys will be trying to bite my boot laces as a joke. It’s very cute. They’re pretty cheeky with each other as well–sometimes the young ones will knock an older koala on the head while he’s napping just to stir him up. It’s pretty funny to watch – but koalas definitely get their own back.

Any koala related injuries?
Of course! They might be asleep for most of the day but these cuties have long, sharp claws for climbing trees and they can’t help scratching their keepers every now and then. I’ve had a few bites but they weren’t intentional and I’ve also had my pony tail yanked a few times too.

Do you think the mellow mood of koalas passes onto employees?
The koala’s sleepy, chilled attitude is definitely contagious to Lone Pine staff and visitors. If you’ve had a hard day and can take five minutes to watch a koala munching on some leaves, all of a sudden you’ll find your problems are gone.