‘An iconic Australian species’: Koalas to make their debut at Brookfield Zoo Chicago

When it comes to Aussie charm, that Crocodile Dundee fella may be no match for two ambassadors of the Land Down Under.

Brumby and Willum are the first koalas to take up residence at Brookfield Zoo Chicago, an institution turning 90 this July. The endearing tree-huggers are on loan from the San Diego Zoo for two years.

“We do have plans to reinvigorate or re-imagine our Australian area of the zoo in the future, and we are hoping that koalas could potentially be a mainstay for the zoo in the future,” said Mark Wanner, Brookfield’s associate vice president of animal care and conservation.

Both males and close in age, Brumby and Willum have been behind the scenes, getting used to their new surroundings, since they arrived on June 10. The two will make their first public appearance Tuesday.

“They are both settling in really well,” Wanner said.

The zoo has a long history of caring for a number of Australian species: southern hairy-nosed wombats, western gray kangaroos and Bennett's wallabies. So it was a “logical next move” to bring koalas to the zoo, Wanner said.

“We had to go through a pretty extensive application process, and we had to meet all of the criteria that the Australian government and San Diego Zoo was requiring us to meet with our habitat and our planning for the koalas,” Wanner said.

Brookfield Zoo Chicago has welcomed Brumby and another koala, Willum. Courtesy of Brookfield Zoo Chicago

The round-faced marsupials get all their hydration from eucalyptus, said Wanner, a koala keeper 20-plus years ago at the Saint Louis Zoo.

Brookfield will receive two shipments of eucalyptus branches a week for Brumby and Willum, and anywhere from four to six varieties in each shipment, from an Arizona farm.

The leaves are poisonous to most other animals, but koalas have specialized gut bacteria to extract water and nutrients from eucalyptus, zoo officials explain. That digestive period is when koalas do most of their resting.

“It takes quite a bit of time to process the eucalyptus leaves themselves and the toxicity within them,” Wanner said.

With their arrival, the zoo will draw attention to the threats to wild koalas from deforestation, drought and devastating bush fires.

“It is a crisis if they don’t have that eucalyptus,” Wanner said.

Brumby and Willum were both born in San Diego about two years ago. Brookfield visitors will be able to see the koalas indoors or outdoors in the Hamill Family Play Zoo near the south entrance of the campus. Zoo members will receive first access from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday.

“It’s an iconic Australian species that we're hoping gets our guests excited about the future of our Australian ideas,” Wanner said.

The play zoo is free with general admission.

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