I am relieved that our next shoot is at the Cairns Tropical Zoo. They have been enthusiastic since our first email reaching out to them and I love animals (all except the arachnids that is). We picked them over a larger Sydney zoo simply because you can’t do a Koala Cuddle anywhere but Queensland. To our surprise we found an amazing gem just 20 minutes north of Cairns. They are a highly interactive zoo with many options to get up close to the animals. They have immaculately kept grounds and enclosures and even offer a wedding chapel for nuptials and blessings. While they feature all the Australian regulars they also house many exotic animals from Asia and beyond. Visitors can cuddle a koala, hold a boa constrictor, and hand feed tame kangaroos.
I have agreed to work with birds, wombats and a komodo dragon but it’s the koala cuddle that has me so excited. We are given a warm welcome and introduced to Venetia who will guide us through our shoots at the zoo. It is hot, humid and sticky so I am thrilled to hear that the wedding chapel has air conditioning. We head out the chapel to change while she radios for a staff member to fetch a koala. I am already struck by the care for the animals. The handler tells me that Kyla is five years old and she is every bit as cute as I imagined. He tells me that the reason they only work 30 minutes a day maximum and only three days a week is that Koalas are so dreamy and chill that it is very hard to know if they are stressed or anxious. He shows me how to be her tree so she stays relaxed and doesn’t dig in with her razor sharp nails. I am relaxed and she takes to me nicely, gazing serenely at the camera as Jeff clicks away. Jeff even got in the act with a quick pop in wearing his tux.
The parrot and cockatoos arrive while we are shooting and soil the aisle! The koala is very warm nestled against me but my arm supporting her rump has gone numb, so I reluctantly relinquish her back to her handler. Peter the Eclectus parrot talks to me as Jeff captures his vibrant green feathers. Finally, Henry and Nancy the white cockatoos get a little cheeky with me wanting to explore my pearls rather than pose.
Our work in the chapel is done. Next we move onto the wombats outside in the sun and heat. I quickly learn that wombats are as strong as they are stubborn and Tonka refuses to pose nicely. We decide holding the 25 kg package is better. As Mark goes to transfer Tonka to me he gets peed on. When we go to try again, Mark gets bitten. Tonka gets swapped out for Allira a female who is equally large but relishes in being held. Jeff shoots me holding her as she gazes up at the sky. When we go to put her over my shoulder, not her preferred position, she poops on me. That promptly ends the wombat shoot and we go to find a hose to clean up. The soil comes out well enough and the water feels good in this heat.
They spare me going into the Komodo dragon enclosure because that is even hotter and more humid. Instead they bring Kosi out to me. Straight away he ambles over and gives me a kiss with his feather soft, long, forked tongue. He tickles my feet and explores the dress. He even stops dead still on the train of my dress and proudly poses for a full minute motionless for Jeff. I pet his leathery scales until Jeff is sure that we have several outstanding keepers.
Venetia is excited that I have agreed to add a reticulated python to my animal encounters. At the snake house we are so impressed that they have taken great care to make each enclosure close to the natural habitat of the snake in the wild. The handler brings Ben out as a crocodile flies out of the water to the edge of his enclosure. The handler scolds him he’s not getting her snake and to bugger off. Ben also weighs about 25 kilos and is constantly moving around. My neck and arms are toast by now but I smile on hoping Jeff gets something decent.
Glad to shed the snake and be done we have so many great shots but Venetia wants to see if the baby koala is an option. Again they are careful to check to make sure that Mable, the baby, could have a brief interaction with people. She is available for a quick shot with my standing next to her tree, but Jeff can’t use his flash within a meter to protect the animals. It’s too dark inside and really bright outside, which is a shame because this baby is precious. Jeff works magic and figures out how to get the light right with a minimal flash. At the same time, they tell me I can get up close and see what happens. As I move my face toward Mable she reaches out her paw to hold my cheek. We go nose to nose for a few glorious minutes while Jeff furiously clicks away. The staff can’t contain their excitement as this is a first for the 11 month old. I am in koala heaven with this little angel.
The biggest challenge of the day is choosing which shots are best as there were 64 that were good! Walking around after our shoot it begins to rain which is a shame because we could have spent much longer here. This did not feel like a zoo to me and it is a great environment for the animals. The staff are exceptional and their love for all creatures great and small is evident everywhere. They offer many unique options like their “Cairns Night Zoo” experience where they combine dinner, entertainment, and a special visit to the animals to observe their nocturnal behavior. They even offer a private tour that can be booked for a small group for a personal view and interaction with their amazing wildlife. If you are near Cairns, don’t miss this unique opportunity to have a wildlife adventure at the Cairns Tropical Zoo.