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Zoo fed up, sends koalas packing

CTY-KOALA31P-B-03-30-2001

Orana, a 7-year-old mom, and Alkoo, her joey, will have eaten about $44,000 worth of eucalyptus leaves by the end of the year.

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After munching their way through nearly one-fifth of the Toledo Zoo's animal food budget this year, the zoo's two koalas are getting the boot.

The two animals - Orana, a 7-year-old mom, and Alkoo, her 1-year-old joey - will be returned to San Diego Zoo by the end of the year, officials said yesterday.

“Some people are going to be upset that koalas are going away. Some will say they were too expensive,” Dr. Randi Meyerson, mammal curator, said. “It's a tough decision, but a fiscally responsible one.”

By the end of the year, the mostly motionless marsupials will have eaten their way through $44,000 worth of eucalyptus leaves. The food is flown in refrigerated twice a week at an additional annual shipping cost of $22,000.

That's more expensive than the food for the elephants, rhinos, and hippos, who together will cost the zoo about $23,000 this year, and dwarfs costs for the zoo's other 4,700 or so animals.

For the koalas, “picky,” even “finicky,” doesn't do them justice, according to those in the koala world. “If you offered them something else, they wouldn't know what to do with it,” said Jennifer Moll, a senior koala keeper at the San Diego Zoo. “They'd starve before they'd eat a carrot.”

The Toledo Zoo will ask voters for a five-year, 0.7-mill operating levy Nov. 5, but the decision to return the koalas was not linked to that request, Dr. Meyerson said.

In addition to the basic food costs, there's a $10,000 contribution to a koala research foundation, which is required as part of the Toledo Zoo's agreement to keep koalas, and $3,000 in other koala-related costs.

“The decision was made in September. They're simply too expensive,” Dr. Meyerson said.

Additionally, zoo officials considered the conservation of the species, which no longer is considered endangered, and the fact that the duo sleeps about 22 hours a day.

“For photo ops, they're warm and cuddly and people love them,” Dr. Meyerson said. “But they're not an active animal. People are interested in seeing them one time and then, after that, there's not much interest.”

Still, the koalas had been an ambassador of sorts for the zoo, from levy campaigns to annual reports. According to an international species tracking system, Toledo's loss will leave only 14 American zoos with koalas.

Orana and Alkoo are the latest of seven koalas that have been on loan since 1991 from the San Diego Zoo, where they are able to feed the animals with a 10-acre eucalyptus farm.

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