The Cairns Tropical Zoo: Meeting Buster, Demon and their friends

by Julie Royce /
Julie Royce's picture
Mar 13, 2010 / 0 comments

The Cairns Tropical Zoo: Meeting Buster, Demon and their friends

Today I'm channeling Crocodile Dundee. A car arrived to pick us up at 8:30 am for the thirty minute drive to the Cairns Tropical Zoo. Our driver pointed out sugar cane fields and other crops along the way, but the main source of income for folks who live around Cairns is tourism.

The Zoo was not what I expected, but every bit as worthwhile as I had hoped. The Cairns Tropical Zoo isn't a large zoo like the one in Sydney (which we skipped) or the one in Adelaide (where we wouldn't have time for a zoo). It doesn't measure up in size to any of a dozen zoos in the U.S. What it does offer is an interactive zoo experience, an impressive selection of animals (macaws, cockatoos, cassowaries, dingoes, lemurs, red pandas, cotton top tamarin monkeys, koalas, alligators, crocodiles, snakes, pelicans, and wombats to name the better known) and opportunities to feed animals, catch shows and enjoy a Wildlife Walkabout. For a special treat you can sign up for Breakfast at the Zoo or a Night at the Zoo.


Buster Koala, Cairns Tropical Zoo

Buster ignoring my attempts to be friendly


Upon arrival we were pointed in the direction of the zoo’s open-air cafe for breakfast. We were soon distracted from our strawberry waffles by a zoo attendant who greeted us with Buster, a five year old Koala clinging to him. Buster was adorable and I said, “He is really fond of you isn't he?” To which the attendant replied, “Not really.  Koalas aren't the brightest animal, he doesn't distinguish me much from a tree that gives him a place to plop his backside on a branch.”


Koala, Cairns Tropical Zoo

Buster joined us for Breakfast at the Cairns Tropical Zoo


Cockatoo, Cairns Tropical Zoo

A cockatoo tries to garner a bit of attention


That was a bit disheartening. I would have insisted Buster was a clever little critter, but apparently I would have been wrong.    But, enough bad-mouthing the cute little guy, he had a nice personality and was more than happy to let me touch him.  I didn't actually get to hold him, so I wasn't sure this qualified as cuddling a koala. 

Buster (and all his relatives) sleep eighteen hours a day and eat eucalyptus the other six. Eucalyptus is the only thing they consume, but the leaves are nearly devoid of nourishment and take a long time to digest. Those facts explain Buster's boring lifestyle. While awake he must devour enough leaves to sustain him. He sleeps the rest of the time to conserve energy.

Also having breakfast with us was a cockatoo, but the poor thing was pretty much ignored by patrons enamored with Buster.


Cockatoo, Cairns Tropical Zoo

Introducing myself to a cockatoo at breakfast


After breakfast we walked to Pelican Bay and fed fish to the huge birds. Then came another disheartening story, this one not for the faint of heart.  When baby pelicans are born, daddy pelican takes food into his cavernous mouth (bill) and semi-pulverizes it for his infant. (What a good daddy.) He then opens his great mouth and the baby pelican jumps in to eat what papa has prepared.  So far, so good.  However, Daddy pelican can only sustain one baby so if there are two or three born he lets the additional babies jump into his bill and then swallows them.  (I told you this was an awful story.)


Pelican, Cairns Tropical Zoo

Pelicans hide a dirty parenting secret


On we went to the Birds Flying Free show. By this time I was getting a sense of what this little zoo was all about and coming to regard it as a “boutique” zoo – smallish but completely unique. The trainer who hosted the show kept reminding us to be environmentally aware, “We don't own the planet, we merely share it and we owe it to our fellow creatures and future generations of humans to treat it with respect.”

Under some circumstances his spiel might have become a bit preachy, but as we watched eagles soar in front of us, and a buzzard land a few feet away, the message was fitting, especially when he told us how many birds are nearing extinction because they eat man's garbage - including plastic – and die.


Birds Flying Free, Cairns Tropical Zoo

An owl joins trainer at the Birds Flying Free Show


It was obvious that every member of the zoo staff loved his/her job and was dedicated to taking excellent care of the animals. The animals, by the way, are often rescued and treated for injuries, and then kept if they are not healthy enough to be released back into the wild. That was the story of the eagle we had watched: his wing was compromised in an accident and he'll never fly well enough to survive in the wild. It wasn't a choice of free versus wild, but life versus death.  Likewise the pelicans we fed earlier were rescued after serious accidents; one hit by a car and the other found injured and near death. 

There are 750 species of birds in Australia. The zoo often takes in cockatoos because humans purchase them as pets and then realize their new darling has the intelligence of a two year old human (and we don't call them the terrible twos for nothing). The birds wake up each morning screeching at full lung capacity and, unlike an alarm clock, there is no way to turn them off. Their status as a beloved pet is often cut short.

Indigenous to Australia are the ten most poisonous snakes in the world and a handler brought several out, educated us about them, and explained what to do if we get bit by a snake, a situation I hoped to avoid as I moved a few seats further back in the stands.

After the snakes I got my chance to hold and cuddle a koala named Demon. It was all I expected. Hopefully Bob got some good pictures (of the koala, I never take decent pictures).  I touched a boa constrictor and then Bob and I played with kangaroos, including a rare albino.


Demon the Koala, Cairns Tropical Zoo

Bob and Julie finally get to cuddle Demon the Koala


Kangaroo, Cairns Tropical Zoo

The kangaroos don’t mind visitors


The day was filled with interesting animals including the celebrity croc that appeared in The Amazing Race where contestants had to feed it.

Our day at Cairns Tropical Zoo ended sooner than I would have liked. It may not be one of the world’s largest zoos, but it is certainly one of the most interesting.


Kangaroo, Cairns Tropical Zoo

Julie making new friends


Kangaroos, Cairns Tropical Zoo

I’m surrounded.  Good thing they aren’t dangerous


We returned to the Shangri-la at about 4:00 and I pulled off a coup that demonstrates my absolute brilliance.  This was our only free afternoon in Cairns and I convinced my husband to do laundry while I went shopping. When he returned with our clean clothes we took a stroll of the market, ate sorbet and sloshed through a park’s wading pool. Life is good.

Tomorrow the Tropical Rain Forest.


To read other parts of Julie's Cairns adventures, please see:

Cairns, Australia: A Sun-Lover's Paradise

Cairns - Tropical Rainforest



Julie Royce, the Travel Adventures Editor for Wandering Educators,  is the author of Traveling Michigan's
Sunset Coast
and Traveling Michigan's
, both published by Thunder Bay Press. She writes a
monthly column for Wandering Educators.




All photos courtesy and copyright Robert and Julie Royce


Disclaimer: We were given a 2 for 1 deal at the Cairns Tropical Zoo