Koalas, The Real Life Fairies of the Forest: An Interview with Author Deborah Lee Rose and Photojournalist Susan Kelly

6301371A while back I reviewed Jimmy the Joey: The True Story of an Amazing Koala Rescue, and after some interesting questions and comments from readers about the book and koalas in general, I invited the authors to do an interview with us.

Author Deborah Lee Rose

Deborah_Rose.1How did you get started in writing children’s books?

When my first child was born, I wanted to write a story just for her. She would lie on her blanket near a window in our house, and there was a tree outside the window. She would babble every time the tree rustled in the breeze. So I wrote The People Who Hugged the Trees about a girl who loves the trees, and that book is now read around the world.

I’d say that was a terrific start to a long career as a children’s book author! What led you to write Jimmy the Joey?

@ Copyright – image courtesy of Deborah Lee Rose

I had written an earlier book for National Geographic called Ocean Babies, so the editors asked me to write Jimmy the Joey about another very young animal, this one living on land.

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How did you get the information you needed to write about Jimmy?

Susan Kelly, whose photographs illustrate the book, is Australian. She spent three years filming her award-winning documentary Koala Hospital, which includes the story of little Jimmy that inspired the book.

© Copyright – Image courtesy of National Geographic for Kids

What did you learn about koalas that you didn’t know before you wrote the book?

I learned that koalas eat only eucalyptus—but their eucalyptus forest habitat is seriously threatened by land development and climate change.

Do wild koalas live anywhere else in the world outside Australia?

Outside Australia, koalas can only be found in zoos. The Jimmy the Joey book includes the name of zoos in the U.S. where you can see koalas up close.

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What was it like working with photojournalist Susan Kelly on this project?

Our collaboration was wonderful. Susan knows so much about koalas and is dedicated to saving their species. I began working with Susan by watching her documentary Koala Hospital over and over again. I also had many still photos from her film to inspire me and show me details of koala life. I have never been to Australia so I had to use my imagination too!

© Copyright – Image courtesy of National Geographic for Kids

Can you tell us about your role in Howtosmile.org and what that organization does?

I helped create Howtosmile.org, which is a free-access website of 3,600 hands-on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) activities. Now my job is to reach out to teachers, parents, librarians, administrators and organizations across the country to encourage the broadest possible use of this award-winning online resource.

What a valuable resource! Why are hands-on activities so important in science education?

They make science and math fun and more engaging, and can be used with learners from preschool through retirement age. My favorite activities at Howtosmile.org are the ones that connect with themes in children’s books.

What advice do you have for parents who want to get their children interested in the sciences at an early age?

As my kids were growing up, I took them very often to visit nearby public science centers. This is definitely a great way to get kids interested in the sciences early and to do science together as a family.

Photojournalist Susan Kelly

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How did you come to document the story of Jimmy the Joey?

A degree in Communications led me to work in the news media as a journalist/producer, producing media for various organizations such as SkyNews, ABC, CNN, National Geographic and the United Nations. I’m now an independent video journalist and producer with a focus on the environment and natural heritage—filming “urban frontlines” where the intersection between people and wildlife is the most problematic.

© Copyright  image courtesy of Susan Kelly

I came to film koalas when I realized that despite being an Australian, a journalist, and an animal lover, I really knew nothing about them—except their reputation for sleeping most of the time. To my surprise, when I began researching there was very little information available, and when I began interviewing Australians about what they knew about koalas, it seemed few had ever seen one outside a zoo. I thought it was a shame that not much was widely known about Australia’s adorable icon, so I set about telling their story through film over the next several years.

Ultimately, this journey of discovery led me to the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital—the setting for the documentary and the book based on the story of Jimmy the Joey. Through my work, I hope to shed light on the issues koalas (and most wildlife now face) and along the way, share the delight I feel when I’m with koalas. To me, there is no greater joy than seeing a wild koala at home in the trees.

Can you tell our readers a bit about the challenges koalas face in the wild?

What I learned in the process of filming koalas over 3-4 years was devastating. The cutting down of trees for new houses and roads is rapidly destroying koalas’ wild habitat, and many that live near expanding suburbs are hurt and killed by dog attacks, car accidents, or stress—related disease. The koalas population has fallen by 80% in just the past 10 years.

That is astounding and so sad. There was a period with severe forest fires in Australia while making your documentary. What was the most dramatic koala rescue you witnessed?

There were so many, it’s hard to count. But we saved a mother and baby from the fire-grounds who were mildly burnt, but okay and were released together in an area where the forest was still intact. We all cheered! As so many had already been lost to the fire.

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 © Copyright  image courtesy of Susan Kelly

Are koalas as gentle and loving as they appear to be?

I call them little buddhas. They are just about the most zen like creature you could ever encounter. However, they are wild animals and can be temperamental, so best to leave them be if you’re lucky enough to encounter one in the wild.

Does the Koala Hospital rely solely upon donations or is there government funding?

The koala hospital receives no funding and is entirely reliant on donations. Adopting a koala as a Christmas present for children is just wonderful and helps the koalas as well. You can see koalas to adopt online.

About how many koalas does the hospital treat every year?

It varies, but they have literally treated thousands upon thousands in the 40 years they’ve been operating.

Image 23Jimmy is so adorable, I’d imagine you found yourself getting attached to him as well as the other koalas. Is it difficult to let go when it’s time for them to be released back into the wild?

Absolutely! I was so blessed to be able to spend time with them and begin to understand just a little of what it’s about being a koala. Being there for their release into the wild is the happiest and saddest of times, as you love them, but are worried about what might happen to them in the wild – and will they make it on their own? But, the hospital has had great success in releasing them back to the wild, and so it’s a mostly joyous time.

© Copyright  image courtesy of Susan Kelly

Is the process of releasing a koala back into the wild gradual? And how are they trained to fend for themselves after being cared for by humans?

It’s a very gradual process and is completely based on the individual koalas circumstances. It can take a few days or a few years.

They’re not trained exactly, it’s called rehabilitation – but they live as wildly as possible inside the hospital grounds and are then released into the wild when they are able to care for themselves – like climbing trees okay and finding their own food.

What would you say you’ll cherish most about your experience with the koalas?

One of my most treasured moments is when Jimmy the Joey, decided he’d use me as a tree, climbing up my leg to the top of my head – so pleased with himself for being there. His little claws were so ticklish, I could not stop laughing. But overall, I cherish every day I was able to spend time with them and miss seeing their cherub faces nearby.

What do you hope people take away from your documentary?

I hope they’ll understand koalas and how they live their lives and how we need to take care of them into the future. I see koalas as the real-life fairies of the forest. If we lose them, some magic in this world goes along with them.

What is your next project?

I’m working on making the Koala Hospital into a TV series. Stay tuned!

I hope they show that in the USA! Deborah and Susan, this has been a most enlightening interview. Your book is wonderful and so is your dedication to these cuddly creatures. Thanks you so much for sharing this fascinating information. Readers, please visit these websites for more information about the authors and koalas:  Deborah Lee Rose, Koala Hospital.

6301371You can buy a copy of the book here: Jimmy the Joey: The True Story of an Amazing Koala Rescue. 

Note: No part of the text or images may be used without permission.

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