This semester, six Rainforest Ecology students have been visiting the Lumholtz Lodge near Atherton to observe two baby Lumholtz’s tree-kangaroos for their Directed Research project, after which they head into the field at Tumoulin State Forest to observe yellow-bellied gliders on their feed and den trees. The two weeks of intensive field work and data collection are no doubt made better by watching these adorable rainforest marsupials.
Before Directed Research began, we headed to the Lumholtz Lodge as a large group to meet with Margit Cianelli, a former zookeeper at the Stuttgart Zoo in Germany and now a wildlife caregiver, to see some of the animals she is currently caring for and learn about how she cares for them. In the picture below, Margit is seen with a tree-kangaroo in her “pouch” and a green ringtail possum on her knee.
Margit takes in any injured animal, but depending on the type of animal, she may send it off to another caregiver. For example, she doesn’t have a proper aviary for caring for birds, so as soon as they are given immediate care, the birds are sent elsewhere. Additionally, Margit takes advantage of veterinarians only twenty kilometers away in Atherton, rather than attempting any medical procedures or recommendations herself. A zookeeper by trade, Margit looked over the hospital and quarantine for birds and mammals at Stuttgart Zoo before coming to Australia, so she is well-qualified to care for injured animals in the area, and tree-kangaroos happen to be her specialty.
The Atherton Tablelands have the most wildlife diversity in Australia due to great habitat variety, and Margit believes that a wildlife caregiver has to live in the rainforest in order to care for rainforest creatures. The tree-kangaroos that she cares for are released in the rainforest on or near her property, and the forest outside is a source of food for these animals as well as the natural stimulation they need—she ensures that baby tree-kangaroos are exposed to the wind in the leaves, rain falling, and Brush Turkeys rushing past so that these things do not frighten them when they are released into the wild.
“It’s man’s nature to want to help the helpless,” Margit said, and she noted that Australians are very concerned about their native wildlife. Australians frequently call a wildlife caregiver hotline to report injured wildlife. Injured and orphaned tree-kangaroos make their way to Margit for a couple of different reasons. If a mother is killed, for example, by a car collision, the joey may still survive in the pouch. Or, if a mother is being chased by a dog, she may cast the joey out of her pouch. This isn’t bad parenting; the dog is likely to continue chasing the mother and she and the joey have a better chance of escape.
One of the baby tree-kangaroos that Margit is currently caring for, Kimberly, was found by two Aboriginal boys when she fell in to the water at Malanda Falls. The two boys rescued her from drowning and then began to look in the trees overhead for the mother. When they located her, they put the baby at the base of the tree; the mother came down, sniffed her baby, and then went back up the tree alone. The boys tried this once more with the same outcome. Margit’s theory is that this tree-kangaroo was a new mother, and the hyperactive baby was too much for her to deal with and she simply couldn’t cope. (Margit arrived at this theory after seeing how wild Kimberley was and how much destruction she caused in Margit’s living room.)
Margit’s aim, of course, is always rehabilitation and release back into the wild, even though letting go and saying goodbye to the animals she has cared for isn’t easy. However, some of them stick around. Jeffrey, an adult male tree-kangaroo that Margit cared for as a baby, regularly stops in to say hello. Margit is incredibly proud of Jeffrey; now eleven years old, he is the alpha male in the area.
Though often ridden with parasites, infections, malnutrition, or other problems, the baby tree-kangaroos that Margit takes into her care often need parenting, food, and rest. Of the hundreds of tree species on which tree-kangaroos feed, Margit can only visually recognize about thirty species and regularly collects about twenty species. She gives them new and old growth to eat for variety, and she also gives milk powder every four hours to especially young babies (the youngest tree-kangaroo she received in her care weighed only 110 grams!). She believes that the animals need a will to live in order to survive. She has found that older animals often give up; in the pouch, these animals have had an incredibly strong bond with their mothers, and losing that physical closeness is defeating. Because of this, Margit mimics a mother’s care as best she can, keeping young tree-kangaroos in a pouch beneath her shirt. They really do see Margit as “mom.”
As they grow, Margit is sure to bring the tree-kangaroos outdoors to an enclosure where they can practice climbing, jumping, and hanging. She gives them challenges, the opportunity to strengthen their arms, and allows them to experience falling from a short height so they don’t risk falling when they climb a tall tree for the first time. We got to watch Kimberley and Annalee, a younger tree-kangaroo currently in Margit’s care, practice on their forest jungle-gym.
Visit the Tree-Kangaroo and Mammal Group website to learn more about tree-kangaroos and wildlife conservation on the Atherton Tablelands.