GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A special summer exhibit will open Thursday at John Ball Zoo: showcasing a pair of koalas.

Four-year-old Noorundi and 2-year-old Iluka arrived last week and are acclimating well to their new home in West Michigan.

Jamie Racalla, a supervising zookeeper at John Ball Zoo, spent three weeks at the San Diego Zoo, working with staff to learn how to properly handle and care for the animals. A team from San Diego will stay in West Michigan for a couple of weeks to supervise and make sure the koalas make a smooth transition.

The two koalas are both adult males. Noorundi’s name means “darkness” in Latin because his fur was a dark shade when he was born, while Iluka translates to “near the sea.”

“I didn’t realize how much of a personality difference there would be even between the two boys we were able to bring back,” Racalla told News 8. “Iluka is a bit more adventurous, and I would say a little bit more sassy. Whereas Noorundi is pretty calm and gentlemanlike. They’re both just built different and are really fun personalities to work with.”

The two koalas share an exhibit but are separated by a metal fence because males tend to be territorial. And since they will only be here for the summer, officials at John Ball Zoo thought it best to bring two males instead of a male and a female.

“The San Diego Zoo is an excellent breeding space. They’re set up for that. We really just wanted the opportunity to kind of dip our feet in,” Racalla told News 8. “(Bringing in) two males was a great opportunity to just have them for the summer and leave the breeding up to San Diego for now.”

The koala exhibit at John Ball Zoo will remain open through Labor Day. The animals are on loan to support the San Diego Zoo Global Education and Conservation Project, which is working to grow and maintain a self-sustaining koala population outside of Australia to help koalas in the wild.

“They have been listed as threatened for quite a while. But we all have heard a lot about them in recent years with wildfires in Australia,” Racalla said.

The Australian government officially deemed koalas an endangered species in February.

Koalas have a limited habitat. They only live in Australia because they rely solely on specific types of eucalyptus trees. It’s their only source of food and water. The wildfires have only exacerbated the problem.

“Losing some of those trees due to the wildfires is really starting to make pockets that they can only live in small portions, and then it’s harder for them to find each other,” Racalla said. “So, replanting and really trying to control climate change and really get that habitat going again are some big action steps that need to happen.”


John Ball Zoo also recently opened a new habitat for its wallabies: the wallaby walkthrough.

It includes a new shelter and a split-rail fence meant to be a barrier for visitors, not the wallabies. The wallabies will be allowed to walk the trail so visitors can get an up-close look.

According to zoo officials, visitors can pet a wallaby, but it is best to only touch their backs and to especially avoid the head, face and tail. It is important not to crowd around the wallabies. Otherwise, they can feel trapped and become agitated. Zoo staff will be on hand to ensure the safety of visitors and the animals.