The Australian government has an elaborate campaign, including a 600-page bureaucratic handbook, to build its international image using koalas.
The soft-power campaign, nicknamed “koala diplomacy,” came to light in connection with photos of Barack Obama, Vladimir Putin, and Angela Merkel embracing the dimwitted marsupials at November’s G20 campaign in Brisbane. Melbourne’s The Age quoted Foreign Minister Julie Bishop saying that the practice “portrays Australia in a soft light and promotes our values as an open, free, tolerant democracy.”
The United States was home to the first koalas to live in a non-Australian zoo, a pair named Snugglepot and Cuddlepie who arrived in San Diego in 1925. However, koalas given as gifts by the Australian government in recent years have focused on Asian zoos, not the U.S.
Australia’s use of koalas has been compared to China’s “panda diplomacy.” Giving gifts of giant pandas, a centuries-old Chinese diplomatic practice, was revived in the 1950s, the most prominent example of which was the gift of giant pandas Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing to President Richard Nixon in 1972. (Nixon reciprocated with a pair of musk oxen.)
The panda program is a major financial windfall for China’s government, which rents the animals to foreign zoos and breeders to the tune of millions of dollars per year.
In the last six months, the Australian Embassy in Washington used two koala-related images on its Facebook page, including one announcing a forthcoming movie adaptation of a radical environmentalist children’s show called “Blinky Bill.” It also offers a booklet for children called “Tell Me About Australia,” which points out that koalas sleep “up to 20 hours per day” and that the wild population is “afflicted with a disease” — chlamydia — “that reduces its lifespan and limits reproduction.”
Koalas eat only eucalyptus leaves, which are poisonous. They also have the smallest brains, proportional to their bodies, of any mammal.
For their perceived laziness and stupidity, some question whether the koala is an appropriate symbol of Australian benevolence. One American, reached on Twitter, called them “vile creatures,” while another considers them “the Cheech and Chongs of the Animal Kingdom.”
The Embassy could not be reached for comment.
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