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After a "taste test." koalas make themselves at home in San Francisco.

Just two countries besides Australia have permanent exhibits of koalas--Japan and the U.S. In this country you could see them only in Los Angeles or San Diego (details at right) until San Francisco Zoo's recent acquisition.

It's a coup for San Francisco. Though the koala is not endangered now, early slaughter for its fur nearly caused extinction by the 1920s. As a result, Australia strictly regulates the animal's export.

Getting them required Australian government approval of the new habitat plus koala "taste test" approval of a batch of our local eucalyptus leaves flown over to Australia. Then more than 1,000 trees were planted around the city to ensure the newcomers an ample food supply.

For the koala is finicky: its diet consists solely of eucalyptus leaves. Of Australia's 750 kinds of eucalyptus, only about 50 are eaten by the koala. And still they're choosy: here keepers must collect 20 pounds of leaves twice daily from 12 local species. From this smorgasbord each koala will eat just 2 pounds daily. Like kangaroos and opossums, koalas (Phascolarctos cinereus) are marsupials--pouched mammals that bear their young live. An adult can reach up to 2-1/2 feet tall and weight 20 pounds. San Francisco's two males (four females will arrive later) are Queensland koalas, Slightly smaller than the other two subspecies. They're inactive and sleep as much as 20 hours a day. The two here will be most lively around 10 A.M., when they're brought to their outback-station habitat. You can stand on the veranda and watch them scamper on the grass before they settle into a fork of the low eucalyptus trees for a long day's nap (koalas don't build or use nests--and yes, they do occasionally fall from their perches).

By late afternoon, they'll usually be awake and eating again. They don't react much but may glance over if you make a grunting sound; their own growl has been likened to the sound of a draining sink.

Look closely and you'll notice sharp claws and the unique two thumbs on each hand; both help the animal graps the slender eucalyptus branches. Thick fur insulates the koala, but on wet or very cold days, they'll be kept inside (you can see them through the glass). Nearby you'll see illustrated panels and a short videotape showing koalas in the wild.

The Koala Crossing habitat is near the recently opened Primate Discovery Center. The zoo is at Sloat Boulevard and 45th Avenue. House are 10 to 5 daily; admission is $2.50, 50 cents for seniors, free for children under 16 with an adult.

The Los Angeles Zoo has had six koalas since 1982; they're in an indoor display with reversed light cycle so you walk into darkness and their night, when the koalas are a bit more active. No glass, just a railing separates you from these Victorian koalas--note their fluffy fur and ear tufts. The zoo is in Griffith Park at the intersection of the Golden State (I-5) and Ventura (State 134) freeways. Hours are 10 to 6 daily; admission is $4, $1.50 for seniors and children age 5 to 15.

The San Diego Zoo has the country's first and largest colony--21 koalas. Ranked as the most popular animals in the zoo, they can be seen outside here in a grassy compound. A bridge takes you near two trees where some sit and over to the window-walled breeding center where the rest stay (on rainy or cold days they all stay here). The zoo is in Balboa Park off State Highway 163. Hours are 9 to 4 daily; adminission is $5.95, $2.50 for ages 3 to 15.

The San Diego Zoo's Wild Animal Park near Escondido has four koalas in a glass-walled enclosure (you can get close to them here). There's a free, short "koala chatter" talk by keepers Wednesdays through Sundays at 12:30. The park is 35 miles north of downtown San Diego on State 78. Hours are 9 to 4 daily; admission is $6.95, $3.95 for ages 3 to 15.
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Date:Nov 1, 1985
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