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SYDNEY (Reuters) - The death of a koala found screwed to a post in Australia has sparked an outcry from animal rights groups and prompted a police investigation.

The koala may have been alive when it was "cruelly attached" to the post of a wooden shelter using building screws, though it was dead when found on Wednesday, said Koala Rescue Queensland in a Facebook post accompanying a picture of the animal.

It shows the small koala, limbs wrapped around one of the shelter's wooden supports, appearing to clutch a bunch of gum leaves. The caption says "all is not as it seems". It gives the location as a lookout at Brooloo Park, 140 km (85 miles) north of the city of Brisbane in Queensland state.

"Police are currently investigating the matter," Senior Sergeant Pierre Senekal, at nearby Kenilworth, told Reuters on Thursday. He said the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) will organise an autopsy of the animal to determine cause of death.

Animal cruelty can attract a maximum penalty of seven years jail or fines of up to A$252,300 ($200,000) in Queensland.

"This is very disturbing," Queensland RSPCA spokesman Michael Beatty told Reuters.

"Whether or not the koala was dead, how somebody would think this was in some way humorous, when little kids go to that lookout area, is beyond me," he said.

Koalas are one of Australia's major tourist attractions and are often inaccurately described as bears, but are infact marsupials, a mammal whose young are suckled in a pouch.

The koala was listed as a "vulnerable" species under an Australian conservation law in 2012. There are fewer than 100,000 of the animals left in the wild, perhaps even as few as 43,000, according to Australian Koala Foundation estimates.

($1 = 1.2713 Australian dollars)

(Reporting by Tom Westbrook; Editing by Michael Perry)

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Reuters