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Luke the koala dies at BioPark

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Luke, a 5-year-old Queensland koala, and the only koala at the ABQ BioPark Zoo, died last week. The cause of death was cancer, zoo manager Lynn Tupa said Tuesday.

The zoo’s veterinary staff first diagnosed Luke with the disease about a month ago and initially treated him with chemotherapy. The treatment was discontinued in mid-December when the veterinary staff concluded it had not led to any improvement in Luke’s condition. He was euthanized last week when his condition deteriorated rapidly.

The ABQ BioPark Zoo has had koalas in its collection for about 20 years, “and many years ago we had an active breeding program,” Tupa said. Koalas, however, are difficult to breed in captivity, “and in more recent years the zoo has mostly been a holding facility” for the animals.

Luke was born at the Los Angeles Zoo in 2011 and came to the ABQ BioPark Zoo in December 2012. Tupa said zoo officials will be discussing how to represent Australia’s species and diversity in its exhibits in the future.

Cancer is common in wild and captive koalas. Zoo officials cited a 2013 report from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, which said more than half of all captive koalas eventually die of leukemia or lymphoma. The rate of the disease in wild populations is not known, Tupa said.

Koalas are native to the eastern and southern coastal regions of Australia. They typically inhabit eucalyptus woodlands, and the leaves of the eucalyptus trees make up the bulk of their diets, Tupa said.

They sleep 18 to 20 hours a day, can grow up to 3 feet in length and weigh 10 to 30 pounds. In the wild, koalas live 10 to 15 years, but in captivity some have lived up to 22 years, she noted.

Though often referred to as koala “bears,” koalas are actually marsupials, and female koalas have a pouch in which they carry their young until they are fully developed. Their closest relative is the wombat, also from Australia. The ABQ BioPark Zoo has two wombats on display.

Although koalas do not have many natural predators in the wild, the International Union for Conservation of Nature lists koalas as a “vulnerable” species, whose numbers have been affected by loss of habitat and being struck by vehicles.