Mark Stone, owner and manager of Billabong Wildlife and Koala Park, has been an animal enthusiast since age five. He gives us his thoughts and experiences on running a wildlife park, living in a house full of orphaned kangaroos and wombats, as well as coordinating the very successful koala breeding program.
>How did your career as an animal keeper start out? What was your reason for choosing that path?
I have always had a love of animals since I was a kid, I remember in kindergarten spending lunchtime collecting spitfires and sugar ants whose bite I soon became immune to. My real passion for animals evolved when at the age of 14 my parents bought a wildlife park on the South Coast of NSW, on the banks of the beautiful Shoalhaven River at Nowra. As any person in this industry will tell you, it’s not the strive for wealth but the passion to explore and exhibit our most unique and wonderous Australian animals in the best public display you can. And for twenty years working side by side this is what we did. We were up very early in the mornings to feed and clean all the animals before school and then as soon as we were home from school the same all over again, many times using the car headlights to enable us to work well into the night. My sister and I would fall asleep straight away most nights and rarely had a social life as we were required to work weekends. I loved every minute of it, working towards a future in the industry. I remember many times sharing our house caring for orphaned animals long before the carer groups were around. At one stage I recall we had thirteen joeys on bottles, two orphan wombats running amuck in the lounge room and a fairy penguin in our bath, the house was full but life was great. I met my wife a couple of years after we moved, she worked as a volunteer at the start just so we could have time together. We married seven years later and now have two wonderful children and are enjoying the beautiful Hastings.
> Did you have to undertake any specific training to work with animals?
When I started almost thirty years ago there were no courses to assist or training we could undertake, you just got in boots and all, researching all you could and listening to others who may or may not have been successful with any given species.
> What does your average day involve?
As an animal keeper my day is far from average, and now as an owner of a wildlife park each day presents a new challenge. From instigating breeding programs for some of the world’s most endangered and deadliest animals, construction of new exhibits, coordinate animal presentations, television commercials and movie shoots, to assisting the Government in developing new standards. That’s the glamourous side, then of course there’s the cleaning, and the cleaning, and of course there’s the cleaning. There’s also the heartbreaks; losing an animal you’ve worked through the night to save, an animal that has fought with you to survive but just can’t hold on and fight any more. They’re the moments you question yourself and your abilities, knowing deep down if you didn’t try it would have died anyway.
> What do you consider to be the best thing about your job?
The best part of the job is working with the animals, establishing a naturalistic home, caring for it, learning from it, and of course the knowledge gained and using that to conserve it. Job diversification is a big part of this job’s attraction, one day your a plumber, a builder, a vet, a landscape artist, the list goes on and on.
> You’ve had some involvement with television programs such as a segment on the ‘Today Show’ with Kerri-Anne Kennerly and training ‘Fatso’ on ‘A Country Practice’. What was it like working in that environment?
I have been fortunate to work on all forms of media from newspaper stories, television news and commercial ads, radio, documentaries and more recently a regular spot on ‘Mornings with Kerri-Anne’ (Kennerly). She’s great fun to work with and has a great team on Channel Nine. The thing I love most is that she really loves the animals, which makes it easier to promote the conservation message. One documentary I am really proud to have been associated with is ‘Faces In The Mob’, a stunning doco that won awards around the world.
> Have you had any dangerous encounters with the animals?
Encounters with dangerous animals are a part of day to day living for me – the trick is to have your wits about you all the time. The scariest thing I’ve had to do just recently is address Hastings Council meetings on a number of occasions to fight for the Billabong’s survival. But working with ‘Maniac’ (the largest captive croc) was up there with the highlights as well as handling the world’s most venomous snake; restraining a full grown cassowary while our vet worked to medically treat the bird; and rescuing a keeper being attacked by a highly aggressive hairy nose wombat which ended up with both of us requiring stitches. Some people boast about how many times they have been bitten but the thing is any fool can get bitten, the trick is not to. Close calls are a real reality check, it’s so easy to become complacent when you have worked around them for a long time. The untimely death of Steve Irwin has hit home, as Steve and I both started in the industry the same way, he was just a little older than me and both of us have great wives and kids.
> What sort of animals and attractions do you have at the park? Do you have any venomous breeds?
The Billabong now boasts five of the most venomous snakes in the world, the endangered and ever aggressive southern cassowaries, the graceful wedge tailed eagle, albino wallaroos, golden brushtail possums and the agile and mischievous spider monkeys.
> Do you have a favourite animal?
My love for different animals grows daily but my passion lies with the koalas which is one reason we decided to choose Port Macquarie as our new home, hoping to one day develop a breeding program to establish new safe koala colonies and habitat in the Hastings, and hopefully being able to work hand in hand with the Koala Hospital to achieve this.
> You’ve developed a koala breeding program at the park. How important is this to the conservation of koala’s and what does the program involve?
Our Koala breeding program is in full swing and we are doing really well. I’ve tried to get involved in as much research as I can over the years, particularly in clinical and feed studies on captive koalas that would be impossible to do on wild ones. I have a great team that is growing all the time, two of my staff worked for me on the South Coast and have moved to join me up here.
> Are you planning on bringing any new animals to the park in the future?
The park is growing week by week, our aim is to give the Hastings one of the premier parks in NSW. New animals we’re hoping to have in the future are a large salt water crocodile, fairy penguins, meerkats in a new enclosure, and more. We are so excited about the future here.
Thank you for your time Mark.