These marsupials may be cute, but our infatuation is not in their best interests.
There is no denying that quokkas, which are small marsupials resident principally on Rottnest island near Perth in western Australia, are exceptionally sociable and photogenic creatures. This partly explains why they have become stars of social media. The main reason for the quokka craze, however, is that they also appear to have learnt to smile for the camera. Tourists compete to secure selfies with grinning quokkas. The results are all over the internet, and very fetching they are too.
Reluctant as we are to spoil the lovable quokkas’ 15 minutes of fame, their celebrity has raised two issues about the way we humans treat other animals, even when that treatment is apparently benign. The first is that anthropomorphism, stoked by numerous arguing rabbits, scowling dogs and giggling pandas on YouTube, remains a temptation best avoided. Sharks are not evil, foxes are not cunning, quokkas do not understand smartphones. The fêted quokka selfie smile is not an indication of happiness.
For all we know, like many a pouting teenager on Facebook, they may actually be crying inside. Or more likely, as our story suggests, they are simply contemplating having yet more food or sex. This leads to the second issue. Only 10 per cent of Rottnest’s quokkas have thus far migrated to the town and made themselves available for selfies. The rest have stayed in the sticks, where they remain elusively nocturnal. On the face of it, the split has benefited the extroverts. With access to more food, they are breeding more frequently than their publicity-shy relatives.
Exposed to unfamiliar human germs, they are inexorably becoming less robust than their fitter, leaner country cousins. The threat of an imported epidemic is hovering. No one wishes to see a quokkapocalypse. A degree of restraint is required. Fame has a habit of exacting a high price.