By Sharon Goldberg
To Australians, kangaroos are ordinary. To me, kangaroos are exotic. I am a tourist from the United States and like most tourists, I hope to see kangaroos. Watch them bound 25 feet in a single hop, jump six-feet high, zoom by at 40 miles per hour powered by their muscular hind legs and propelled by their powerful tails which provide both balance and force. And since my partner Arnie and I are spending three months in the country where kangaroos are native, where they travel in groups called mobs, I expect to see a lot of them.
We first encounter a kangaroo at Sydney’s Toranga Zoo. In a partially fenced habitat of dirt, rocks, trees, branches, and leaves, Eastern Gray kangaroos, one of the four main kangaroo species and the fastest, share space with wallabies, emus, and assorted birds. They munch on vegetation or lounge on the ground, long legs outstretched, un-phased as throngs of adults and kids point and giggle and snap their pictures. Do these kangaroos know they’re on display? Do they know they belong in wide, open spaces instead of a zoo? Do they anxiously await closing time when the zoo is calmer, when their home is free of most Homo sapiens?
The word “kangaroo” derives from “Gangurru,” the name given to the Eastern Gray by the Guuga Yimithirr of Far North Queensland, an Australian Aboriginal tribe. In Aboriginal culture, the kangaroo is honored and respected both as a food source and for the way they nurture their young. Aborigines used almost every part of the animal. They ate kangaroo meat and still do. They used kangaroo hides for clothing and rugs. They crafted kangaroo skin into water bags. They used kangaroo sinew as ties for weapons. The kangaroo is an important figure in “Dreamtime” creation stories and folklore as well as a totem, a spiritual emblem and guide. According to Thrive On News Spiritual Magazine, a person whose totem is the kangaroo is said to possess physical, mental, and emotional strength and have unique leadership abilities “with an authoritative but gentle vibration.” The totem encompasses both male and female energy creating a magical balance between ruthless warrior and nurturing gentleness. Perhaps the ideal combination.
In Princetown, Victoria, at The Great Ocean Road Wildlife Park, home to wallabies, emu, deer, alpacas, sheep, and dingoes, I feed a kangaroo for the first time. I buy a small bag of food for a dollar—a mixture of pellets, grass, and hay—and approach one of the creatures in the petting area, another Eastern Gray, its fur gray on the back and white down the front. Arnie watches, ready to capture the encounter with his camera; he’s the official chronicler of our adventure. I scoop food from the bag, reach down, and proffer my hand. The kangaroo sticks his muzzle in my palm and he munches. I thrill to this like a child. I’ve fed dogs and sheep and goats, but never a kangaroo.
Australians often view kangaroos as pests, similar to the way we view deer. At nearly 50 million, the kangaroo population is double that of humans and double their own numbers in 2010. It’s not the kangaroos’ fault. With higher rainfall in the country over the past several years, they’ve had more grass to eat and have flourished. They face few natural predators; humans and dingoes are the primary ones. But kangaroos compete with domestic livestock for food and water. They damage fences. They trample crops. And now the country is experiencing its worst drought in over 50 years. Tens of thousands of kangaroos will suffer and starve. The government is encouraging farmers to hunt more kangaroos and encouraging the public to eat more kangaroo meat to help cull and control the population. I saw kangaroo on Aussie menus. We were offered kangaroo steak at a sunset dinner in The Outback. Kangaroo is a lean red meat, low in saturated fat and high in protein. But I did not eat kangaroo. It just doesn’t appeal to me. Perhaps because I’ve never categorized kangaroo as food. Perhaps because I want to feed and pet kangaroos, not consume them.
In Western Victoria, in the tiny center of the tiny town of Halls Gap, adjacent to Grampians National Park, Arnie and I sit at a picnic table and eat chocolate ice cream. Tourists at other tables examine maps and sip coffee or eat toasties. Three Eastern Grays appear and hop hop hop in our direction. These kangaroos are neither tame nor living in an animal park. They roam freely. I step slowly toward one; I don’t want to scare him away. But he is not frightened at all. He rises on his white hind legs, nearly as tall as my five-feet-two inches and noses at my ice cream. I laugh and move the cup out of reach. Signs warn not to feed the animals; they might get sick or come to depend on handouts and turn aggressive. And I don’t mean to taunt him. Arnie snaps our picture. The kangaroo waits a moment, still optimistic, then decides he has other options. He hops to another table. I watch as he investigates with no luck then races across the street, avoiding cars. At least this time.
Thousands of kangaroos are hit by vehicles each year and left dead or injured, their young orphaned. Rates are highest between dusk and dawn when kangaroos are most active and most likely to graze, when they are blinded by headlights and can’t see cars. In 2015 alone, according to the Australian Associated Motor Insurers Limited (AAMI), motorists filed about 18,000 kangaroo collision claims. When we first drove in rural Australia, our rental car agency warned us to avoid driving after dark. We mostly complied. We did not want to add to the death toll. And animal collisions were not covered by our insurance policy.
When wildlife rehabilitation volunteers rescue injured or dead kangaroos, they always check for a pouch and for a baby, called a joey. Like all marsupials—the mammals that raise their young in pouches—kangaroos normally have only one baby at a time. Females have three vaginas and two uteruses. (Males have two-pronged penises.) The two side vaginas carry sperm to the uteruses. The middle vagina sends the newborn joey, smaller than a lima bean, to the outside world. When it emerges, the joey immediately crawls into Mama’s pouch and attaches its mouth to one of her four teats. It remains in the pouch about two months. Safe. Secure. Growing. Once it climbs out, the joey will still hop back if hungry or frightened. In eight to eleven months, depending on the species, the joey is ready to go it alone, just in time for Mama to give birth again. The kangaroo reproductive arrangement permits a female to be perpetually pregnant, a fertilized egg in one uterus waiting to be released, a baby growing in the second uterus, a joey in her pouch, and a second joey outside the pouch but still nursing, which it will continue to do until it is about 18 months old.
Seventy miles southwest of Adelaide, we next meet up with kangaroos on Kangaroo Island, so named by English navigator Matthew Flinders in 1806 because of the abundance of kangaroos there. The Kangaroo Island kangaroo, a subspecies of the Western Gray, is smaller and not grey but chocolate brown, the darkest of all kangaroos. At the island’s wildlife park, where sick, injured, and orphaned animals find refuge, kangaroos are accustomed to visitors who pet and feed them. I cup my hands together, scoop food from a bin, and approach a likely prospect. He stands upright, buries his nose in my hands and chomps. Okay, I think, I’d like to offer some food to another animal; this kangaroo is a bit piggish. I turn to leave him and he clamps a paw on my right arm. No way am I going anywhere. As the food depletes, I try to lower my tired left arm. The kangaroo clamps his other paw firmly on my wrist, his sharp claws digging into my skin. The other folks from our tour point and laugh. “Look at that!” The kangaroo is clearly in charge. I stay put until all the food is gone. Arnie doesn’t capture this memorable moment because he’s busy feeding a different animal.
On the island of Tasmania, south of Australia’s mainland, we visit the Tasmanian Devil Unzoo, a native botanic garden and habitat with no boundary fences. As the sun dims, we see a mob of Eastern Grays in a free-range field; a distant tableau, of ears, tails, legs, and paws that could be a painting by Magritte.
Almost 10,000 miles from Australia, in Fauquier County, Virginia, Julia Heckathorn, a children’s book author, adopted a three-week old kangaroo which she purchased from a Texas breeder who sells them to zoos and animal exhibitors. As a joey, the kangaroo, named Boomeroo, slept with Julia and her husband Jason. Once she grew larger, Boomeroo moved to a temperature-controlled space in their barn. She has her own wardrobe of clothes—t-shirts, pajamas, hats—and according to Julia loves wearing them. Boomeroo accompanies the author to schools around the U.S. where she talks about nature and conservation. Boomeroo is an educational animal, Julia says, not a pet. But Boomeroo was taken from her mother. Boomeroo is not living in her native habitat. Boomeroo is not part of a mob. She pals around with the family cat and plays with the Heckathornes’ two young children. She is the lead character in Julia’s books. Is Boomeroo exploited? If she’s happy, who am I to judge?
The Red Center, the heart of Australia’s Outback, is inhabited by Red Kangaroos, the largest species, standing up to 6.7 feet tall and weighing up to 200 pounds. Arnie and I drive the dry desert roads from Alice Springs to Uluru (formerly Ayer’s Rock), the sandstone behemoth that is a sacred Aboriginal site and our last stop in the country. We hope to see the giant Reds bounding all over the place, but we spot only one. Dead. He lies lumped on the side of the road, the same color as the earth. I am saddened by the sight. Red Kangaroos can live up to 23 years in The Wild. This one was unlucky. But I remember that his spirit endures in Aboriginal Dreamtime stories. His spirit lives in the hearts of those who inherit the kangaroo totem. I imagine the roo spent his final day resting in the shade with his mob avoiding the heat, his super kidneys holding onto water longer than any human. Then at dusk, he hop, hop, hopped across vast distances as no other animal can, searching the sparsely vegetated desert for grass and forbs, his evening meal.
We drive on through The Outback.
Copyright 2019 Goldberg