Roy and the Kangaroos
This is another story from Roy’s father who recorded his son’s adventures in his journal. The kangaroo story is true and actually happened to me.
Roy and the Kangaroos
“Never turn your back on a buck kangaroo.” That is what they told Roy his first day on the job at The Kangaroo and Wild Swine Building. It was a warning that Roy would soon come to better understand.
Some kids want to be firefighters, policemen, or doctors, but my son Roy loved animals and always wanted to work at the zoo. He hoped to be a zoo curator or director one day and this was his first step toward that goal.
As a summer replacement keeper, Roy was assigned to the Kangaroo and Wild Swine Building for two weeks. The building housed kangaroos and wart hogs, but also walaroos, wallabies, dingoes, anteaters, and a variety of small antelope called duikers. Roy was fulfilling his childhood dream of being a zookeeper but had no idea of the adventures in store for him.
After a week of cleaning animal cages, Roy realized that he had become somewhat of an expert on animal spoor, including their tracks, but mainly their droppings. He could tell blue duiker scat from common duiker scat; he could identify gray kangaroo scat from wallaroo and wallaby scat. How many other people in the world recognized giant anteater scat or siaga antelope scat when they saw it? Roy’s sister Millie, and his mom and I had a good laugh when Roy bragged, tongue in cheek, about his skill. Each day at the zoo presented another adventure, but an encounter with a giant buck kangaroo was one of the most dangerous.
Roy’s first chore each morning was to clean all the cages, inside and outside the building. Roy usually finished the cleaning by noon, had lunch and then prepared the food for his charges. The last cage that he cleaned that memorable day belonged to a very large and grumpy red kangaroo buck. He had been separated from the other bucks and does because of his aggressive dominance and his eagerness to fight and his desire to mate; he did not distinguish between kangaroos and keepers; an upright object would do if another kangaroo was unavailable. Having been born in captivity, he had no fear of humans, and isolation justified his grumpiness. Old Red, as he was called, was unpredictable and could not be trusted. He was fast and strong. His method of fighting was to grab, box and claw with his front claws and lean back on his tail and kick with both strong hind feet and their long sharp claws. In the wild, he would have been well able to defend himself against dingos, the wild dogs of Australia. Those were the reasons that Roy was warned not to turn his back on Old Red.
Roy’s rake and water hose were usually enough to keep the cantankerous kangaroo at bay while he cleaned the cage, but Roy was a daydreamer and often got lost in his thoughts. So it was that day as Roy raked scat from the grass into a pile in the far corner of Old Red’s cage. It was a warm day, lots of sunshine, and a constant line of visitors strolling by the outdoor cage fronts. Roy was daydreaming about his trip three years earlier, to the island of Tasmania with a high-school friend, who lived there. He saw plenty of walaroos and wallabies, and some gray kangaroos, but the largest of kangaroos, the big reds, were found in Australia. Red kangaroos can weigh in at over 150 pounds, and when standing are over six feet tall.
Roy was lost in his thoughts when he heard a “woof” and a “snort” behind him. A little boy, accompanied by his parents, was standing behind the wire fence spoke out to Roy, “That big kangaroo wants to say hello.” He knew what it was instantaneously; it was Old Red and he was ready to settle a score. Roy figured that the big guy was irritated because he was excluded from female company. He often tried to take out his aggression on careless keepers.
Roy slowly turned to face Old Red, who had already risen up to his fighting position. Roy first thought of climbing the nearby fence, but it was too high and there were no hand and foot holds. Roy resorted to something he had always done before in his youth when confronted by a dangerous wild animal. He talked to it in his special way.
In a soft non-threatening voice he said, “Hi there Old Red. How’re you today? Still in a bad mood, are you?” Roy knew the big buck could not understand his words, but Roy spoke softly with his hands at his side. “Now don’t you get annoyed at me. I’m your friend. I’m the guy who feeds you each day…and I’m the guy who sweeps up your sh–, scat. Surely you’re not angry with me.” Roy knew that his body language was extremely important; he had to appear non-threatening, yet confident.
Their eyes met for several seconds before Roy turned his head. He knew that a direct gaze was considered a threat to most animals. He kept his eyes on Old Red with his head slightly turned, ready for a fast retreat if required. Old Red held his upright pose for a moment and then, with a big exhale of breath that sounded like a wheeze, he dropped to all fours. He vigorously scratched both floppy ears with his front legs, or were they arms, Roy never was sure. Roy was relieved because he knew that scratching behavior is a way of relieving tension when animals are not sure what else to do.
Roy kept up with the small talk and very slowly reached out with one hand toward Old Red’s head. He stopped inches from his face, but when the kangaroo did not seem to protest, Roy reached a little further until his fingers touched a big floppy ear. Roy gently scratched the ear, and when Old Red lowered his head for easier access, Roy scratched more vigorously, and then gently pulled on the big ears. Roy had no way of knowing if anyone had scratched Old red’s ears before, but it was obvious that the big guy liked it.
Roy slowly picked up his broom and hose and walked back to the cage door with the kangaroo following behind. Roy stepped out of the cage and locked the door behind him. Old Red came to the bars and allowed Roy to reach in and scratch his ears again. It was the beginning of a love affair between the old kangaroo and the first human that had showed it such care and kindness. Roy made a quick trip to the kitchen at the end of the building and returned with a present for Old Red, a bunch of fresh, cold, carrots. The big buck accepted them with a soft grunt and eagerly ate them one at a time from Roy’s hands.
Roy shared his adventure with Maggie and me, and sister Millie that evening. We were fascinated with what had happened and Millie was eager to visit with Old Red herself the next day. I brought her to the zoo and she got her chance to scratch Old Red’s big floppy ears as he finished off a dish of chopped vegetables.
Later that week Roy had another adventure to tell his sister and us. He had the great privilege to witness a marsupial birth, one seldom seen by human eyes, a spectacular event that usually slips by without notice.
The day had progressed as any other summer workday. At closing time it was Roy’s routine to transfer all the animals from their outside cages to their inside quarters for the night. As soon as he finished, he ushered the few lingering visitors out of the building and locked it down.
After one final check on the animals, and a special carrot for Old Red, he would have been on his way home if it had not been for a very tiny new addition to the zoo. As Roy walked down the center isle of the building checking the animal cages on both sides of him he suddenly stopped in his tracks. He thought to himself, “What was that?”
He retraced his steps back to the cage front of the gray kangaroos. A little doe was standing close to the cage front and seemed occupied with something on her furry lower abdomen. At first it looked to Roy like a tiny red blob, almost like a little drop of blood.
Perhaps the kangaroo had injured herself. However, the tiny red blob suddenly moved. Roy slowly approached to see what it was. He could hardly believe his eyes, when he realized that the little squirming red blob was actually a newborn kangaroo! It was tiny and reddish pink, about the size of a green pea. The embryonic looking little joey had just been born and now, was struggling upward from its mother’s birth canal through her thick fur, trying to find her pouch.
Roy knew that the journey of a newborn kangaroo was quite amazing. He knew that joeys are marsupial and are born prematurely by most mammal standards. Instead of developing in the mother’s womb, they are born early as tiny, blind, hairless, embryo-like babies. They have to make a long and perilous journey through a forest of thick fur to find a pouch with a well-hidden opening circled by a circular sphincter muscle. Once the joey finds the opening to the pouch, it must struggle through it into the warm pouch, and locate the functional nipple that will feed it. Twins are seldom born and when they are one usually does not survive.
Roy remembered how amazed he was when he read that the joey’s mouth actually becomes attached to its mother’s nipple. For the next several months the mother secretes just the right amount of nutritious fatty milk into her little baby, until it is able to suckle for itself. If all goes well the joey grows rapidly until it is strong enough to scramble in and out of the pouch. Eventually, when her joey grows larger, the doe will have to dump it out of her pouch and not let it back in so she can raise another baby. Apparently, the joeys are reluctant to leave the security of their mother’s pouch, and keep trying to get back in even when they are too big to fit. Roy laughed when he first saw an older joey try to climb back into a too small pouch. Often its legs and tail would hang out and trip up mother.
As Roy watched the joey’s progress, squirming and grasping like a tiny inchworm struggling through the dense fur, he realized that all was not as it should be. The joey had missed his mother’s pouch and now, unfortunately, mom was confused. Her maternal instincts no longer helped her and she could not understand what this little pink thing was on her chest. Roy watched in horror as she casually reached over with a large clawed hand and scratched her baby off. It fell to the cage floor without its mom ever noticing.
Immediately, Roy reached into the cage, gently rescued the tiny baby, and carefully wrapped it in his handkerchief. He ran back to the little office and kitchen at the end of the building and phoned the zoo vet for help.
Soon the other keepers and the zoo veterinarian arrived to see the joey. It was a rare sight for everyone because there is no practical way to know when a kangaroo is pregnant, and no way to know when she will give birth. When it does happen, it usually goes unnoticed. Roy was lucky, he just happened to be checking the doe at the right time. Few people have ever seen a newborn kangaroo or watched it struggle to its mother’s pouch like had Roy.
The zoo veterinarian conferred with the head keeper and finally decided what they had to do with the tiny joey that now had been squirming in Roy’s handkerchief for the past half-hour. Because there was no way they could keep it alive outside its mother’s pouch, they planned to capture the mother and put the newborn in the pouch near her nipple. The rest was up to the baby and nature. They could only hope for a satisfactory outcome. There was no record that this procedure had ever been done successfully before.
The vet volunteered Roy to go into the cage first and grab her tail. Roy was thrilled at having been offered the opportunity. The doe was fast and strong. Roy chased her around the cage three times before he managed to grab her tail. He held it up with both hands as directed so she could not kick the others as they rushed into the cage and pinned her down. It took four keepers to hold her still as the veterinarian searched in the thick fur for the small opening into her pouch. He opened it, and carefully placed the squirming joey next to a nipple. That was the best they could do under the circumstances. They left the cage and hoped that the joey would find the nipple, attach to it, and survive.
During the next month, Roy watched for signs of life in the doe’s pouch, but he never saw anything unusual. He was sad and had to assume that they had failed in their attempt to save the joey. Roy knew it was a well-intentioned effort and he felt privileged to have been a part of it. The experience enhanced his love of animals and reinforced his desire to help the wildlife of our planet survive in spite of habitat destruction and human ignorance. That evening we were fascinated with Roy’s new adventure. I took careful notes for my journal that already contained many of Roy’s unusual and exciting adventures.