March 30, 2007
Late on a Saturday morning I stand inside the kangaroo lock: a double-doored entrance shack to the Detroit Zoo’s Australian Walkabout exhibit. In order to admit visitors, I first open the outer door, let people in, close that door, and then open the other door so they can pass into the habitat. The idea is to prevent a kangaroo from dashing out of the exhibit through an open door.
Before I admit the visitors to the habitat, I welcome them and explain the terms of their visit: There are just three “kanga-rules” to observe.
1. No food or drink: Preventing visitors from feeding Zoo animals can sometimes be difficult. The animals all have specially designed diets to ensure complete and ample nutrition. They don’t need extra food, and it can be dangerous, even fatal, for an animal to pick up and eat some of the items visitors have been known to toss into an exhibit.
In the Outback exhibit, since visitors are so close to the kangaroos, we take extra pains to protect them from human food and food items. Before I admit visitors into the exhibit, mothers and other in-loco parentis must scurry to stow baby’s sippie cup or half-eaten ice cream, while other visitors gulp down the rest of their soft drinks and discard the cups before embarking on their Walkabout adventure.
2. Stay on the path: A hard dirt track – or squishy mud, depending on season – meanders about a quarter of a mile through replica outback decay, aboriginesque enhancements (paintings on rocks and rough-wood walls), and tussocky, scrabbly-treed meadows that are home to 20 Red kangaroos (Macropus rufus). At present, we have ten males (mainly red in color) and ten females (who tend to be grey-blue).
We ask visitors to stay behind the slender cables that mark both sides of the track. The roos, however, are free to come and go as they wish within the Outback. They use the path—mostly when the zoo is closed—to lounge and -- uh -- defecate on. But a kangaroo is as like as not to cross the path when visitors are there, which explains the third kanga-rule:
3. Respect the kangaroos. That is, do not approach, chase, reach for, tempt, feed, or otherwise encourage or promote physical contact with the animals. Some of the roos are quite friendly. One of the males likes to go up from behind and hug his keeper (and at least one volunteer so far). No harm was done, but Red kangaroos are big strong wild animals (males can weigh up to 200 pounds!), and the last thing the Zoo needs is for a visitor to get hurt or even just badly scared by one of our roos.
Kangaroos have the right of way, and often a sprawling roo blocks the visitor path. We volunteers are instructed to shoo the animal away without touching it. Sometimes the animal moves, but sometimes it doesn’t. Occasionally we resort to radioing a keeper, who will come and coax or, if necessary, physically move the animal off the path.
A few weeks ago, I was on Mob duty after a light snowfall. The sky was clear, and the air still quite chilly, but the roos are generally outside (they have 24/7 access to a warm, cozy barn) if the sun is shining. I was able to get some good photos that day of kangaroos in the snow, something I suspect happens rarely in Australia.
The first photo is one of a series I was lucky enough to shoot of two boomers taking the sun. I don’t know the meaning, if any, of the kangaroo’s stretching and waving his arms around, but it made me think that perhaps he was practicing his ballet moves. His buddy looks unimpressed, but practice makes perfect.
The second photo shows our second youngest roo—an 18-month-old doe (or “flyer”) named Missy—with her mom. All of our boomers are neutered, so it was quite a surprise to discover Missy’s mom with a bulging pouch in the fall of 2005. Kangaroos are opportunistic breeders: A female become pregnant, and after about 35 days gives birth to a pink, naked, lima-bean-sized neonate. The tiny joey climbs into her mother’s pouch and latches onto a nipple, which swells to hold the little creature in place. The joey remains in the pouch for 5-6 months, causing endless delight and wonder when a visitor catches sight of a little foot or head sticking up out of the pouch.
What is amazing is that the doe can become pregnant as soon as the first joey is born. By the time the second joey emerges and travels to the pouch, the first joey is making forays from the pouch and leaving enough room for the little sibling to nurse and grow. Apparently, one mating can also result in a series of births over a period of several years. It all makes birth control a particular challenge with captive kangaroos.
The last photo shows one of our big males lolling on a grassy bank. Kangaroos are both very alien and very familiar, depending on their behavior or posture. This boomer looks as if to say, “Give me a beer and the remote, and I’m together.”