By Kathleen Kemsley © 2021
The impulse to preserve its unique wildlife is evident all over Australia – rescue sanctuaries and protected grounds are everywhere. The iconic native species of the country include koala bears and kangaroos and lizards and emus and platipuses and crocodiles and many more. In Australia, there seems to be a rescue center for all of them. I visited two, curious to see how these strange creatures are faring with the (so far) fairly slight impact of human beings to their world.
The Horizons Kangaroo Sanctuary in Agnes Water, Queensland, only charged ten dollars to get in – very reasonable for a couple hours of close encounters with kangaroos. The people who ran the sanctuary, Denise and Gary, began by rescuing joeys (baby kangaroos) when the mother was killed by a car on the highway. Vehicle versus kangaroo accidents were apparently quite common in the rural areas of Queensland. The joeys could survive for a maximum of a day or two after their mother (and source of food) has died, so rescuers got in the habit of cruising the roads looking for roadkill, then checking the pocket to see if a baby had survived.
When the joeys were brought to the sanctuary, they were bottle fed by hand. It takes about four years for them to grow up, according to Gary. They are free to go at any time – there are no fences around the Horizons Kangaroo Sanctuary – and all eventually wander off into the bush to live out their lives in the wild. But many of them return as adults from time to time, often with a joey of their own in tow, for a free meal.
A large portion of the population of Australia, surprisingly, looks at kangaroos as pests. There is a move afoot in the country, said Gary, to eradicate kangaroos and replace them with cows, because people want more meat. Kangaroo meat, while edible, is not as sought after as beef. The group of about ten of us visitors listened patiently to Gary’s spiel about the sanctuary, as well as some editorial comments about how bad our diet is, and how what we eat causes cancer, and if everyone ate like a kangaroo (a vegetarian, alkaline diet) we’d never get cancer.
Finally, lecture completed, he handed us slices of raw sweet potatoes and allowed us to feed the kangaroos by hand. The creatures, most of them half-grown adolescents, showed no fear at all. I was able to pet several of them, as they patiently waited for another bite of potato. I left feeling a great affinity to these gentle and friendly creatures.
In subsequent travels in Australia, I learned that the Horizons Kangaroo Sanctuary in Agnes Water is far from the only kangaroo rescue operation. In fact, nearly every town of any size has a kangaroo sanctuary. Some invite visitors, while others are strictly private. But the practice of caring for the most iconic of creatures in Australia proved to be something of a common career path.
In Alice Springs, in the red desert of central Australia, I encountered a different type of sanctuary. There, the kangaroos (a giant species called red kangaroo which is taller and outweighs most grown men) seem to be holding their own. But the creatures which needed protection more were the reptiles.
Australia being an island nation, it has fostered the development of many unique species, a la Galapagos, and most of them had not evolved to fear humans. The Alice Springs Reptile Center, located on the edge of town next to a couple other history museums, was built in 2000 to showcase the native reptile species of Northern Territories.
Its star attraction was a ten-foot-long saltwater crocodile named “Terry.” He was visible from above, or through a window that looked under the surface of the pond where he lived. He seemed a little lonely all by himself in there, but I guess he got company when he was fed a couple times a day.
The rest of the center was dedicated to displays both indoors and outdoors of some 60 species of reptiles. They included frogs, geckos, lizards, snakes, turtles, skinks, and some very strange creatures called goannas and taipans. There were also several species of dragons, truly throwbacks to the days when dinosaurs ruled the earth.
After walking around looking at all the creatures – at least, those who wanted to be seen – I followed a handful of other people into a room off the main building where a demonstration was about to begin. I walked in thinking that I’d never want to actually handle a snake or a dragon. But once the naturalist started his spiel, I got caught up in it.
He first pulled out a lizard, then a skink, then finally a dragon. We passed the creatures down the line of benches gingerly, taking selfies with the strange cold-blooded animals and staring into their faces to try to discern what they were thinking. The animals did not seem to mind being handled. They did not bite, nor attempt to run away. I suspect they knew they had a good gig at the Alice Springs Reptile Center; life was easy, and all they had to do was stare into everyone’s cameras.
The Reptile Center put on three of these demos each day, plus extra shows for school groups. In addition, they offered reptile removal services for homeowners; training courses for commercial businesses including the mining industry, and opportunities to photograph their many residents for film, television, and still photographs. Knowing that they were competing with cuter species such as kangaroos and koalas in a country enamored of its endemic wildlife, they seemed to try a little harder to please the visitor. I left with some great close-up pictures of strange reptiles, and a little better understanding of the wide variety of species lurking in the hot red desert of central Australia.