In rural Australia, houses are few and far between. If a residence is numbered 10, it is 10 kilometers along that road. A determined Anne-Marie explained this as we sped down an empty path in a small farming community in Kilkivan, Queensland.
There was nothing but cattle, dry land, and dehydrated trees on the verge of collapse, a complete contrast to my snow covered New York streets. With the windows down, the warm wind in our hair, and the evening sun setting in the distance, it might have been an enjoyable drive. Instead, it was fraught with tension, wrong turns, and anticipation.
Anne-Marie Dineen, an Irish expatriate who runs the Oakview Wildlife Refuge, was on a mission — to rescue a premature eastern gray kangaroo baby from a badly injured mom. I was in for the ride of a lifetime.
Before we got in the car, Anne-Marie scrambled around the house, gathering her medical kit and cloth pouches. She shook her head and waved her arms saying, “I knew that wasn’t the end of it.” After receiving word that a kangaroo had been critically injured by a vehicle, she requested that a friend end the animal’s misery. After doing the deed, he discovered a tiny baby in her pouch; Anne-Marie was called upon to help.
I was feeding nine orphans in the wallaby enclosure when Anne-Marie asked me to join her. “Do you really want me to come along?” I didn’t want to see blood. In the bush, there is no humane euthanasia. The suffering animal is shot in the head from a distance. I had signed on for caretaking on a farm, not roadside carnage.Anne-Marie was too focused on ensuring the rescue to perceive the hesitation in my voice. “I could use another set of eyes. I gave my long distance glasses to be repaired,” she said. Realizing that I might be crucial to the rescue, I gulped down my squeamishness and rushed with Anne-Marie to the car.
“The poor thing doesn’t even have fur. We have to get her before the crows or snakes,” she said, as she grabbed the location information for the injured animal. The woman who discovered the dying mother in her yard wanted the animals off her property immediately. She threatened to run them over with her car until they died, which Anne-Marie begged her not to do. I couldn’t imagine someone intentionally driving over an animal.
We sped off into the dwindling daylight. If we didn’t find the house in an hour, our efforts would be for naught. There was no navigation system in Anne-Marie’s rusty, twenty-year-old Toyota. Just an hour’s worth of sunlight remained and we were at least 30 minutes away.
Unfortunately, the rule about houses being numbered by kilometer didn’t apply to the road we were on. Anne-Marie exceeded the speed limit, fretting about the orphan, in search of the house. When we reached the expected kilometer marker, there was no house, just a meandering road, leafless trees, and a few decaying animals on the side of the road – a common sight in the summer. Anne-Marie shook her head and sighed.
With limited cellular signal and not enough light remaining, we reversed course. It was my job to stay calm, a characteristic not native to the New Yorker in me. Somehow, with the responsibility of getting to this infant, I kept my composure and gently reassured Anne-Marie, telling her we would save the joey.
In an effort to be more useful, I offered to call the woman. Steering her speeding car with one hand, Anne-Marie pulled out her antiquated flip phone and the contact information from her bag and handed it to me. I dialed the number a few times, holding the phone steady as we flew down the road, until the line connected. A thick Aussie accent greeted me. “Our house has a red brick roof,” the woman said, providing this detail for the first time. “I reckon the baby might still be alive. Come ‘n’ ge’ it,” she said before hanging up.
After swearing at the lady for giving insufficient directions, we finally arrived. The sun had just disappeared into the horizon. The caller, dressed in a giant floral nightgown, led us into her backyard where a few of her cats prowled guardedly. The mama roo lay dead in a paddock, her back on the grass, legs up in the air, her head facing away from us. There was very little blood. Still, I stood at a distance, my heart rate returning to normal, knowing we still had a chance at rescuing the little one.
Anne-Marie was calm and collected. She dropped her medical kit on the ground near the animal, brushed her bare hands over her pants, and expertly glided one hand over the mama marsupial’s chest and slid the other into her pouch. She slipped out the tiniest being I had ever seen, no bigger than my two outstretched palms.She immediately placed the premature baby – called a pinkie – in two fleece pouches and stuffed her under her blouse to replicate the pouch. On the way home, Anne-Marie stopped the car to pick up pinkie food and asked me to hold the baby, which she determined was a girl. I lifted my shirt and she transferred the bundle. When she stirred inside the layers of material, it felt as if she was a part of me. When her tender limbs moved in slow motion for the first time, I may have let out a little squeal. I soon became accustomed to her movements, and relaxed my body to keep her comfortable. Knowing she was now safe was all that mattered.
We reached home just before darkness. Anne-Marie checked the baby for injuries, bathed her with a washcloth, and nursed her with milk using a tiny syringe. The little one looked like a newborn piglet, with shades of pink, bare skin, lean limbs, and barely opened eyes. She needed an incubator. Keeping the pinkie warm is vital, as developing joeys need humidity and low oxygen levels to prevent permanent blindness. When it was time to tuck the preemie to bed, we discovered that the incubator was broken. It was close to ten, and Anne-Marie reached out to wildlife rescuers as I held this tiny being in my arms, cooing and comforting her. After a few phone calls, she found a rescue three hours away and arranged to bring this new addition in the morning… if the animal survived the night.After a restless sleep, I got out of bed at the first sign of dawn and ran downstairs. The Australian sun peeked through the clouds. The kookaburra birds were relentless in their cacophony as the refuge’s full-grown kangaroos and wallabies rested under the mango tree out front. The resident wallaby joeys chattered and hissed in their enclosure, ready to be fed, unaware of the orphan inside.
A smiling Anne-Marie walked out of her room, with the swaddled pinkie tucked in the front of her pants, and asked me to prepare the milk. She spent the night feeding her every few hours and kept her warm under layers of blankets next to her. She named her Tansey, after the bittersweet road where she had met salvation. When Tansey finished feeding, I held her fragile, little hand for a few seconds and told her I was so proud of her. Anne-Marie then nestled the pinkie into a cozy bag with a hot water pack, put her in the back seat, and drove her off to her new home. The worst was over.
A few months after I bid farewell to the inhabitants of Oakview, I received pictures of a beautiful kangaroo joey. I knew it was the same one I held so close to my heart. With her glowing fur, healthy eyes, and perky ears, Tansey looked content in the arms of her foster mom. She will remain in her care until it’s time for her to join her fellow kangaroos in the wild.
Despite being emblematic of the nation, Australia’s kangaroos are considered a nuisance by their only predator: humans. They are slaughtered for food and encroached upon by vehicles. As I glanced at the photograph of a postcard-perfect eastern gray, I marveled at how far this once vulnerable creature had come. Despite the dangers, I trusted that Tansey’s long and winding road would lead to many hard-won sunsets in the bush.
Lavanya Sunkara is an animal lover and globe-trotter based in New York. She enjoys wildlife and conversation volunteering in remote corners of the earth and reporting on her experiences. To follow her adventures, visit www.nature-traveler.com.