Church Hill-- People are likely to do a double take when they see Evelyn Engelke out shopping or opening her hymnal at church. It's not Mrs. Engelke they're looking at, but her choice of accessories. Not many people carry around a baby wallaby in a handmade, quilted pouch hanging from their neck.
A baby wallaby, or joey, is quite a conversation piece. But Evelyn Engelke likes it that way. There's nothing she enjoys more than talking about her passion -- hand-raising these miniature kangaroos at her family's home, God's Gift Farm, on the Eastern Shore.
"What I do," she explains, "is take the joey away from the mama as early as possible [at eight to 10 months]. Then I raise them myself. I make a little pouch, which I hang around my neck, and the baby goes everywhere with me. To the mall, shopping, anywhere I go. They think of me as their mother."
Exotic pets have become increasingly popular with animal lovers in the United States. For the home where dogs, cats, fish or birds just aren't enough, how about a Vietnamese potbellied pig, ferret or hedgehog? These animals have all been touted as unusual pet fads in recent years.
It remains to be seen if wallabies will join the list, although there are already at least 350 breeders raising various species of miniature roos, and estimates are that as many as 1,000 U.S. families own one.
"We're not the only ones on the Shore with exotics," Mrs. Engelke points out, using the accepted nomenclature for
non-native species. "There's another couple in Queenstown with white wallabies, and there are people who raise ostriches and emus around here."
The Bennett's Red Neck Wallaby, the species Mrs. Engelke raises, is definitely not your average domestic companion. They need big pens and room to graze. They grow to be nearly 3 feet tall and weigh up to 50 pounds. And even the smallest wallabies are strong enough to do serious damage when they feel threatened.
But if you've got the affection, the time, the space and the energy, Evelyn Engelke may have the exotic pet you've dreamed about. "Wallabies aren't for everyone," the 45-year-old breeder cautions. "No exotic species is."
Miniature animals have been a lifelong interest for Mrs. Engelke, who lives on the farm with her 56-year-old husband, Tom, a Methodist minister and personnel director for the city of Annapolis, and her 16-year-old daughter, Lauren, a junior at Queen Anne's County High School.
The Engelkes moved to God's Gift Farm from Annapolis in 1988 so Mrs. Engelke could have room to raise her pets. This tidy, 15-acre spread, with its pond, handsome stand of woods and rolling pasture, provides an ideal setting.
Mrs. Engelke started with Shalimar, a miniature greyhound who is now 14 years old, then became interested in miniature horses -- Lauren's pets and 4-H Club projects. After that, it was Vietnamese potbellied pigs, and then, three years ago, the wallabies. She bought her first pair from a breeder in Florida and eventually sold them to another wallaby fancier.
She gestures to the fenced-in area where five wallabies are bounding in the grass, enjoying a cloudy morning with the kind of cool weather they are genetically programmed for. (The native habitat of these wallabies is Australia and Tasmania.)
The pen can be seen from the road, and the family has gotten used to people stopping on the two-lane blacktop to stare in amazement at the bouncing animals. "We're on several bicycle tours," Mrs. Engelke says. "The bicycle people know we're here, and they make a special stop to come and see the wallabies."
Meeting the wallabies
With a bag of unshelled, raw peanuts in hand, Mrs. Engelke, a meticulously groomed brunette in a sweater and slacks, escorts a visitor to the pen. There you meet Willie. Even though you're not an animal person, your heart melts. Willie is cute, and he knows it.
First, it's those eyes. Huge dark, liquid eyes, framed with long, long lashes, stare up at you appealingly as Willie checks you out through the link fence, sniffing you to see if you pass inspection and if, perchance, you've got a treat for him.
Once Willie has approved you, Mrs. Engelke allows you to accompany her into the large pen, where he bounds up, full of interest. "The males are more curious than the females," Mrs. Engelke explains. "And more aggressive." They are territorial, as are most animals, and regard strangers warily until they've established your motives.
The four female wallabies watch from a safe distance away, not sure yet about this intruder into their world. But Willie knows what he wants.
All of 2 years old, with outsized, expressive ears that seem to rotate as he listens to your voice, Willie presses his long snout against a visitor, curious as all get-out. He squats, balancing on his tail, and sniffs an extended hand, nibbling gently at your fingers as he searches for a peanut.
Mrs. Engelke gives you one from her bag, and you present it to Willie, who takes it between his front teeth. Rather daintily, he leans back, balancing on big, flat feet and his thick, furry tail, and begins chowing down on the snack. You may not have a friend for life for the price of a peanut -- Willie's too smart for that -- but you've surely got his interest now.
His tail seems to have a personality of its own. Large, muscularly defined and slightly twitchy, it is used as a third leg for balancing, locomotion and, it sometimes seems, for expression.
Having gotten his peanut, Willie bounds a few feet, rising on those big haunches, balancing on that tail, springing forward, rising, balancing, springing, rising, balancing, springing, as he circles around playfully and comes back again.
As you stroke his short, thick fur -- a rich variegation of soft brown, white and the identifying reddish mantle around the shoulders -- it's easy to see why this breed is comfortable in cooler climates.
At the other end of the large wire pen the four females -- Molly, Katy, Kanga and Marcy -- watch the stranger warily. If you move within 10 or 15 feet of them, into their comfort zone, they will back away.
Marcy, a 2-year-old, decides if peanuts are involved, it's worth a look. Slightly smaller than Willie (most female wallabies are smaller than males), she takes her peanut and chews it quickly, then looks for more. She enjoys being scratched behind the ears, and will offer her chin also, but when stroking is attempted and no more peanuts are forthcoming, she turns, elegantly balances on her tail, then springs from her haunches, her big, flat feet vaulting, working her into her next leap. The wallabies at play are visual poetry.
"Oh, look, you can see the baby today," Mrs. Engelke says, pointing to the far end of the pen, where Katy is standing away from the mob, as a group of wallabies is known.
Katy is wary; she's carrying around her 8-month-old joey (fathered by Willie), and she's not anxious to get involved with humans. Just to be able to see the joey's tiny head emerging from the pouch is a treat at this late-morning hour, Mrs. Engelke says.
Usually the joey is only visible from the mother's pouch in early morning or late afternoon, she explains. Other times, the joey is a lump, concealed in the depths of the furry abdominal pocket.
Although Mrs. Engelke has separated joeys of the same age as Katy's from their mothers, she has not been able to part Katy from hers. The doe has been unwilling to allow any human, even Mrs. Engelke, to get too close to her since the joey's birth. "Katy wasn't hand-raised," Mrs. Engelke explains.
Bringing up baby
Hand-raising wallabies is Mrs. Engelke's specialty. She advertises it as part of the services offered by God's Gift Farm in the Journal of Exotic Breeds, the trade magazine for the industry. She also sells her handmade roo pouches and leashes through the magazine.
When the roos reach the age of separation, she takes them from their mothers. At that time they are being weaned and are climbing in and out of the pouch on their own. Mrs. Engelke carries the roos around in her handmade pouches, then slowly transfers them to the outside pen, where she will spend hours letting them play around her to help them get used to humans.
Hand-raised wallabies of the sort Mrs. Engelke raises are the most desirable as pets, says Kitty Mallory, a Georgia breeder and author of A Practical Guide to Raising Wallabies, the bible of small-roo owners.
Since they are used to being around people, these wallabies are tamer and have personalities that make them more suitable as pets. They also are healthier and less prone to stress-related deaths than wallabies in the wild or the pasture.
There are about 50 breeds of wallaby, Ms. Mallory says, but the most popular in this country are the Bennett's, the Damas and the Swamp Wallaby.
You wouldn't want to keep a wallaby the size of a Bennett's in the house. But the Damas is a smaller breed that is sometimes kept as a house pet. Like some other breeds, it can be trained to use a litter box.
The Damas, also called Tammar, weighs 7 to 12 pounds and stands about 18 inches high. It tends, however, to be skittish and is nocturnal -- two good reasons to think long and hard about having one around the house.
The Swamp Wallaby is about the size of a Bennett's, but is black with reddish-gold highlights. It enjoys hot, dry climates, and is mostly raised in the Southwestern states.
Mrs. Engelke is reluctant to name the price of a wallaby. "It goes up every year," she says, and depends on the rearing of the animal. But a buyer should expect to pay something in the four-figure range, she says.
Even if you are willing to spend that much for a pet wallaby, be prepared to invest a lot more in housing, feed, shelter and veterinary care. The latter, however, can be hard to obtain because not all vets are knowledgeable about exotics.
Ms. Mallory says a wallaby's pen should measure 50-by-50-feet for each animal. You'll also need plenty of grass for grazing, fresh water and feed daily, and a shelter with climate control.
Wallabies need to be fed every half-hour when they are first born, and as often as every four hours as they grow older, which means Mrs. Engelke's habit of carrying joeys around in one of her handmade pouches isn't just a fashion statement. It's a necessity.
Wallabies are lactose-intolerant, so Mrs. Engelke feeds hers a formula designed for puppies from a specially nippled bottle until they're old enough to be weaned. Once off the bottle, they are slowly assimilated into the mob or sold.
Mrs. Engelke feeds her older wallabies Happy Hopper Kangaroo Food, which she buys by mail order from Missouri. Each wallaby will eat about a half-cup of Happy Hopper a day, supplemented with raw sweet potatoes, apples, broccoli, corn, grapes, carrots and celery. There's also an apple tree in the pen, loaded with ripe fruit that the wallabies eat as it falls to the ground.
"Kangaroos are grazers," Mrs. Engelke says, "so you need to be sure that they have plenty of grass in the pen. And you need to keep hay around for them, too."
Everything must be kept clean and well maintained if the wallabies are to remain healthy. The animals, which live 10 to 15 years, can be easily stressed and are susceptible to a variety of disorders, so they must be watched closely. Water and hay must be changed daily, often twice a day in summer.
7+ No one said raising roos was easy work.
Running with the mob
By nature, wallabies are gregarious and feel isolated when there's not at least one other wallaby about to keep them company. In the wild, they roam and forage in mobs of several females, sometimes with one dominant male.
Unlike most kangaroos, Bennett's wallabies are not nocturnal. They play in the open during the day and go inside their shed at night. "They basically like to catnap, graze a little, eat a little, have another catnap, play a little and graze a little -- that's how their days go," Mrs. Engelke says.
In addition to preferring cold weather to hot, "they love it when it rains, or snows," Mrs. Engelke says. "They'll stand out here like they are today, just basking in it. In the summer, when it's really hot, I keep a sprinkler in the pen so they can play in it. The humidity, they don't much care for that."
Wallabies are very clean animals, Mrs. Engelke says. They have a long, two-nailed toe on their foot to use as a grooming tool, and they clean their coats with their tongues, twisting around like a cat to get to just the right spot.
As if to illustrate the point, Molly and Willie both lift a hind leg to stroke their fur in a combing motion, using those long, hard-looking toenails, about the size of a man's index finger.
"They love grooming themselves," Mrs. Engelke says. "It keeps their coats healthy and shiny, and they never have fleas."
As for a wallaby's temperment, Ms. Mallory, the Georgia breeder, says: "The closest thing I can think of is a deer [shy, cautious]. Wallabies are also very smart. Once they learn a lesson, it is not forgotten. They will learn to open gates, so have sturdy locks. They will also pick up on a person's fear, and the males will try to bully you if they think they can get away with it."
Wallabies, especially males, can become quite aggressive when upset or threatened, she adds, and they are very strong. Even a normally gentle wallaby like Willie could seriously hurt someone who threatened him. Watch those big bounding leaps, and you know those muscles could pack a powerful kick.
There are, of course, those who raise ethical questions about breeding and owning exotic animals.
"It's cruel and unusual punishment to take any animal out of the wild and use it for human entertainment," says Violette Richmann of the Human/Animal Alliance, an animal-rights group based in New York City. "When I hear about things like this, my heart just bleeds for those poor little animals."
"Environmentalists and traditional conservationists oppose the ranching of exotic animals because of the threat it poses to native wildlife and the stability of native habitat," Wayne Pascelle, a spokesman for the Humane Society of the United States, says in a position paper sent out by the group.
The animals sometimes escape and colonize in the wild, he adds. When they do, they may displace native wildlife and deplete vegetation.
Ms. Mallory doesn't dispute the Humane Society's stand, but says, "Although the various animal-rights people and some in the zoo community are totally opposed to the private ownership of exotic animals, it is probably here to stay."
As for Mrs. Engelke, she says she has never been criticized in person about her wallaby business. Most people just ooh and ahh when they see a joey in her pouch.
A wallaby's life
Kangaroos have an interesting, if somewhat complex, reproductive life.
Signs that a female is ready to breed include aggressive behavior, a swishing tail and nervous energy, Ms. Mallory says in her guide to raising wallabies. About a month after a mating, the doe is ready to deliver.
Perhaps the most unusual aspect of a roo's mating cycle is something known as embryonic diapause, an adaptation that helps the species survive long periods without rain.
"During drought years," Ms. Mallory writes, "females will not . . . bear young. Instead, the fertilized egg will develop into about 100 cells and then stop growing, waiting for better times to be born."
"The mama usually has one joey a year," Mrs. Engelke says. "I know the mamas are expecting when they start to clean their pouches. They can stick their heads right down inside there and lick it out, cleaning it up for the baby.
"When the baby's born, he's no bigger than a lima bean, and hairless," she adds. "Using his sense of smell and his forearms, he crawls up the mama's tummy and into the pouch. She can't help him; he has to do it himself. It takes about 10 or 15 minutes. Once the joey's in the pouch, he instinctively attaches himself to one of mama's four nipples, where he stays attached for about four months."
While the joey is in the pouch, he continues to develop, and begins to grow hair. Katy's joey is large enough so that even when he's not peeking out into the world, you can see him kicking and moving inside.
This afternoon, the joey's head, about the size of an apple, appears over the rim of Katy's pouch. It has those huge kangaroo liquid eyes, and is covered with a juvenile down that will eventually turn into an adult coat.
Even the hardened cynic is moved to say "awwww" when the joey's oversized, pointed ears twitch. The sound is enough to make the baby dive back into the furry depths. But after a few moments, it re-emerges, at first just an ear, then two ears, then those eyes, cautiously peering around.
Since the joey is 8 months old, it's time for it to start venturing outside on its own, where it will begin to graze on grass. In about two more months, it will be ready to be "at heel" -- outside the
pouch, but still sticking close to mom and still nursing.
Then, a few months later, if it's still with the mob, it will be on its own.
A sense of wonder
As you leave the pen, a thin sun breaks through the milky sky. Willie, Marcy and Molly lean against the fence like lazy teen-agers, sitting on their big tails, eyes half-closed, catnapping in the afternoon warmth.
But the story's different on an evening shortly thereafter, when -- the moon is hanging like a globe in an indigo sky, and an errand takes you past God's Gift Farm. You stop for a moment to look into the wallabies' pen.
As your eyes adjust to the half-darkness, you can see the group, full of that peculiar lunar energy that affects all earthly creatures. They're rocking and playing in the moonlight, black and silver shapes bounding and dancing.
It's easy to see why the first Europeans in Australia wrote so often about the glory of watching a mob of kangaroos at play.
Slowly, you drive on, feeling a little like a kid again.
HELEN CHAPPELL is a writer living in Easton. Her latest book, "The Oysterback Tales," was published by Johns Hopkins University.