“If you see a couple of males scratching under their chins or rubbing their chest, look out: a big fight could be coming.”
So says Chris McDowell, curator at Kentucky Down Under in Horse Cave.
Kentucky Down Under brings a slice of the Aussie life to the Bluegrass. This private park combines native Kentucky trees and foliage with Australian animals—reptiles, birds, and of course kangaroos. Kangaroos are the big draw at KDU, all carefully tended to by Chris and other animal keepers.
“I have to get to know each kangaroo personally,” Chris says of the six species of marsupials he sees to. Not an easy task, but as someone who knows all about such things as bettongs and woylies, Chris is well-suited to the job.
Chris says he received most of his training while at KDU, part of which was spent working with an Australian animal rehabilitator and their veterinarian. Still, he says, “It’s a continual learning process in handling and observation.”
Observation is a big part of all the animal keepers’ job: by watching the kangaroos first thing every morning, they can tell if anyone is sick, what a kangaroo’s mood is, or if one is displaying aggressive behavior.
If a kangaroo sees you approaching and rises to his full height, which could be as much as six feet, he’s not posing for your camera, he’s showing signs of aggression—and you need to leave, quickly.
But most of the kangaroos here—part of the macropod family, which literally means “big foot”—are docile and fairly tame. And that’s what makes a visit here so much fun.
“One of the best things about this park,” Chris notes, “is that we’re so interactive, we’re hands-on: here, you can pat kangaroos, you can feed rainbow lorikeets. You don’t get to do that at zoos.”
A visit with the kangaroos is supervised by the Outback Walkabout keepers. A kangaroo’s temperament varies by species and by individual—you can’t just walk up to a large Eastern grey kanga or even a small swamp wallaby and start playing with him.
“You’ve got to show the animals respect, but you’ve also got to show them who’s boss,” says Chris as he puts down Dobbin, who’s crawled into Chris’ lap. Dobbin is among many of the babies here who were hand-raised and bottle-fed by the staff. Dobbin would love nothing more than to snuggle up with Chris, but he’s got to learn he can’t snuggle with the boss. Better he learns now than when he weighs more than 100 pounds.
The park has had great success with the baby kangaroos they have hand-raised, rearing them much as a mother kanga would. The baby is given a pouch to sleep in, just as he would in a mother’s pouch, and grass and bottles of milk are put in the pouch with him. Depending on the species, a baby kangaroo will spend three to nine months in a mother’s pouch. The staff at KDU even put adults in a pouch when transporting them—the pouch is a great source of comfort at any age.
The breeding of the kangas here is all natural—kangas tend to regulate their own breeding, with no need for interference from the staff. Females generally have one baby, or joey, a year, and if she breeds again while she still has a young joey in her pouch, or if environmental conditions such as drought are present, he body will delay the fetus’ progress until later. When the joey is born after a gestation of 30 days, it is only the size of a jelly bean. He then makes his way into Mom’s pouch, where he will stay, unseen, for several months. It’s always an exciting day at KDU when a joey pops out of his pouch for the first time.
A great aspect of KDU is that most of the staff here can tell you all about the kangas and wallabies—from gestation to the difference between a tammar and a Bennett’s wallaby. Cross-training is a big part of the entire training process. Want to know about kanga family units? You can ask Melissa McGuire, the marketing director at KDU, and she’ll tell you that kangas are highly socialized animals that will babysit one another’s joeys, and groom each other while lying in the sun.
“That’s why we’re all educated in different aspects of the park,” she says. “Our focus is to show people the connection between man and nature, and it is a major component of our training program.”
This was, in fact, the whole idea behind opening this park. KDU was started by Judy Austin and her husband, Bill, in 1990. The park was the original home of Mammoth Onyx Cave, now known as Kentucky Caverns, but animals, including bison and sheep, were gradually added and are now the main focus of the park. Judy hand-raised joeys as a child in her native Australia before bringing her expertise to the U.S. Wanting to “develop an authentic type of attraction based on the Australian bush experience,” it was only natural for her to add kangaroos to the park.
“Besides, I believe we all should love what we do, and do what we love,” she says.
The kangaroos thrive under that edict. Living in a large grassy area complete with pond and Aussie birds, they tend to congregate with their own families, known as mobs. The fencing serves to keep other animals out more so than keep the kangas in—they’re too content to try to jump the fence, though they probably could. They’re fed a specialized formula made just for kangas, and get lots of fruit as treats.
And lest you worry that these warm-weather animals suffer in the cold Kentucky winters, they have heated beds in the barn to retreat to.
So if you’re hankering for a taste of the Aussie life but don’t want to spend hours and hours on a plane, go see the kangas at Kentucky Down Under. You’re guaranteed a g’day.
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