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Kangaroos -- Too many -- or too few?

By Emilie Tavel LivezeyStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 15, 1981


To pet a tame kangaroo in one of Australia's wildlife sanctuaries is to touch a gentle creature with the softest of fur. To have one take your outstretched palm in the paws of its strangely short front "arms" is to feel a sudden rush of affection. To see a tiny joey kick around inside his mother's pouch, then pop his head out for fresh air is to see a storybook animal come alive.

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All ears, elbows, enormous hind legs, and whopping, balance-wheel tail, the adult kangaroo's labored, slow-motion walk is awkward, almost mechanical.Has a gigantic joke been perpetrated on these creatures, whose limbs are of such disproportionate lengths? But wait. As mamma "roo" bends forward to graze, vest-pocket junior is in exactly the right position to nibble also -- without even leaving home.

Once out of the pouch, young joey hangs around his mom for nearly a year, liking nothing better than to stand on his hind legs and playfully box with her.

When hunted down in the wild, adult roos, timid by nature and gentle in captivity, use their powerful hind feet to defend themselves ferociously.

Mrs. Kangaroo's pocket is rarely empty. While one young joey is still in and out of the pouch nursing, his baby brother or sister is simultaneously developing inside the pouch, partaking of a different formula that meets its particular needs from another nipple.

At the same time, a third offspring may well be in the wings, waiting to make its appearance as soon as the pipeline has cleared. The fertilized egg may remain dormant up to 200 days. This is one way these animals cope with prolonged drought. Once gestation begins, the process is rapid. Baby roo may be born within 30 days. Such delayed-action capability enables kangaroos to reproduce rapidly after a serious drought.

But however interesting and unusual, the kangaroo, like the human family, has become too prolific for its own good. Therein lies its predicament.

No matter how endearing they look, it's hard to love 30,000 kangaroos grazing on your property. Of course, sheep and cattle ranches on this driest of all continents are immense. Australian "stations" are huge tracts of land. In the state of Western Australia, they average 100,000 acres. Many are much larger. And experts agree that because of their differing tastes in grasses (there are 40-odd varieties), kangaroos and sheep do not compete for forage except in times of drought.

But sheep and cattle station owners complain that at times like the present, when the kangaroo population is officially estimated at about 32 million, roos are "everywhere." They even mooch on golf courses, oblivious of hurtling golf balls.

When they aren't wriggling under and through pasture fences, they easily vault over them. But they often forget about their fifth foot -- their big tail - which comes crashing down, breaking the top strand of barbed wire.

Their four-footed walk may be ungainly.But when kangaroos step on the gas, these high-speed hoppers, traveling in small groups or in mobs of up in the hundreds, can be a menace on the highways of the great outback. At a cruising hop of 35 miles an hour, they may dart out in front of cars, come tearing down the road toward oncoming motorists, hop along behind, or try to outrace them. Dazzled by headlights at night, they freeze on the road. Many residents of the outback go to the extra expense of installing a protective "roo bar" on the front of their cars.

It is the sheep ranchers, producers of the country's biggest export, who are pestered most by kangaroos. The tens of thousands of wells that ranchers have drilled to supply water for their flocks have encouraged the kangaroo population to flourish, opening up land that used to be too dry even for the kangaroo, which requires only a quarter as much water per body weight as sheep and wild goats.

So it isn't unusual -- especially during droughts -- to find a mob of kangaroos drinking at, walking through, and muddying watering holes intended for sheep. And when long- awaited rains finally fall, freshening up the grasslands, kangaroos can sense the moisture miles away. While sheep are migrating slowly with their little lambs, baby roos hop into their mobile homes and the mob shifts into high and zooms to greener fields.