A record 60,241 people visited Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium over the 2016 Memorial Day weekend to see the new African Grasslands. The Grasslands is a $73 million, twenty-eight acres, exhibit that houses elephants, giraffes, white rhinos, cheetahs and impala, as well as mixed-species habitats, wading pools and interactive demonstration areas. I pondered sixty thousand people wandering an African savanna grassland and thought about the two pet rabbits in our boyhood backyard and our other pet animals and wondered why I didn’t want a pet kangaroo.
Eleven ships made up the First Fleet to Australia; three of the ships were store ships and they carried only a meagre amount of food and supplies. But they did carry rabbits to breed in rabbit farms and enclosures; providing an endless supply of meat to the new colony.
Thomas Austin a landowner in Victoria is credited with introducing the rabbit into Australia; he imported twenty-four wild rabbits from England and released them into the wild so that his guest could entertain themselves with the sport of hunting. Within a number of years, the twenty-four rabbits had multiplied into millions and had spread across New South Wales, South Australia, and Queensland. By 1890 rabbits were spotted in Western Australia. The flimsy barbed wire fence that was put up in the early 1900s to keep the wild rabbits out of the barren farmland of Western Australia was known as the Rabbit Proof fence; the fence is over two thousand miles long.
I don’t know why I ever wanted a rabbit. Maybe dad got them at Queen Vic Market; mine was grey and my brothers was black. There were a couple of pet stalls as well as some stalls selling live chickens, ducks, and geese at Queen Vic. The pet stalls sold, cockatoos, canaries and any parrot you could imagine, as well as puppies, goldfish, guinea pigs, white mice and rabbits. When we first got the rabbits I tried to have play sessions with them. I would roll a table tennis ball between their front paws so they could try to get the ball as it rolled around underneath them. And after trying to play tug of war with an old tennis ball and chasey with the water hose I learned that rabbits weren’t a pet that you took out into the backyard to play with. And so the rabbits were let out into the backyard by themselves each morning. By late afternoon they would be waiting at the fernery door so they could go back into their cage for a restful night and a plentiful supply of food. Back then there wasn’t a science to feeding and looking after your pet rabbits. There was no daily healthy meal plan or a fully balanced rabbit food pyramid approved chart that you had to follow; we gave our rabbits lettuce and celery leaves, and bits of cut-up apple: they always had a never-ending supply of grass and flowers from the back yard. The rabbits would dig shallow holes in the backyard to sit in and sleep, and they also dug under the backyard fence to explore the neighbor’s backyards.
Our backyard shared fences with the backyards of three neighbours. The Italians had a lush unkempt, overgrown yard and the Greek’s backyard was mostly covered in bricks with a small strip of grass; the Greek flag was painted on the back of the house by the back door. A modest roof provided shelter under a small back veranda. Sometimes the Greeks would cook on an open fire under the veranda. One afternoon the rabbits didn’t come to the fernery door. And the next afternoon they still hadn’t appeared. And the rabbits never did come back to the fernery door. My brother to this day will continue to declare under oath that on the second afternoon the rabbits didn’t return he heard party laughter and chatter and caught the seductive aroma of barbecue wafting over the backyard fence.
Even though sulphur-crested cockatoos are native to Australia they can be kept as a pet; their typical lifespan is around sixty-five years. I think the longest we kept one of our cockies for was about two years. All of our young cockies died within a few months. Dad buried all of them under mum’s lemon tree in the backyard. It seemed that after the first burial the lemon tree produced an abundant yield of plump, juice-filled lemons a few times a year. All the neighbours and family friends applauded mum’s lemons. Each night the cockies became part of the family in the kitchen. As we sat around the kitchen table the birds would sit on the back of one of the laminex kitchen chairs; joining in and starting a conversation. At times they would climb down from the back of the chair, walk over and wait for you to put your hand down close to the floor to provide a stairway to your shoulder. Most days when we came home from school a cockey would be at the sideway fernery gate waiting for your shoulder; they gurgled in your ear or just perched as you were their carriage.
The cockatoo’s cage was kept in the spare room; at night a blanket was draped over the cage in an attempt to keep them silent, calm, and still. We called the room off the dining room the spare room. It also had a door to the fernery. Everything that couldn’t be thrown away, because it might be used someday, was put in the spare room; it would be today’s storage locker. At one time the galah also slept in the spare room; just as the rabbits, white mice, and guinea pigs did. I also slept in the spare room. It became my bedroom. Dad and granddad lined the walls and ceiling with masonite, built a window into the wall that looked out onto our sideway and the Italians kitchen window, put glass panels in both doors, and a louvre window into the wall edging the fernery. The spare room was from then on known as John’s room.
The Rabbit-Proof fence is now called the State Barrier Fence and is still maintained to keep pests such as dingoes, kangaroos and emus, and wild dogs, out of Western Australia’s agricultural areas. It’s somewhat strange that the kangaroo and emu are considered animal pests by the Government but they are featured on Australia’s Coat of Arms. Some say the reason the kangaroo and emu are on the Coat of Arms is that they are unable to walk backwards. Australia is a country always moving forward. The Government reckons there are fifty-sixty million kangaroos in Australia. Even though the kangaroo is recognized internationally as the symbol of Australia most Australians, when they are not travelling abroad, think of the kangaroo as a hopping menace and annoyance. It’s an unwritten assumption that you don’t drive the Outback without roo bars. Thick steel bars and high-intensity spotlights are wrapped onto the front of every bus, truck, ute, and even the family station wagon; they all look like something out of a Mad Max movie.
After we watched the sunset on Uluru and the barbeques, folding tables, and plastic food tubs were packed away under the bus we started on the six-hour drive back to Alice Springs. We were surrounded in darkness with only the headlights and high-intensity roo bar lights providing a shaft of dull brightness for a few hundred feet in front of the bus; there was no reference point but we were travelling down the light shaft at seventy-plus miles an hour. Kangaroos come out at twilight and after dark, in groups. Our bus driver had announced that if we came across any roos we wouldn’t be swerving and there would be no time for breaking. I watched through the windscreen as the front edge of light revealed the slow-motion hopping of the occasional four hundred pound grey.
And last week a woman who was cycling along the Reisling Trail in the Clare Valley was attacked by a kangaroo. The Clare Valley is just an hour and a half north of Adelaide; South Australia’s cosmopolitan coastal capital city with a population of one million-plus people. The huge marsupial was standing on a ledge and leapt onto the trail knocking Sharon Heinrich and her friend off their bikes. Sharon is having surgery to repair her ruptured breast implants.
I only went to Healesville Sanctuary a couple of times. Back then Healesville was a small sleepy country town, thirty miles outside of Melbourne. The Sanctuary was surrounded by rolling hills and rich gum tree forests and its perimeter was defined by wire fencing. Additional wire fencing was used to create walkthrough habitat areas for wallabies, kangaroos, and emus. Pathways wandered through natural bushlands and they also connected wire fenced areas that housed wombats, dingoes, koalas, and Australian native birds. And it was not every day that you got to see a platypus close up; it was before we thought of nature parks. Mum had packed a picnic lunch which we carried into one of the fenced picnic table areas. The fence was to keep the emus, wallabies, and kangaroo’s from hopping and wandering away; and they were relentless in their enthusiasm for our picnic lunch food.
No human food was safe. Not the food on a plate, the food in a bag, or the food in your hand. Today at the Sanctuary three cafes cater for every taste and budget and you can preorder a gourmet picnic hamper or barbecue packs to enjoy in one of the lawn areas. I don’t think you can share your lunch with the animals anymore.
I never watched Skippy the Bush Kangaroo; it was a television show about the adventures of Sonny, the younger son of the Head Ranger of Waratah National Park, and his intelligent pet kangaroo Skippy. The stories were about the animals in the park, the dangers of natural and man-made disasters, and the misdeeds of visitors to the park. Skippy would make noises as if he was talking to Sonny. I think Skippy was Australia’s answer to Lassie and Flipper. Even though Sonny was a constant companion and best friend to Skippy, not all native animals can be kept as pets in Australia; a special permit from the Department of Environment and Heritage is needed to have a pet kangaroo. I never did want a kangaroo as a pet.
Today you can eat kangaroo and emu. In 1980 kangaroo was legalized for human consumption in South Australia, and the rest of Australia followed in 1993. There are probably only a few countries that eat their Coat of Arms; Eritrea’s Coat of Arms features the camel, Botswana’s two zebras, and the Royal Arms of England the lion. I think a quaint tradition would be to celebrate Australia Day each year by throwing a few Coat of Arms burgers on the backyard barbie. I’m thinking of a seventy thirty blend of ground kangaroo and emu patties served with beetroot, pineapple, and a fried egg. The barbie goes low and slow on January 26th.