Kangaroo on the loose in Florida creates social media sensation
After Storm breached the confines of his south Florida sanctuary on Monday, he likely had one thought: time to run for it — or, at least, time to hop for it.
The 5-year-old eastern gray kangaroo did just that near Jupiter, Fla., setting off an area-wide, multiagency search complete with tranquilizers, drones and high drama.
“Kangaroos are smart enough to know that if they get out, they don’t want to be caught,” said Michael Poggi, a Florida-based exotic species expert and Vanilla Ice’s animal consigliere. “Once they’re out, they know it’s time to have fun.”
As of Tuesday evening, the ’roo-hunt was ongoing as Storm’s furlough neared 24 hours. The Palm Beach Post reported that the search team had expanded to at least a dozen officers and two drones. The animal’s owner, Jupiter resident Eric Westergard, said he’s not yet sure how Storm escaped his enclosure, a 40-by-40 foot pen, walled off with an 8-foot fence, where six other kangaroos also live.
Several Jupiter residents reported seeing Storm joy-jumping around town Tuesday. At roughly 4-feet tall and 45 pounds, the kangaroo cut a surprising figure. After dropping her son off at the bus stop that morning, Denise Cooper said she saw a silhouette of something that seemed to be hopping down the street. Squinting in the morning sun, Cooper said she was shocked to realize it was a kangaroo.
She pulled out her phone, filmed Storm hopping away and posted the footage to Facebook, starting a social media sensation that local media stoked throughout the day with frequent updates. It is the second such escape to attract national attention in recent months, after a South Carolina kangaroo ran off twice in May.
Storm probably knows he needs to hide, Poggi said, and he’ll sense he’s being pursued. Kangaroos also don’t have an innate homing device, like some dogs or birds, Poggi said, so Storm won’t be able to find his way back to the animal sanctuary on his own.
But he also won’t have any trouble surviving in the wild while authorities track him down, Poggi said. Kangaroos mainly eat grass, so Storm will presumably do some foraging, seek out some water and settle in for a nap.
The kangaroo is not a public safety risk, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokeswoman Carol Lyn Parrish said in a statement to local news media. The agency did not respond to a request for comment.
Westergard says he knows they’ll find Storm soon enough, but, reached by phone late Tuesday afternoon, he was still helping to canvass the neighborhood.
“I’m searching the street as we talk,” Westergard said. Homeowners in the area, an unincorporated part of the coastal Palm Beach County known as Jupiter Farms, have one or two acres each, he said, and some lots are fairly overgrown. “It’s like a playground for him,” Westergard said.
“We’re looking for my kangaroo,” he told one fellow resident, who responded — unfazed — that he hadn’t seen it but would keep an eye out.
“OK, well if you see him you know where we’re at,” Westergard replied.
He started the sanctuary a couple years ago and has since taken in exotic animals that Floridians bought, only to discover they didn’t want or couldn’t handle them. Westergard was raised in rural Iowa and had all sorts of pets growing up — “I had cougars, and just about everything under the sun,” he said.
Often people don’t really know what it takes to raise an exotic pet, Westergard said. Storm is an example. Westergard got Storm as a baby, when his previous owners discovered they were allergic to the oil on the young kangaroo’s skin. This posed an especially large problem, Westergard said, because owners must cradle baby kangaroos while bottle-feeding them.
Potential allergies aside, Poggi said kangaroos actually make great pets. He runs Poggi’s Animal House, a rescue and breeding facility for rare and endangered animals. They’re fairly tame, he said, not like a pit bull — or a tiger or leopard, for that matter, other exotic animals sometimes kept as pets.
Poggi played a key role in resolving one of the last high-profile marsupial getaways in South Florida. Rapper and apparent animal enthusiast Vanilla Ice, aka Robert Van Winkle, lost his goat Pancho and his wallaroo (a kangaroo-wallaby mix) Bucky Buckaroo when the pair escaped his property in 2004.
Pancho rammed his way through the fence in Van Winkle’s backyard, the Palm Beach Post reported then, and a local animal control team had to round them up. However, Van Winkle reportedly didn’t have the permit necessary to bring his wallaroo. Lucky for him, Poggi, his one-time neighbor and longtime friend, had the requisite paperwork and took Bucky in while Van Winkle got his affairs in order.
“I taught him everything,” Poggi said of Van Winkle fondly. “My kangaroo and his kangaroo played together.”
Observers hoped Storm was in for the same happy ending. His mate, an albino eastern gray kangaroo known as Avalanche — Ava for short — was getting lonely, Westergard said.
As authorities search, they might be wise to take some advice from a man who has been through this before and, as Vanilla Ice once said, “Stop, collaborate and listen.”
Reis Thebault is a writer for The Washington Post.