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It was just another llama show in central Ohio. But it was at that llama show, more than a decade ago now, that Tammie Rogers met her destiny--in the form of a small, furry, brown creature nestled in a bundle wrapped around its owner's chest.
Tammie's knowledge from years assisting a veterinarian friend with surgeries and studying animal science at Ohio State University betrayed her when she tried to figure out exactly what the animal was. Finally, she approached the woman carrying it and asked. The tiny hands and small, deer-like face protruding from the pouch of soft cotton belonged to a baby wallaby.
Its owner was "pouching" it, carrying the baby wallaby in public places in order to get it accustomed to humans and to mimic its mother's pouch.
"She didn't lose track of that for two years," Tammie's husband Larry Rogers said. It was then that the couple decided to take a break from llamas and try their hand at raising a wallaby of their own.
Enter Sydney. As the first wallaby to share the Rogers' Lancaster home, he was the center of their world, but when they tried learning more about the species, the Rogers discovered that true available information was vastly lacking. Furthermore, they found that many of the 500 macropod owners and breeders in the United States were more concerned with the economic aspects of wallaby and kangaroo ownership.
Because of their scarcity in the United States, (in Australia, kangaroos are as common as deer are here), most Americans, including those who opt to raise the animals domestically, don't know much about kangaroos or wallabies.
"Some of the biggest people in this have very bad habits. They haven't focused on understanding the animal as much as the buying and selling," Larry said.
As a result, he and Tammie took matters into their own hands, turning their farm into the International Kangaroo Society, a sanctuary for animals in need of care and a comprehensive center for breeders, owners, veterinarians and zoo employees in need of information.
Because kangaroos are what Tammie refers to as "flight animals," always on edge and ready to take off hopping at the slightest scare, she pulls "joeys" from their mothers' pouches when the mother is ready.
At the sight of a human, kangaroos, under normal circumstances, will likely take off and often won't stop until they collide with something. For that reason, spinal and leg injuries are common among the species, and owners need to know how to prevent them.
"Kangaroos can sometimes be standing and looking at you, and then drop dead of a heart attack," Tammie said. This is why Tammie pouches new joeys herself to get them used to humans, as the woman at the llama show was doing with her wallaby.
Through the years, Tammie has gotten used to people's curious stares when she carries a baby kangaroo or wallaby in public places such as malls. The pouch tends to be less obvious than the stroller she sometimes has to use when the kangaroos grow too large for her to carry.
"I just tell (onlookers), "Oh, he looks like his dad,'" she said with a laugh.
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the Rogers received a concerned call from a FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) staffer who had found a 12-pound red kangaroo. "He's a blessed little guy," Tammie said. From thousands of miles away by phone, the Rogers helped the staffer care for the animal.
"We're lucky to be centrally located," Larry said. Living in Ohio makes traveling to various parts of the country for rescues easier. Here, removed from the noise and hustle of human life, the kangaroos live in uninterrupted peace.
And Tammie intends to keep it that way. Despite requests from the popular television channel Animal Planet to film the sanctuary over a few days' time, Tammie turned them down. She insists the sanctuary is a place for the animals to get away from people and life outside their own private world. She did, however, agree to allow the "Today Show" and "Oprah" to showcase the animals in the spring of 2003.
The appearances helped the Rogers earn funding through donations. The money they receive goes toward food for the animals, which costs the Rogers about $200 a month, and care.
After a decade of learning and teaching, they successfully field questions from some of the most well-known zoos in the country looking for advice on what to do when one of their kangaroos is sick or injured. "The information is out there. You just have to separate the facts from the wives' tales," Larry said.
Today, the sanctuary occupies 15 acres of land, which the Rogers refer to as the "outback." Wire and wood fences divide the large, white barn into three separate pens for the animals. During the winter, industrial-size heat lamps keep them warm, and in the summer, large fans circulate air.
The dozen animals currently at the sanctuary came to the Rogers by different means and for various reasons. There's Joey, the 4-year old kangaroo who's nearly 6 feet tall, who came blind and paralyzed after breaking his spine. There's Andy, the wallaby who Tammie pulled, hairless, from his mother's pouch after she died of old age. He was raised in an incubator.
When animals come into the sanctuary with major injuries, the Rogers turn to veterinarians at Ohio State University, one of the nation's leading veterinary schools. "We don't believe in giving up. If we can get OSU to say, 'Yes, we can look at it,' then we do anything to find funding," Larry said. Dr. Jon Dyce operated on Joey to fuse his vertebrae together, and since then, Joey has gained use of virtually his entire body.
Through nursing the animals back to health and raising them, the animals become family to the Rogers. They have no children of the own and are able to focus all their energy on work (he's a marketing professor at Ohio University and she's a church employee) and the animals that need them.
Some days, the animals have the opportunity to leave the sanctuary and go on trips in the large, old, brown and white conversaion van that the Rogers have saved exclusively for hauling the animals.
On the trips, Joey prefers to sit between the two front seats with one arm over the driver's seat and the other over the passenger's seat. From there, he has an unobstructed view of the road ahead.
The Rogers long ago removed the two captain's chairs in the middle of the van, and before each trip they lay the rear seat into a bed to give other accompanying animals a place to relax.
"We've had people pull up next to us and take pictures on the highway," Tammie said. Usually, though, to avoid major accidents, they lower the van's blinds.
Most days, life at the sanctuary is calm, and the curious creatures lie in the hay, play together or with their stuffed animals, and explore the outback. Sunny, a 3-year-old kangaroo, often takes a broom in his hands and sweeps.
"He never thinks I do a good enough job cleaning," Tammie said.
IN the decade since kangaroos became their passion, Tammie and Larry have gotten to know and love the individual personalities that make up the kangaroos and wallabies that have come through the sanctuary. And if not for a certain llama show, their lives--and the lives of dozens of animals--would be drastically different today.