On the Eastern Shore, raising little roos for fun and profit

WOWING THEM WITH WALLABIES

March 05, 1995|By Helen Chappell

CHURCH HILL — Church Hill-- People are likely to do a double take when they see Evelyn Engelke out shopping or opening her hymnal at church. It's not Mrs. Engelke they're looking at, but her choice of accessories. Not many people carry around a baby wallaby in a handmade, quilted pouch hanging from their neck.

A baby wallaby, or joey, is quite a conversation piece. But Evelyn Engelke likes it that way. There's nothing she enjoys more than talking about her passion -- hand-raising these miniature kangaroos at her family's home, God's Gift Farm, on the Eastern Shore.

"What I do," she explains, "is take the joey away from the mama as early as possible [at eight to 10 months]. Then I raise them myself. I make a little pouch, which I hang around my neck, and the baby goes everywhere with me. To the mall, shopping, anywhere I go. They think of me as their mother."

Exotic pets have become increasingly popular with animal lovers in the United States. For the home where dogs, cats, fish or birds just aren't enough, how about a Vietnamese potbellied pig, ferret or hedgehog? These animals have all been touted as unusual pet fads in recent years.

It remains to be seen if wallabies will join the list, although there are already at least 350 breeders raising various species of miniature roos, and estimates are that as many as 1,000 U.S. families own one.

"We're not the only ones on the Shore with exotics," Mrs. Engelke points out, using the accepted nomenclature for

non-native species. "There's another couple in Queenstown with white wallabies, and there are people who raise ostriches and emus around here."

The Bennett's Red Neck Wallaby, the species Mrs. Engelke raises, is definitely not your average domestic companion. They need big pens and room to graze. They grow to be nearly 3 feet tall and weigh up to 50 pounds. And even the smallest wallabies are strong enough to do serious damage when they feel threatened.

But if you've got the affection, the time, the space and the energy, Evelyn Engelke may have the exotic pet you've dreamed about. "Wallabies aren't for everyone," the 45-year-old breeder cautions. "No exotic species is."

Miniature animals have been a lifelong interest for Mrs. Engelke, who lives on the farm with her 56-year-old husband, Tom, a Methodist minister and personnel director for the city of Annapolis, and her 16-year-old daughter, Lauren, a junior at Queen Anne's County High School.

The Engelkes moved to God's Gift Farm from Annapolis in 1988 so Mrs. Engelke could have room to raise her pets. This tidy, 15-acre spread, with its pond, handsome stand of woods and rolling pasture, provides an ideal setting.

Mrs. Engelke started with Shalimar, a miniature greyhound who is now 14 years old, then became interested in miniature horses -- Lauren's pets and 4-H Club projects. After that, it was Vietnamese potbellied pigs, and then, three years ago, the wallabies. She bought her first pair from a breeder in Florida and eventually sold them to another wallaby fancier.

She gestures to the fenced-in area where five wallabies are bounding in the grass, enjoying a cloudy morning with the kind of cool weather they are genetically programmed for. (The native habitat of these wallabies is Australia and Tasmania.)

The pen can be seen from the road, and the family has gotten used to people stopping on the two-lane blacktop to stare in amazement at the bouncing animals. "We're on several bicycle tours," Mrs. Engelke says. "The bicycle people know we're here, and they make a special stop to come and see the wallabies."

Meeting the wallabies

With a bag of unshelled, raw peanuts in hand, Mrs. Engelke, a meticulously groomed brunette in a sweater and slacks, escorts a visitor to the pen. There you meet Willie. Even though you're not an animal person, your heart melts. Willie is cute, and he knows it.

First, it's those eyes. Huge dark, liquid eyes, framed with long, long lashes, stare up at you appealingly as Willie checks you out through the link fence, sniffing you to see if you pass inspection and if, perchance, you've got a treat for him.

Once Willie has approved you, Mrs. Engelke allows you to accompany her into the large pen, where he bounds up, full of interest. "The males are more curious than the females," Mrs. Engelke explains. "And more aggressive." They are territorial, as are most animals, and regard strangers warily until they've established your motives.

The four female wallabies watch from a safe distance away, not sure yet about this intruder into their world. But Willie knows what he wants.

All of 2 years old, with outsized, expressive ears that seem to rotate as he listens to your voice, Willie presses his long snout against a visitor, curious as all get-out. He squats, balancing on his tail, and sniffs an extended hand, nibbling gently at your fingers as he searches for a peanut.

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