Aussie wildlife comes to St. Joseph School

By Janice Steinhagen - Staff Writer
Baltic - posted Mon., Mar. 21, 2011
Children from St. Joseph School pet Jack the red kangaroo, held by wldlife educator Tim Davison. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.
Children from St. Joseph School pet Jack the red kangaroo, held by wldlife educator Tim Davison. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.

Who would be named the coolest animal of the day? Steve, the salt-water crocodile, with his knowing, toothy grin? Or Jack, the cute and cuddle-worthy red kangaroo baby?

For the students at St. Joseph School in Baltic, it near-unanimous: the animal they most wanted to pet was Jack.

Wildlife educator Tim Davison instructed the 114 students to be as quiet as possible and to take turns gently stroking the joey on his back, not his head. Lining up by grade, the students did just that, in a gym that was suddenly nearly silent. The kangaroo’s downy “puppy fur” drew delighted smiles from the youngsters.

Jack and his handler are part of Wildlife Encounters, an educational program based in an animal rescue center in Gretna, Neb. Davison and his traveling menagerie of animals from Australia aim to help students experience exotic creatures firsthand and encourage them to learn more about animals on their own.

Davison said that Jack, at 11 months old, weighed about 40 pounds but was “the size of a jellybean” at birth. Blind and helpless, he crawled into his mother’s pouch, where he was fed and cared for in his early months.

The kangaroo’s muscle-wrapped tail is used with its back legs to create a tripod, supporting the animal when it’s standing upright, said Davison. He used the tail as a makeshift “leash” during his talk, but cautioned his audience: “Don’t try this at home on your dog or cat.”

While Jack was undeniably cute, Steve elicited excitement of a different sort. Davison explained that the three-year-old croc – just long enough to fit along his arm – would eventually grow to more than 20 feet in length. His powerful jaws, averaging 100 needle-sharp teeth, would eventually bite down with a pressure of 2,300 pounds per square inch.

“What if a crocodile bit you?” asked one girl in the audience.

“Can you lift a car?” answered Davison. “Then you can’t push a crocodile’s jaws open.”

Davison took Steve for a stroll through the audience but told the children they couldn’t pet him. “Steve’s favorite thing for lunch is little kids’ fingers,” he joked.

Davison explained how the croc’s eyes are set to watch above the water, but sensitive “motion detector” spots around his mouth allow him to sense prey swimming nearby under the water. The croc waits motionless, then strikes with lightning speed to gobble up what swims past.

Davison also introduced the students to the blue-tongued skink, a bearded dragon and a formaldehyde-preserved box jellyfish, which he described as the most venomous creature on earth. “One ounce of its venom is strong enough to kill 16 people in three minutes,” he said.

Wildlife Encounters’ shows are the outreach arm of its animal rescue center, Davison said. While Jack came from a zoo, the center rehabilitates injured wildlife and accepts rejected pets - particularly exotic creatures - of many types. “The Humane Society knows that if it’s not a dog or cat, they call us,” he said.

While traveling with the animals, Davison said that he gives Jack the kangaroo the run of his hotel room for exercise, while Steve the crocodile sleeps in the bathtub. “I have to be really careful to keep them apart,” he said.

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