When Minnie Mouse's mother died, Minnie should have died, too. She was a baby kangaroo, only a few months old, living in her mother's pouch, still months away from being able to survive on her own. But Minnie was lucky. After she was rescued, she ended up in the hands of a kangaroo rescue team who hand-raised her like she was their very own.
Minnie ended up at the Kangaroo Sanctuary, in Alice Springs, Australia. Handlers there have fostered many orphaned joeys. They know what kind of special milk a joey needs when she’s three months old, and what materials make for the best surrogate pouches. In video shot last December, Minnie tumbles into one of their homemade pouches and snuggles with one of her caretakers.
“[Minnie feels] safe in the pouch and she will stay in there most of the day because she is still very young,” one of her handlers explained.
Kangaroos and other marsupials develop differently from most mammals, splitting the developmental process that usually happens in the womb into two. Joeys, born after only about thirty days, emerge blind, hairless, and bean-sized.
“They're basically a fetus at that point,” explains Andrea Dougall, an assistant zoological manager at the Oakland Zoo, whose team spent nearly a year hand-raising their own orphaned wallaroo joey (wallaroos are closely related to kangaroos).
New joeys are essentially helpless, except for their strong forearms, which they use to claw their way up the side of their mother's body and into the safety of her pouch, where the second part of the process begins. They spend the next few months nestled in that pouch, fully dependent on their mother for food, warmth, and protection. A few months later, the joey starts to poke its head out of the pouch and look around, and at about six months old, they tumble out of the pouch for the first time. They spend the next several months popping in and out of their mother's pouch as they slowly become more independent.
But sometimes, a joey is orphaned before it makes it through its whole development. If it's lucky, it will end up with a team of kangaroo foster parents like those at the Kangaroo Sanctuary or the Oakland Zoo. (Learn about how joeys can even be rescued from deceased mothers.)
“The learning curve was really steep,” Dougall said about another recent foster, whose mother died when he was about five months old. One of the hardest parts, she said, was making a pouch that made the joey feel as safe and comforted as his mother's—and that the care team could use all day, every day.
So they sewed up the bottom of a sweatshirt and tied the arms around their necks. If they needed a break, they'd hang the contraption from a hanger in a playpen in the office. Minnie, down in Australia, gets a snuggly fleece pouch and a handmade sling that can hang on the back of a chair for office scenarios.
Joey Tiny Tim weighed 713 grams when he arrived at Josephine's Gallery and Orphanage in Coober Pedy, Australia, "just about as much as a few sticks of butter," says resident wildlife care giver Terry Brennan-Huss. "It's a full-on thing, caring for him 24 hours a day." Brennan-Huss and his wife care for up to fifteen joeys at a time, wrapping them in stretch cotton pouches and extra-soft towels, which go into bags, which they hang throughout their kitchen.
At last count, there are two kangaroos for each person living in Australia, or nearly 45 million kangaroos in all. They bound over open spaces and roads alike, and as their population increases, so has the chance of colliding with cars. In 2016, Australia insurance agencies reported over 5,300 kangaroo-related claims, but that is likely an underestimate—just one wildlife rescue group that routinely retrieves joeys can receive that many calls in a single week.
Josephine's usually recives between two to five joeys a week. "We've had six years of good rains in South Australia," Brennan-Huss says, "but now the water holes are drying up. So 'roos have to go farther to find food and water and that's when they cross the roads and get hit. That's adding to the numbers coming in these days."
This story was updated on June 14 with quotes from Terry Brennan-Huss.