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Australian cyclone hits critters hard

Kangaroos, crocodiles and other species have been spooked by the power of Cyclone Larry, which swept over Australia this week.
Margaret Tabone holds Zoe, a baby wallaby that she sheltered inside her home when a cyclone hit the Australian town of Innisfail. Since Cyclone Larry hit early Monday, her favorite pet wallaby Joey is missing from her crocodile farm, along with nearly 50 other kangaroos and related species.Mark Baker / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Joey the wallaby is missing. Margaret Tabone reared the diminutive creature on her crocodile farm since Joey was a hairless baby and would come to her gate each morning for a cup of milk. But since Cyclone Larry hit Monday, Joey hasn't been seen.

And the whereabouts of nearly 50 kangaroos and other animals at the farm are unknown.

"We can't find them yet — hopefully they're going to be somewhere, and hopefully they're going to be alive," Tabone, 64, said Thursday.

Joey was so tame that Tabone could still hold her as a grown animal and not suffer a single scratch — the favorite wallaby she's ever had of more than 30 raised at the Johnstone River Crocodile Farm.

"This one was my idol," Tabone said.

The crocodiles on Tabone's farm were so spooked by the strong winds that battered this town that they've refused to eat since the cyclone, she said. That could mean more losses in the days ahead for the farm, which sells the crocodiles for their skins and meat.

"They're petrified like you and I would be, due to the volume of the wind that we had. I can understand that because I was petrified myself," Tabone said. "Whether I lose them or not, I don't know yet. We won't know for another week whether they'll get stressed out and they just die on you."

There are nearly 5,000 crocodiles on the farm, but Tabone was confident not a single one was on the loose after the cyclone sent trees tumbling down across her land.

In their pens Thursday, young crocodiles sat mostly immobile, piled on top of each other until a noise sent some slithering into a shallow pond.

Concern about cassowaries
Nearby, a cassowary — a large, flightless, emu-like bird with a brilliant blue head — wandered inside its pen.

Cassowaries are endangered in Queensland, and they are considered a critical species because of their role spreading the seeds of the rain forest plants they eat, said Lee Curtis, an official at Far North Queensland Wildlife Rescue, which finds homes for injured and orphaned animals.

Only about 1,000 remain in the region, she said, expressing concern about the species since the disaster. After past cyclones, the birds had required special feeding.

"If we lose the cassowary, we will lose a great part of the biodiversity in our rain forest," Curtis said.

Lack of food
A key problem facing wild animals is lack of food as a result of plant destruction. The hundreds of acres of devastated banana fields mean creatures such as flying foxes, a type of bat that feeds on the fruit, will need help to survive, said Curtis.

The area affected by the cyclone isn't home to many of Australia's other trademark fauna, the koala, said Fred Howles, who runs Wildlife Rescue's center in Cairns. And although some birds were blown away from their normal homes — with sea birds discovered as far as 60 miles (100 kilometers) inland — he said most migratory birds had already moved on as the Australian summer was ending.

"Luckily the cyclone hit at a good time for wildlife — if there is any good time for a cyclone," Howles said.

At the crocodile farm, Tabone cradled her sole surviving wallaby, Zoe, one of Joey's offspring who she sheltered inside her home during the cyclone.

Her farm used to draw more than 7,000 visitors a year to feed and photograph the animals. Now, the sounds of birds chirping are drowned out by the din of chain saws cutting up fallen trees.

"Everyone that came through our farm said what a beautiful farm it was," Tabone said. "It's a big cleanup job, but I don't give up that easy — I'll start again."