An Oklahoma woman suffering from depression has found solace in the company of an unusual companion, but local city officials worry that the therapy pet — a partially paralyzed kangaroo — could become a public safety risk.
Christie Carr is seeking an exemption from the Broken Arrow City Council to keep Irwin, a 25-pound great red kangaroo that she cares for much like a child. Irwin rides in a car seat, is dressed in a shirt and pants each day and is rarely away from his doting caretaker.
At the advice of her therapist, Carr began volunteering at a local animal sanctuary, where she met Irwin, then just a baby. Less than a week later, the kangaroo named for famed Australian animal expert Steve Irwin ran into a fence, fracturing his neck and causing severe brain damage.
Carr volunteered to take the animal home and, while nursing him back to health, developed a bond. Irwin cannot stand or walk on his own, although he is slowly gaining back mobility and can hop three or four times in a row with assistance, she said.
"Irwin will not live if I have to give him up," Carr said, adding that she would rather leave town. "I can't imagine a day living without him."
Native to Australia, healthy male great red kangaroos can grow up to 7 feet tall, weigh more than 200 pounds and bound 25 feet in a single leap. But because of his accident, Irwin isn't expected to get larger than 50 pounds, his veterinarian, Dr. Lesleigh Cash Warren, wrote in a letter to the council supporting Carr's request to keep him.
Neutering has also lessened any chance he will become aggressive.
"Irwin cannot be judged as any normal kangaroo," Warren wrote. "He is a unique animal due to his disabilities and will require a lifetime of care and concern for his welfare."
Carr, who is unable to work because of her health, changes Irwin's diaper several times a day. She feeds him salad, raw veggies, kangaroo chow, popcorn and the occasional Cheez-Its or a handful of Cheetos.
The marsupial never leaves the house without first getting dressed. The clothes — a little boy's shirt cut and sewed to accommodate his neck, sometimes a tie, and jeans or slacks with a hole cut for the tail— are necessary for therapeutic reasons and to protect him against germs, Carr said.
The 1-year-old animal never leaves Carr's side for more than an hour, often accompanying her on errands and going out to eat. He rides in a car seat before being placed in a pouch when going out in public. Carr's therapist certified the animal as a therapy pet under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Broken Arrow Mayor Mike Lester said he worries what could happen if Irwin is able to regain full mobility. The council last week delayed considering the issue until an April 19 meeting, to give City Attorney Beth Anne Wilkening and other staff time to research the issue.
"There's just a myriad of things we need to consider," Lester said.
Every exception made sets a precedent, and the council must take that into consideration, Wilkening said. The council may decide to create an exotic animal review committee that would look at each animal on a case-by-case basis, he said.
Broken Arrow Nursing Home owner Joanna Cooper said she doesn't understand why keeping Irwin has become an issue. Carr has brought Irwin to the nursing home in the past for residents to hold and pet. Several residents of the nursing home plan to attend the upcoming council meeting with signs to show their support for Carr and Irwin.
"Why are people giving her problems when people have tigers and pit bulls?" Copper said.