By Sandy Quadros Bowles
As a child, Jack Hedrich sat glued to the TV, savoring the actions of “Skippy,’’ the kangaroo star of a 1960s TV series. Skippy’s ability to rescue those in trouble bore more than a passing resemblance to his television canine counterpart, Lassie.
“I was so enamored by the little creature,’’ said Hedrich, who lives in New Gloucester, Maine. And he was determined that, as an adult, he would have his own Skippy. “It was a lifelong dream,’’ he said.
So, after research and thought, Hedrich and his wife, Sue, purchased a wallaby in 2012 from a breeder in Missouri.
Wallabies resemble kangaroos but are smaller, among the more noticeable differences between the two. Wallabies tend to grow to no larger than 50 pounds while kangaroos can weigh up to 200 pounds.
Hedrich, who had experience raising emus, needed to obtain a permit from the state of Maine to own Skippy. With the needed paperwork in place, he promptly fell in love with the endearing creature, which, of course, he named Skippy after his TV namesake.
“She follows me along the house, she just goes along with me,’’ Hedrich said. He was amused by her catlike curiosity. “You put something new on the floor, like a paper bag, and she’s all over it,’’ he said.
But Hedrich knew all along there was some uncertainty in caring for an animal that so few veterinarians treat. “The challenge was that there’s not a lot of conventional wisdom’’ about the best care for such an exotic animal.
For example, he was told that wallabies like being fed by a bottle, an experience Hedrich also hoped would help him bond with his unusual pet. So he fed her a milk-replacement formula made for puppies. He also gave her human treats such as Goldfish crackers.
Soon life with Skippy took a frightening turn. One night Skippy was having a tough time staying on her feet. Her stool and breath developed a foul odor. “She looked like she was in pain,’’ Hedrich said. “She was trying to hide in the house and would lie down a lot. We knew something was really bad.’’
But unlike cats and dogs, exotic animals are not always familiar to veterinarians. A quick trip to a local veterinarian was immediately followed by a trip to Foster Hospital for Small Animals at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in North Grafton for an emergency visit.
Within 10 minutes of relating Skippy’s story, Hedrich met Dr. Jennifer Graham, who had experience with exotic animals.
Dr. Graham was initially worried about a possible obstruction or blockage in her intestinal tract.
Then Dr. Graham looked at Skippy’s diet history. The staple of her diet was a formulated diet made for wallabies but she did get quite a number of snacks, Dr. Graham was told. She also learned about the milk replacer Skippy received from her nightly bottle.
The medical team performed diagnostics including X-rays, blood work, and fecal examinations. “The radiographs were suggestive of intestinal upset,’’ she said, “but there were no signs of a blockage.’’ Happily, blood work also ruled out major infections, anemia and organ failure.
A fecal exam and culture showed a relative increase in spore-forming bacteria and a high amount of E. coli bacteria.
That helped Dr. Graham diagnose Skippy with gastrointestinal dysbiosis, which is caused by a shift in the normal bacterial flora of the intestinal tract.
The treatment was straightforward: Skippy needed a diet change.
Her diet, Dr. Graham determined, was too low in fiber and too high in sugar. This causes bacteria normally present in the intestinal tract in lower numbers to overgrow and make the animal very sick.
Dr. Graham determined that the nightly bottle was part of the problem. Although wallabies do require milk replacers as they are growing, their intestinal tract develops over time to require a high-fiber diet, she said. At Skippy’s age, “the milk replacer was contributing to her problems and upsetting her gastrointestinal system,’’ Dr. Graham said.
Skippy is now on a specialized high-fiber, low-carbohydrate diet. Her treats are replaced with hay and fresh vegetables. Her nightly bottle, which Hedrich wanted to continue for the bonding experience, was altered from a milk-based formula to one that was hay-based.
Skippy may “not be so happy’’ to lose her rich snacks, Dr. Graham quips, but the healthier fare helped her recover quickly, Hedrich reports.
“She’s more healthy now than when we got her,’’ he said. “It was incredible how Dr. Graham handled her so precisely. She knew what she was doing and helped us through a tough time.’’
Back home in Maine, Skippy is active and curious as ever and is doing “absolutely great now,’’ Hedrich reports.
And he gives all the credit to Dr. Graham and the staff at Tufts, who raced to Skippy’s rescue much as her namesake did so many times in some many situations on TV.