Reporter: Michael Usher
Producer: Phil Goyen
Keeping wild animals locked up, whether in a zoo, a cage or a backyard will always be controversial.
In Australia, we're not allowed to keep our native animals as pets. But it's quite another story over in America where Aussie wildlife has become the latest must-have accessory.
Michael Usher found fully-grown kangaroos being fussed over like household cats and dogs and tiny marsupials marketed as pocket pets.
It's a multi-million dollar industry; it could also hold the key to saving our precious animals from extinction.
For more information about keeping macropods as pets visit www.davesanimalfarm.com.
STORY – MICHAEL USHER: In the back blocks of Houston, Texas, in a pet shop, hidden behind the glass - a touch of Australia. A baby wallaby for sale at $1,500. Do they make a good pet?
MAN: Oh, they make a wonderful pet.
SUZETTE: They’re great. They’re like little puppy dogs. Follow us around like dogs. And the wallabies, they don’t get a big as kangaroos, so of course, you know they’re not going to be quite as crazy.
MICHAEL USHER: But they have those too. This Red Kangaroo joey called Sydney makes himself at home in Suzette Stidom’s pet shop. Don’t you think that’s a little unfair - a little cruel?
SUZETTE: That’s all they’re used to.
MICHAEL USHER: Because they’re born and bred into-
SUZETTE: They’re born in captivity
MICHAEL USHER: Captivity here.
SUZETTE: Yes sir. Yeah, and I mean what’s more cruel - in Australia they kill ‘em? Here we have ‘em as pets.
MICHAEL USHER: Tonight we uncover the extraordinary trade in our treasured icons - kangaroos, wallabies and sugar gliders. Do you hate seeing that?
KELSEY: It’s, it’s not a - it’s not a nice image, no. It’s not a nice image at all.
MICHAEL USHER: A market some see as outrageous.
KELSEY: The pet trade in America - it’s almost like this unmanageable beast. We don't want Australia to end up in the unmanageable beast situation.
MICHAEL USHER: But others argue we should follow America’s lead, if we’re going to save our native animals from shrinking habitats in Australia. Should we be able to keep Australian native animals as pets?
MIKE: Not only should we, I think we’re in terrible trouble if we don’t do this.
MICHAEL USHER: Just outside Dallas, Texas, Cassidy Jagger arrives home from work, warmly greeted by her family pet. Boomer is a Bennett's wallaby, usually found in Eastern Australia.
CASSIDY: He’s very, very affectionate, he’s very sweet. They’re more work than a dog would be, but he’s just as affectionate as a dog, and just as loyal. He knows his name, they’re very smart. They’re curious.
MICHAEL USHER: Just down the corridor in the lounge room, another pet awaits patiently in a babies' play-pen. Zippy is an Eastern Grey kangaroo. Cassidy is a wildlife worker who fell in love with our animals after visiting Australia. Finding one to own when she got home was surprisingly simple.
CASSIDY: Most places don’t have specific laws yet. I did my research to make sure that where we bought a house I’d be able have to have him, and it wasn’t difficult at all.
MICHAEL USHER: Just like owning a dog or a cat?
CASSIDY: Very much so.
MICHAEL USHER: But, no matter how domesticated they can become, a native’s natural instinct is hard to tame.
CASSIDY: Oh, Boomer! Yeah, he’s getting worked up now. Ok, now.
MICHAEL USHER: Well this is very strange. This is very interesting, to see kangaroos in your backyard in Midwest America.
MARLIN: Yes it is.
MICHAEL USHER: Oh look at them. In another part of America, Marlin Troyer also has a passion for kangaroos.
MARLIN: We have Buck – he’s our big boomer. And then we have Patty and Penny. We can wake up in the morning and the sun is shining and you know - I have a kangaroo laying next to my house. To me that’s life. It’s being able to enjoy a little bit of the Down Under right here in Michigan.
MICHAEL USHER: Marlin bought his Red and two Eastern Grey kangaroos at an auction for a couple of thousand dollars each. They live in this courtyard, and in his purpose-built kangaroo kennel.
MARLIN: Yeah, I call it my kangaroo bedroom and it works very well. They can get in there and they can stay comfortable.
MICHAEL USHER: These are animals that belong in the wild.
MARLIN: Yes, and I imagine there are people that would say a horse belongs in the wild too. So this whole concept of what’s wild and what isn’t wild, what’s domestic and what isn’t domestic, somebody put that concept in your head.
MIKE: I think it’s absolutely essential.
MICHAEL USHER: Sydney-based professor of biology, Mike Archer, praises this pet trade in America, saying it’s helping save our wildlife.
MIKE: Old traditional strategies of locking them up behind a fence in a park and thinking, well they’ll be fine, are not working anymore and I think we’re beginning to face that.
MICHAEL USHER: Professor Archer has kept a menagerie of Australian wildlife as pets over the years. He says if we’re serious about conservation, we must bring native species in from the ever-shrinking wilds they’re used to. Do you think it’s crazy that it’s easier to keep an Australian native animal as a pet in America than it is here?
MIKE: I think it’s outrageous, frankly. And I’m more outraged by this than most other people because, having had these animals as pets, I know how wonderful they are and I know the opportunity we’re missing in bonding that next generation of Australians with these experiences. I - every day that goes by where somebody can only buy a cat or dog or guinea pigs or a mouse in a pet shop, is a tear I shed. I mean we’re losing time here.
CATHY: I want everyone to have a sugar glider.
MICHAEL USHER: Do you really?
MICHAEL USHER: Well you love them that much.
CATHY: Yeah, I think I must have been a glider in another life - so.
MICHAEL USHER: In Dallas, Texas, Cathy Hart’s passion is sugar gliders. A tiny gliding possum normally found in Eastern and Northern Australia.
CATHY: It’s just like owning a mini dog, and I think that’s what I like about it.
MICHAEL USHER: You see them as the perfect pet.
CATHY: I do, yes. I think everyone should have one.
MICHAEL USHER: Cathy has 90 of these marsupials - which are marketed here in America as pocket pets - each one fetching between $190 and a staggering $3,000. Legal in most states, they’ve quickly become a must-have accessory for kids and families across the country.
CATHY: It’s a multi-million dollar business. Um, some businesses make millions from selling sugar gliders.
MICHAEL USHER: Just from selling these Australian animals?
CATHY: Yes, yep.
MICHAEL USHER: But there’s real danger here - with such big business in Australian pets, profit can take precedence over the welfare of the animal. Many sugar gliders are traded online. We wanted to see how easy it was, and it couldn't be more simple. A credit card, an address, and our baby glider was shipped across the state. Thanks a lot. Easy as that. They’re alive alright. Have a listen. You’re ok. Hang on. So this sugar glider has been on a two-hour flight, it cost us about $350. Let’s open him up. They say he should be safely in a pouch, there he is. There’s the pouch. Ooh, he’s making a fair bit of noise, he does not sound happy. Ooh, ooh, ooh, ok, ok, ok. No, he just sounds too distressed and unhappy. What we’re going to do is just safely put him back in this box, we’re going to get him to a much safer and happier home and fast. We showed this vision to native animal expert Kelsey Engle, from Australia Zoo.
KELSEY: He certainly looks quite distressed. You can see how quickly he’s breathing there as well. And he just looks absolutely terrified. He really does.
MICHAEL USHER: Should this sugar glider be in this situation?
KELSEY: I don’t think so. I don’t think so.
MICHAEL USHER: And this is where our glider came from – a Houston pet shop dealing in exotics. We repeatedly asked for an interview, which they refused until we turned up. I’m Michael from 60 Minutes Australia. After some negotiating, owner Suzette Stidom agreed to answer our questions about the sugar glider. I gotta be honest, I thought was in a pretty distressed state and it was really hissing and barking. It did not seem happy at all. Is that fair?
SUZETTE: Stressed. That’s just stress from flying.
MICHAEL USHER: Do you have no concern about putting them in a box and putting him on a jet plane and sending him?
SUZETTE: But it’s not like we’re putting him in a box. You keep saying box, it’s not a box. It’s a special crate made for them.
MICHAEL USHER: No, they’re in a plastic container, but-
SUZETTE: That’s approved for them, that’s how you have to ship them.
MICHAEL USHER: Is it fair on them though? Is it approved for this kind of-
SUZETTE: It doesn’t hurt them. They’re babies, they’re nocturnal, they sleep inside the pouch and it doesn’t hurt them. That’s all they do, they sleep through the flight.
MICHAEL USHER: Nor does Suzette have an issue with breeding and selling kangaroos and wallabies. It seems quite cruel to have him here, in a pet shop, in a cage for sale. He belongs in the wild.
SUZETTE: Well, but so did everything else. Dogs and cats, everything else came out of the wild at one time, right?
MICHAEL USHER: So you believe this wild animal can be domesticated, can be just made into a family pet.
SUZETTE: I do, I do.
MICHAEL USHER: And it’s not – not cruel any way, not going against their instincts, their nature?
MICHAEL USHER: Are these wallabies and kangaroos meant to be pets?
KELSEY: I don’t believe so. You know, they just don’t belong in a pet store to be bought as impulse tokens on a whim.
MICHAEL USHER: In Texas, as Cassidy Jagger cradles her adored Eastern Grey Kangaroo, she couldn’t believe we have such contradictory laws and emotions about our native animals.
CASSIDY: They’re just - and it’s such an endearing thing, and it’s hard to imagine why you could have something that you are allowed to hunt and eat and sell the hide for, but you can’t have them and love them.
MICHAEL USHER: You have to admit she’s got a point - should we cull, or cuddle? You have to wonder whether our kangaroos, wallabies or sugar gliders are better protected in the bush, or in our homes. So if this week a parent was setting out to buy a pet for their child, a guinea pig, a kitten or a puppy, what would you prefer to see them buy?
MIKE: Look, I think even the average kid who’s already been raised and indoctrinated with the idea of cats and dogs and guinea pigs, if they saw in a series of little cages in a pet shop a little baby quoll next to them, they wouldn’t go back to the cats and dogs at all.
MICHAEL USHER: So you would much prefer to see us buy a quoll instead of a kitten.
MIKE: Absolutely, absolutely. And then if you have to buy a kitten, you can feed it to the quoll.