Christie Carr wants her young ones to cooperate when they sit down for a family portrait, but at times it’s so difficult that she has to tell young Irwin to go to his bedroom. He obeys and hops to it.
Irwin may sleep in a bed, wear boy’s clothes on occasion and eat Twizzlers, but he’s not human. He’s a red kangaroo, nursed back to health after he was partially paralyzed from running into a fence a few years ago.
Two years after battling a city council in northeastern Oklahoma over Carr’s right to keep a “therapy kangaroo,” she found Irwin a home at an exotic animal park. And Carr has found some relief from her depression.
On a recent weekday morning at The Garold Wayne Interactive Zoological Park, Irwin, fresh from playing in the dirt, sat on a cushy chair in a wooden pen next to Carr. He later fussed with his new sister, Larsen, a baby Siberian tiger, in the staff house.
The new home, Carr said, is good for both Irwin and herself. He’s able to interact with other people and some animals, and her emotional life is enriched by being around all the animals.
“Just me and him together, it’s almost like he was feeding off my depression,” said Carr, who lives in the zoo’s staff house. “He likes people, he likes to be around people and here, there is something always going on.”
Irwin, however, can’t play with the park’s other kangaroo, Pluto, who lives near a pond. Carr and zoo founder Joe Schreibvogel are scared Irwin could lose his balance and fall into the water, so they are hoping to build a new kangaroo enclosure in the future.
Carr and 3-year-old Irwin arrived at the zoo after spats with officials in Broken Arrow. Carr’s therapist had certified Irwin as a therapy pet under the Americans with Disabilities Act. But city officials initially feared Irwin could pose a threat to the public’s safety.
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 veterinarians said Irwin would probably not grow larger than 50 pounds because of his injury and because he has been neutered. Irwin has gained about 20 pounds during the past two years and is now able to hop better.
The city council eventually voted to create an exotic animal ordinance exemption that allowed Carr to keep Irwin within city limits under certain conditions. The permit required exotic animal owners to, among other things, have a $50,000 liability insurance policy for any injuries inflicted by the animal, certification that the animal has adequate housing and meet all federal and state guidelines for licensing. An anonymous donor paid for Carr’s insurance policy.
But growing frustration with city officials caused Carr to move herself and Irwin first to Claremore, then to her parents’ home in McAlester and, in March, to the zoo.
“We called her up and offered her a place to stay and Irwin a zoo to hang out with a bunch of other animals, and they’ve been here ever since,” said Schreibvogel, who founded the zoo, which is named after his brother who died in a car accident in 1997.
The park has close to 800 animals — the majority came from sanctuaries and other zoos — and 18 workers. It’s a place, Schreibvogel said, where animals and humans come for a second chance.
“Most of the volunteers here are ex-druggies, ex-alcoholics, on prison’s door step,” he said. “Why do people turn to drugs and alcohol? Usually because they don’t fit in somewhere. Well, here these animals don’t judge you.”
Schreibvogel, who looks a bit out of place in the Oklahoma countryside with his bleach-blonde hair, earrings and eyebrow ring and arm full of tattoos, is trying to become a country singer. Known as Joe Exotic, he recently released three songs with music videos and has a reality TV show pilot filming soon, which will feature Irwin and other animals at the park.
Schreibvogel and Carr bonded over the backlash they’ve both received from animal-rights groups. They say it has helped them get to where they are.
“Everybody has an opinion, and everybody has a right to an opinion,” Schreibvogel said. “If they would have euthanized him three years ago, he wouldn’t be walking around, hopping now, so not everyone knows what they are talking about.”