11 May 2012
The extraordinary life of a roo called Myrtle
When David would take guests snorkelling and exploring, Myrtle would swim after the boat, only her head visible, until the boat was out of view.
Picture: Paul Sheehan Paul SheehanJanuary 26, 2009
She turned up out of the bush one day, a young kangaroo born in the wild, and attached herself to a farmer. She liked human company and stayed close to the house. The farmer called her Myrtle. Over time she became part of the family.
She loved sitting on the couch watching TV.
This often happens when a joey is rescued by humans after its mother has been killed. They usually don't know how to survive, stop identifying with other kangaroos, and end up hanging around the nearest farmhouse.
As Myrtle grew she became too big for a household with little kids and the farmer offered her to a friend who was building a resort on an island inside the Great Barrier Reef. She'd have human company, be safe from hunters and cars and would also make a great mascot for an Australian wilderness lodge. The friend, David, agreed.
"Myrtle was lying on the couch happily watching cartoons when I arrived one Sunday morning," David told me. "She wasn't too keen on leaving and we had to drag her by the tail and manhandle her into a cage."
When the cage door was reopened after a boat trip to the island, Myrtle peered around for a few moments then hopped off into the rainforest. They didn't see her for days.
"On the fourth day she appeared at the staff house looking hungry and a bit lonely." Myrtle hopped into one of the open bedrooms and claimed it as her own. She spent most afternoons lazing on the bed. "In the morning she'd stand at the breakfast table and expect a bowl of cereal like the rest of us. She didn't like being left out."
When the resort was ready for occupation, Myrtle was locked out of the house. This proved traumatic. "She spent the first night standing with her front paws spread-eagled on the screen door looking at us forlornly through the flyscreen. She was devastated. She wouldn't eat anything for days. It was as if her whole sense of who she was had been challenged. She looked as though she had come to the realisation that she wasn't one of us, that she was different."
David relented and built an outside doorway into a bedroom in the staff house. Myrtle now had her own room. "She reluctantly accepted the new living arrangement but was never quite the same again." One thing did not change. Myrtle had identified David as the dominant male and never drifted far from him. She was jealous of any young women who came to the island, growling and kicking them if she got a chance. Older women and girls she could tolerate. Young women were treated as rivals.
"She had uncanny instincts," David said. "Once when a young Irish girl was due to come to the island the next day to work as a cook, I spent a couple of hours making up one of the bedrooms for her. The next morning when I showed Helen to her room we discovered Myrtle had completely trashed it, pissing and shitting all over the bed."
Nor was David allowed to sleep in. After a certain hour, Myrtle would stand outside his bedroom window, clearing her throat, until he got up and made breakfast.
She also hated being left behind. When David would take guests snorkelling and exploring, Myrtle would swim after the boat, only her head visible, until the boat was out of view. It always affected David. It affected my wife and me when we saw it first hand.
As the boat returned, Myrtle would be on shore, waiting under a tree, and then would wade out into the water.
Overseas guests were bowled over by all this. Myrtle was not just the resort's mascot, she was its star. Providing the visitors were not young women.
On our first night at the lodge, dinner did not arrive as expected. Two newly recruited English backbackers, Kirsty and Katy, the cooks/maids, were nowhere to be found at dinnertime. When David went to investigate, he found the girls cowering in the kitchen and Myrtle standing at the screen door, at full stretch - two metres tall - her arms spread across the screen, growling. "She really can be a bitch sometimes," he said when explaining the delay.
Kangaroos live roughly as long as dogs, and after 10 years on the island Myrtle began to look arthritic and became more listless. One night, when she didn't come for dinner, David went looking for her. He found her lying under his cabin, looking very sick. As he carried Myrtle to her bedroom he remembers her looking at him with "sad eyes".
We can only surmise what passed between the two species at that moment. We celebrate a national symbol that we have barely begun to understand. We put it on the coat of arms while slaughtering it by the millions and degrading its habitat. But the kangaroo has been evolving in Australia for 25 million years - 400 times longer than humans. Its great introduced rival, the national sheep herd, is in rapid decline, less than half what it was 20 years ago. The kangaroo may outdistance us yet.
The next morning, when David looked in on Myrtle, she was dead. "We buried her by the gazebo. I couldn't imagine the place without her. For 10 years, whenever I was at the lodge, I only had to look around and she was close by. Every single memory of everything I had ever done there included Myrtle. For weeks, the place felt empty and strange."