an unlikely menagerie

(orginally published in Klipsun magazine)

“The Outback Christmas Tree and Kangaroo Farm: 500 feet.”

The road sign’s proclamation seems incongruous: Christmas trees and kangaroos? In Skagit County? But a sharp turn 500 feet later leads to Ray and Joey Strom’s Outback, a veritable wildlife refuge off Highway 530 in Arlington.

Combining both petting-zoo fare and the exotic, the Strom’s menagerie boasts more than 20 species, including wallabies, llamas, emus and ring-tailed lemurs. An hour-long guided tour winds through the expansive farm, which doubles as a pre-cut Christmas tree lot in the winter. The main draw, however, is the kangaroos.

“Most weekends we get 100 people a day,” says Joey Strom, a fit 64-year-old woman with short, silver-streaked brown hair. “Unless you’re going to Australia, this is the only way you’ll touch a kangaroo.”

The Outback is an open-air network of fences and chain-link enclosures surrounded by towering evergreen trees. Many of the animals are visible—or at least audible—from the farm’s entrance, a small clearing replete with log-cabin gift shop, wooden benches and a stone-ringed fire pit.

Visitors traverse the muddy parking lot and gather around a crackling fire, waiting for the tour to start. Some meander into the gift shop to examine Christmas tree ornaments and “Kangaroo Crossing” road signs for sale.

Outside by the fire, Strom’s throaty alto drifts over the wood smoke.

“For 50 years people have been telling me, ‘Didn’t you know baby kangaroos are called joeys?’” she says, her gently lined face breaking into a smile. “I thought, ‘This is destiny—I was destined to have one.”

Fifteen years ago Strom and her husband, Ray, attended an ostrich convention in Yakima with plans to raise the flightless giants for profit.

“Ostriches have lean, red meat that tastes like beef,” she says. “We thought it was going to be huge.”

Instead of an ostrich, however, the couple left Yakima with a blanket-wrapped kangaroo joey. Within months Strom acquired a group of kangaroos, called a mob, from another breeder, and thus the lineage began.

“I was in awe of how gentle they were. I thought, ‘We could become breeders and sell them as pets,’” she says.

The Stroms lived in Edmonds at the time, where they ran a Christmas tree farm and kept llamas and the occasional ostrich as pets.

“I remember walking into their house and seeing a toddler pen in the living room,” says Michelle Adams, 44, second-oldest of the five Strom daughters. “My mom was way past having kids at this point, so I knew it had to be some new pet.”

By 1997 the couple’s mob had grown to more than 15 kangaroos and wallabies, prompting their move to Arlington for more acreage, she says.

As word spread about the Strom’s ’roo ranching, visitors started showing up in droves to see the critters, Adams says. Strom smelled a lucrative opportunity and expanded their operation into a defunct Christmas tree farm, dubbing it The Outback.

“That first joey started as a pet and things just grew from there,” Adams says.

——–

The tour begins at 4 p.m. A few late-comers scurry toward the group as Strom disappears into the gift shop, emerging through a side door leading into the ring-tailed lemur exhibit.

Banana in hand, Strom strides to the center of the enclosure and is immediately beset by clambering lemurs. Their striking copper eyes fixate on the fruit as Strom peels; one male perches on her shoulder and gropes for a morsel with ape-like hands.

“Lemurs do not make good pets,” she says. “It’s like dealing with a 2-year-old child with no diapers for the next 15 to 20 years.”

The lemurs’ commotion stirs the farm to life. A bevy of silky chickens, their halos of fluffy plumage all but covering their eyes, struts into the clearing, scratching and pecking at scraps. Two turkeys—Sir Poops-A-Lot and Mr. Feathers (who has an enormous bald patch)—amble ponderously toward the tour group. Children stroke the broad back of Mr. Feathers, who gobbles appreciatively. Ducklings and chicks scramble after the heels of their bustling mothers; a peacock, resplendent in blue and green and gold, fans his tail feathers with a rattling shudder.

“The animals come from all over the place,” Strom says. “Trade shows, breeders, donations—we’ve gathered a lot over the years.”

After opening a wheeled chain-link gate for the group, Strom leaves to staff the gift shop and transfers tour-guide duties to her husband, who emerges from a covered feed shed. The Outback is a two-person operation: all of the work—from feeding and cleaning to tour guides and kangaroo-breeding—is shared between the couple.

Ray Strom, a 66-year old barrel-chested man clad in tennis shoes, khaki shorts and a wide-brimmed hat, leads the tour group through a swinging metal gate into the kangaroo pen.

“Please, no running in here—it startles the animals,” he says, his voice hoarse from narrating tours all day. “That goes for you adults, too.”

He fills a fanny pack with slices of multi-grain bread and shiny, green hay pellets—treats for the kangaroos, wallabies and other herbivores.

Once inside the enclosure a sickly-sweet aroma becomes discernable: ’roo poo. Though not as potent as cow manure, the shiny, spherical spoor nonetheless possesses a barnyard pungency all its own. Littering the ground are piles of greenish-black kangaroo ca-ca; some of it bears striking resemblance to the pellets Ray Strom hands out for feeding.

“Leave food on the ground if you drop it,” he says. “The green you pick up might not be the green you dropped.”

A trio of covered sheds houses the kangaroos and their kin. Many of the marsupials are stretched out languorously under heat lamps, either sleeping or pretending not to notice the procession. This is their last tour of the day—they’re drained, Ray Strom says.

He manages to coax Rooby, a 5-foot-tall male red kangaroo, onto his feet and out of the shed. Blinking sleepily in the gray light, Rooby hops from visitor to visitor, eagerly devouring handouts of pellets and bread like an upright dog. The kangaroo’s skinny forearms are disproportionately small, like a T-Rex’s; occasionally he un-crosses them from his chest to scratch an itch or rub his eyes.

“Show ’em your muscles, Rooby—show ’em,” Ray Strom says, urging the animal to flex his pectorals.

Rooby is unyielding. Sensing an end to snack-time, he slowly retreats to the warmth of his hut.

Outside another shed, a Bennet wallaby named Kate Moss pulls at a child’s coat, attempting to reach an upraised fistful of bread. Bennet wallabies—the best-selling marsupial at the Outback—stand nearly three feet tall full-grown and weigh between 30 and 50 pounds, Ray Strom says. Potential owners can expect to pay $1,200 apiece for males and $1,500 for females.

“Wallabies can be house-trained to an extent—they kind of act like cats,” he says. “We don’t sell a lot of kangaroos because not everyone wants a 6-foot, 200-pound jumping jack.”

Although pet kangaroos and wallabies are perfectly legal in Washington, finding the right veterinarian takes a bit of work.

“Our vet had never seen a kangaroo before us,” Ray Strom says. “It was a learning experience for everyone.”

The tour ventures on, doubling back through the swinging gate toward the center of the farm. A pack of terrier-sized Patagonian cavies—imagine giant rabbits perched atop spindly deer-legs—warily approach the group for treats. Native to Argentina and Paraguay, these oddities are the third-largest rodent in the world, he says.

Beyond another gate is a walkway intersecting two enclosures: on the right, several miniature goats and Jack, a miniature donkey, mug for photos; Spamela Lee, a Vietnamese pot-bellied pig, lounges corpulently on the left.

Further down the path, a miniature horse named Oreo tosses his mane, straining against his tether as the tour group approaches. He is nodding vigorously—almost head-banging, like a death-metal fan.

“Oreo here is a biter,” Ray Strom says, patting the 3-foot-tall stallion’s rump. “Do you want to bite these people, Oreo?”

More nodding.

Veering left, the group reaches a secluded aviary surrounded by 6-foot fences. Inside is an ostrich and several emus, their sinuous necks straining for the pellets in Ray’s hand. After feeding the ratites (and receiving a few hard nips in the process), he leads the procession back toward the gift shop—but not before setting Oreo loose.

“You saw all those pellets that fell out of my hand when I was feeding the birds?” he says, as the diminutive horse beelines toward the aviary. “Oreo was counting every single one and he’s going to find them.”

More than an hour has passed and the tour draws to an end. A llama and an alpaca are the last attractions in the gated compound; they bat their heavy eyelashes and canter up to get some grub. Under Ray Strom’s instruction, children and adults in turn feed pellets to the camelids—with their lips.

“Don’t worry, they won’t bite,” he says. “It’s a llama kiss.”

Back at the gift shop, Strom re-joins the group with the grand finale: two wallaby joeys swaddled in blankets, who are carefully passed around like newborns at a baby shower. After one last round of photo-ops, visitors pile into their cars and head home.

Ray Strom attends to a lingering couple, patiently answering their questions on exotic-animal expositions and the merits of emu ranching. Besides the near-constant din of a sulfur-crested cockatoo and blue-crowned Amazon parrot caged along the back wall, the gift shop is almost quiet. While re-filling the birds’ water dish, Ray Strom ponders the Outback’s future.

“I think we’d like to get more kinds of kangaroos and wallabies—there’s more than 60 different species,” he says. “But we’re not in a hurry. The neatest thing is that we have no competition out here.”

Competition would be hard-pressed to top the Stroms. If raising kangaroos and owning an exotic petting zoo doesn’t provide some semblance of job security in rural Arlington, nothing will.

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