The Kangaroo Sanctuary, Northern Territory © Tourism Australia
Interview with the Kangaroo Rescuer
Red sand, majestic mountains, blazing sun. Here, in the middle of Australia's outback, lies the desert city of Alice Springs. Nearby lives Chris 'Brolga' Barns. His passion: kangaroos.
By Esther Acason & Sophia Watson
For more than 10 years, Chris ‘Brolga’ Barns has had an extraordinary job. At his animal refuge, The Kangaroo Sanctuary, he looks after kangaroo joeys who have lost their mothers, lovingly nurturing them back to health before releasing them back into the wild.
In this interview, find out Chris' motivation for the sanctuary, how many kangaroos he is currently caring for and his favourite spot in the outback.
Why is your nickname Brolga?
An Aboriginal friend of mine from Kakadu called me 'Brolga', which is a bird: the Australian crane. He said I looked like one – the name just stuck.
How did you grow up? Did you always love animals?
As a small child, I used to watch birds in nature with great enthusiasm. My parents always encouraged me to continue this love for nature. I first saw a kangaroo as a child when I watched the TV show "Skippy, the bush kangaroo" and fell in love with kangaroos right away. At 17 I became a zookeeper and started looking after orphaned kangaroos. And that's when I found my passion.
A little more about Chris
Chris ‘Brolga’ Barns worked as a zookeeper in Broome, in the north of Western Australia, before starting work as a tour guide. In 2005 he discovered an injured kangaroo on the road between Uluru and Alice Springs. He was able to save the kangaroo joey, but sadly it was too late for the mother. That was the day, says Chris, that changed him forever.
He saved money, quit his job and in 2009 founded The Kangaroo Sanctuary near Alice Springs, right in the middle of Australia's Red Centre. Here he re-populates orphaned kangaroos and prepares them to one day return to the wilderness, limiting human contact to make the reintroduction easier. Animals that are particularly badly injured, or could not survive in the wild, remain happily with Chris in the sanctuary.
"My job is not “work” for me. I love taking care of kangaroos. But they must be looked after 24 hours a day, seven days a week. When they sleep, I sleep as well, and we also take breaks together of course."
What does a typical work day look like for you?
At The Kangaroo Sanctuary I take care of 15 orphaned kangaroo joeys. That means I feed them regularly with milk, clean them, cuddle them, play with them and much more. But I also take care of the 60 adult animals that live with us here. Only a few of them were born in the sanctuary; most of them were saved. My wife helps me and two part-time volunteers. We're a well-oiled team.
I start the day early in the morning. Then I prepare 15 bottles of milk for the kangaroo joeys. After everyone’s been fed and tended to, I walk through our beautiful nature reserve and watch our rescued kangaroos. It’s amazing to see them so happy and healthy; thriving in their natural habitat. They simply are incredible animals.
"They're the reason I get up so early every day. Just like small children, they need their mother or father. Someone to be there for them. I am like a mother to the kangaroo joeys."
So how do you feel when the animals are released back into the wild?
It feels great because it means that we have reached our goal. But of course, I miss them as well.
Do kangaroos have unique character traits?
Many of the kangaroos that live with us have different characters. Many of them are friendly, but their instincts also make them wild. Some are stubborn, some are funny, some are very particular. Others are also very loving and just want to be cuddled.
When tourists encounter kangaroos on their travels how should they behave?
It’s always best to view them from a distance; after all they are wild animals and must be respected.
What is the most interesting thing that people may not know about these marsupials?
That kangaroos on land cannot move their hind legs independently of each other, only together. But when they swim (they are good swimmers) they move each leg separately.
Few people also know that kangaroos live in groups of about ten animals, male and female. There is a leader; usually the oldest and largest male. He is the only one who mates with the females in the group.
"There is nothing as beautiful as the outback: red sand and mountains, blue sky, golden grass and the extraordinary animal world, the wildlife – especially our red kangaroos."
When travellers visit Alice Springs what should be on their list?
The Kangaroo Sanctuary, of course. You shouldn't leave without having seen it. But also stargazing, this is the best place in the world to see the Milky Way. And the beautiful West MacDonnell mountain range, especially the gorges Ormiston Gorge and Standley Chasm, and the hiking trail Larapinta Trail should not be missed.
Gallery: Chris recommends
How to book
The Kangaroo Sanctuary can only be visited on a pre-booked guided tour, which runs Tuesdays to Fridays at sunset. Booking well in advance is advised.
To ensure the protection of the natural environment, there are no self-drives to the sanctuary. Bus transfers are provided; just select the closest pick-up point to your accommodation upon booking.