AUGUSTA, Maine — Walking out of a 40-minute-long appeals hearing at the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife offices Wednesday, Michelle Charette wiped away tears and said, “I thought they were going to take him away from me.”
“Him” was her pet wallaby, Kingston, which Charette had received as a gift from her mother and boyfriend after her divorce.
Charette was allowed to take Kingston back home, but the matter is not settled just yet. DIF&W officials remain concerned about the animal’s potential to contract and transmit rabies. Kingston has not been vaccinated against the disease.
Charette and her boyfriend, Jay Batchelder, said that when they traveled to New Jersey to buy the animal last month, the breeder had told them no vaccines were needed. Contacted later Wednesday after they had returned to Island Falls, Charette said that while driving home they called the breeder and he assured them that a rabies vaccine is available.
Charette learned last week that she and Batchelder had run afoul of state law covering the importation and keeping of wild animals. Currently, the wallaby — an animal that resembles its fellow Australian, the kangaroo, though much smaller — is not allowed in Maine.
After bringing the pet to Island Falls, they decided to take it to her 9-year-old son’s baseball game. Not surprisingly, many attending the game were smitten with the cute creature, which, at 29 days old, looks like a tall, lean rabbit that walks on its hind legs.
The day after the game, two Maine wardens knocked at the door to ask if there was a wallaby in the house. Charette and Batchelder believe someone at the game alerted the state about the animal. Batchelder, who was home at the time, readily acknowledged the animal and invited the wardens in to see it in its covered playpen.
After being told they needed a permit to import and keep the critter, the couple completed the necessary forms online. But Monday, they received a letter from the department denying their permit application.
On Wednesday, DIF&W Deputy Commissioner Andrea Erskine, Major Gregg Sanborn of the warden service and John Boland, director of the Bureau of Resource Management, acting as an appeals board, heard Charette and Batchelder’s story. Shirlet Johnson of Oakfield also attended in support of the couple, saying she helped train animals to aid in human therapy in hospitals and nursing homes. The couple indicated they were considering having the wallaby serve in this way.
The board members appeared sympathetic, and Sanborn said he believed the couple did not intentionally violate the law. But he also said that had the wallaby scratched a child at the baseball game, wardens would have had to step in and test the animal for rabies. And the only way to do that would be to euthanize it, he said.
A bobcat kept legally as a pet scratched a child, Sanborn said, when the child of the owner brought a friend to the house to see the animal. Euthanizing the animal was difficult for all parties, he said.
Batchelder’s 13-year-old son lives with the couple, Batchelder said.
The couple have contacted a veterinary clinic in Caribou which they say is hiring a vet who is from Australia and is familiar with wallabys, which are common as pets there, they said. They hope that vet will be able to vaccinate Kingston against rabies.
Charette became interested in owning a wallaby a year ago after seeing it listed on an Animal Planet TV program as the top choice among wild animals to keep as a pet. The animals grow to stand about 40 inches tall and can weigh between 40 and 60 pounds. Kingston cost $1,000.
At the hearing, Charette pledged to do whatever was necessary to keep the pet. When Johnson explained how much Kingston had meant to Charette as she endured a difficult time in her personal life, Charette wiped away tears.
Johnson and Charette said if the animal needed to be confined to a cage and walked on its leash only on their property, they would comply.
The appeals board is not expected to rule for several days.
BDN writer Jen Lynds contributed to this report.