Peggy Wrabetz has always been a sucker for little creatures in need. The former daycare provider turned licensed wildlife rehabilitator has been caring for six orphaned baby raccoons, which she is raising until they are old enough to be released back into the wild, along with a blind squirrel. And since getting her rehabilitator's license earlier this summer, she has been providing foster care for orphaned ducklings and other wild birds.
Bennie and Petey
But it's the two permanent residents at the Wrabetz household that draw the most attention – and that give the Colorado woman her greatest pleasure. Bennie and Petey are wallabies – miniature kangaroo-like creatures native to Australia. Wallabies are gentle creatures that are growing in popularity even if they are not legal everywhere. They require special food and need a sizeable yard with a high fence.
Bennie and Petey came from different wallaby breeders on Colorado's eastern plains, but they share one unfortunate trait: both are blind.
"Sometimes I think God intended Petey to develop the cataracts, just so Bennie could have a friend like him," says Wrabetz.
Bennie came into Wrabetz's life several years ago. She'd seen the little animals at an exotic animal show in Denver and fell in love with them. She'd visited a breeder outside Denver to see about adopting one, but was put off by the price - $1,000 for a male, $1,500 for a female. That was a big investment to satisfy a whim.
The Wallabies Are Blind
But a few weeks later, the breeder called to ask her if she'd like a baby wallaby for free. The catch: the wallaby was blind. The baby had developed cataracts. A blind wallaby had no value to the breeder, and unless he could give it away, he'd have to put him down.
Wrabetz didn't hesitate. She brought Bennie home, and raised him as her "baby." The little fella quickly learned his way around the house, and his blindness didn't seem to be much of an obstacle for him.
Then one day, Wrabetz saw a Discovery Channel show about a Komodo dragon that had cataracts removed. "When I saw that show, I thought, 'Well, if they can do surgery on a dragon, it's got to work for a wallaby.'"
She eventually found a veterinary ophthalmologist willing to give it a try. The surgery was successful. Bennie's cloudy lenses were removed, leaving him far-sighted but still able to see much better than before.
Unfortunately, four months after the surgery, the retina in one of Bennie's eyes became detached. He went totally blind in that eye, and the vision in the other eye grew further impaired. Wrabetz didn't pursue additional surgery; instead she focused on giving Bennie the best quality of life possible.
Petey Is Born
It was about the time that Bennie was recuperating from his eye surgery that Petey came into the world – prematurely. His mother, Ladybug, was startled and leaped out of her pen at the wallaby ranch in eastern Colorado where she lived. Breeders Chris and Denny Thompson chased her for an hour. They caught her only after the stressed-out animal had fallen into a pond. Moments later, Ladybug dumped the three-and-a-half-month-old baby she had carried in her pouch.
Wallabies are born underdeveloped and grow to full-term inside their mother's pouch. They typically don't emerge from the hot, humid pouch until they're about seven months old.
Once out, young Petey, utterly without fur and losing body heat quickly, could not be returned to his mother's pouch. So Chris Thompson hastily wrapped him in her T-shirt, then dashed inside to cover him with blankets and a heating pad. Denny Thompson got on the phone in search of the one thing that could save the baby's life: an incubator. That's the only way to provide the young wallaby with the constant heat and humidity he requires until he grows fur.
Caring for Petey
An incubator eventually was found. But even so, Chris Thompson had her hands full. For a time, Petey required hourly feedings. His skin also had to be kept lubricated. For two months, Thompson never left the house because of the constant care demands. But she slowly nursed the animal through the crisis.
Wrabetz watched her friend with admiration. She often came to the ranch – about an hour from her suburban Denver home – to help with Petey's care. Then one day Thompson called her with devastating news: Petey had developed cataracts.
"They don't know for sure, but they think it was caused by a nutritional problem, and being a preemie," Wrabetz says. "Marsupial milk is almost impossible for humans to duplicate. Somehow he didn't get what he needed. Chris was crushed."
Wrabetz offered to adopt Petey if Thompson wanted her to. Life in a suburban backyard is much more secure for a blind wallaby than life in a fenced-in pasture. Petey almost certainly would not survive on the ranch. Thompson eventually agreed.
Within two weeks of bringing Petey home last October, Petey and Bennie had become best friends, Wrabetz says. "They'd lie with their arms around each other, nose to nose," she says.
While Bennie had met other wallabies, he'd always been picked on by them. Not so with Petey. The two blind wallabies bonded in a way Wrabetz feels would never have been possible had one or the other been sighted.