Lillypad the kangaroo has had a rough life so far.
Her mother, Lillybet, died shortly after birthing the baby because she ingested a toxic plant, said officials at the North Georgia Zoo and Petting Farm in Cleveland.
Lead curator and Assistant Director Melissa Burns and zoo Director Hope Bennett tried to save Lillybet's life, but they were unable to succeed.
Now the orphaned baby kangaroo, or joey, is being cared for by zoo officials.
"We had to provide round the clock care," Burns said.
This is the first time the zoo has had to deal with a premature joey. Because of it, Burns and Bennett began researching how to take care of Lillypad immediately after her birth. Since information about infant kangaroos is limited, Burns consulted the books of Lynda Staker, an Australian kangaroo expert. She had offered her assistance over the phone and via email in the past, but Burns chose to consult her books this time.
The answer to caring for Lillypad was to keep her warm, since she couldn't manage her own temperature outside of her mother's pouch. The problem was North Georgia Zoo lacked an incubator on site because it is a small facility
However, zoo officials improvised. Burns created a makeshift incubator using a few heating pads, some zip ties, a small humidifier and a temperature gauge. Then she put it inside a cooler along with Lillypad to keep her temperature at a steady 98 degrees. Then Burns continuously monitored the temperatures in the makeshift pouch.
"It was like a really hard balance game," she said.
The second obstacle to overcome was feeding the small, pink and hairless 'roo while inside the incubator. Plus, Burns had to feed her every two to three hours with specialized milk.
The milk, which changes with each developmental stage, was delivered to the zoo from a company called Wombaroo in Australia.
The special needs required Burns to spend the night at the zoo for the first couple of days to ensure the tiny marsupial's survival.
"She was like a premature baby," Burns said.
Lillypad now needs a bottle in the middle of the night and five to six times during the day. Luckily, Burns lives a short two-minute drive from the zoo.
Since kangaroos recognize people and tend to react negatively to strangers, Burns handled the majority of the caretaking responsibilities.
After 5 1/2 months, Lillypad is slowly but surely thriving at the zoo where she was born. She no longer uses her incubator, but is kept in an old purse a majority of the time. Her long, skinny legs aren't strong enough to hold her up yet, Burns said.
"I'm just so thankful," Burns said. "Since keeping (baby kangaroos) alive and healthy, chances are low."
Once she is big and strong enough, Lillypad will move to the zoo's juvenile enclosure and serve as an ambassador for her species at the zoo's educational shows. Then she will eventually travel to area schools.
The North Georgia Zoo is also home to animals such as porcupines, beavers, lemurs, wolves, foxes, birds, New Guinea singing dogs, bearcats, monkeys and a cougar, among others.
"We don't have lions, tigers or bears," Burns said. "We focus on education ... and helping the less ‘flashy' animals."
For more information about the zoo, visit www.northgeorgiazoo.com.