Yehuda Gat settled on kangaroos for his wildlife park after rejecting the idea of keeping animals in cages.Once, the only place you could see a koala bear outside of Australia was in the United States and the Far East.

But now, with the arrival of two cuddly koalas to the Gan Garoo Zoo near the Jordan Valley, Israel now boasts the only such animals on the entire continent. “They’re the only koalas between Miami and Tokyo,” said Gan Garoo founder, Yehuda Gat.

The koalas, Cindy and Mindy, are quickly becoming the main attraction at this four-acre zoo, which features exclusively Australian species.

A play on “kangaroo” and the Hebrew word for zoo, “gan,” Gan Garoo, is the brainchild of the 52-year-old Gat.

Gat, who has a degree in animal husbandry, began his career as a high school teacher. When his kibbutz expressed interest in opening a tourist site based on the Winnie the Pooh characters, Gat was hesitant. “They wanted to bring a tiger here based on the Tigger character. But I don’t like carnivores and it was very difficult for me to see such an animal pent up in a cage.”

One day, Gat was leafing through an Australian magazine, and came across a photograph of kangaroos frolicking next to a group of local golfers. “I said, if they could be there, why can’t they be here?” But this time, his fellow kibbutzniks were skeptical. “Everybody thought I was a nut. For four years, I worked on this by myself. I had people hopping like kangaroos in the dining hall, laughing at me.”

But his persistence paid off. After a series of visits to Australia, and multiple work-study stints at several zoos Down Under, Gat finally won rare approval from the Australian authorities to open his special animal refuge in the middle of the Middle East.

Until the arrival of Cindy and Mindy, Gan Garoo’s main attraction was its kangaroos. There are seven types of the species at the zoo, including the giant Red Kangaroos, the playful Gray Kangaroos, the shy Swamp Wallabies, the hybrid Wallaroos, and the diminutive Rat Kangaroos, which are not much bigger than their namesake.

The animals are kept in wide-open areas where they can hop about freely. Gan Garoo is the only zoo outside Australia where guests are allowed to pet the friendly marsupials.

Gat is proud of his kangaroo mob (that’s what a group of kangaroos is called), and especially of the large number of baby kangaroos, or “joeys.” “Our kangaroos are getting on so well,” said Australian-born zookeeper Kevin Melville, “We can tell by the way they’re breeding. We have a whole bunch of little Sabras here.” In fact, around 90 percent of the mob was born in Israel.

The zoo also hosts dozens of other unique Australian species, from stunning pink cockatoos with their yellow plumes, to the five-foot-tall emus, to the Laughing Kookaburras and the Chattering Corellas, which can mimic the rings of all three of Israel’s cellular phone providers.

One of the zoo’s rarest species is the double-wattled cassowary. The cassowary is a huge flightless bird with a colorful helmet-head, a blue neck and massive scaly legs that looks like it belongs in the Mesozoic Era. Animators from Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park studied the movement of these extremely hot-tempered birds when creating prehistoric equivalents for the movie.

There are only six to seven hundred such creatures left in the entire world.
There are also countless types of Australian plant life at the zoo, including 3,000 gum-leaf trees planted just to feed the koalas.

Actually, the koala is one of the most difficult and expensive animals to raise. Just getting them from Australia to Israel costs more than $50,000.

But they seem to be worth the effort.

In fact, koalas mean big business worldwide. In Australia itself, koala tourism is a $100 million industry. A select group of Japanese conglomerates has purchased many of Australia’s major koala attractions, turning it into a major tourist niche for East Asians.

Gat is hoping that his koalas will help pick up business in Israel as well. Though Gan Garoo has been extremely successful since it was founded in 1996 – hosting up to 30,000 visitors a month – that number has dropped drastically since the beginning of the Intifada. “We had a decline of 6 to 8 percent. We’ve had to take extra precautions regarding the things we buy. We put off buying several types of plants, we delayed the opening of a new store, and the opening of a new aviary for small birds,” Gat said.

Despite the downturn, Gan Garoo’s zookeepers continue to be encouraged by the excitement their zoo generates. Most guests are return visitors, with many coming back for their sixth or seventh times, Gat said.

“A young girl from a Canadian family recently returned from a trip throughout Europe,” Melville said. “Do you know what she chose to write her school report about, of all the places she saw? Gan Garoo. It’s beautiful.”