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Kangaroo Owners Fight State to Keep Pets From Down Under

Times Staff Writer

Violet and Murray Marcus concede that they are oddballs, even among those who gravitate to the hills around the San Fernando Valley for space to raise unusual animals.

The Marcuses are kangaroo people.

She wears a tiny gold kangaroo necklace and carries baby kangaroos around in her arms so she can bottle-feed them. Even though he just turned 70, he is known as “the Kangaroo Kid” at the Agoura kangaroo-breeding ranch he calls “Dellaroo.”

The couple have slowly built up their prized kangaroo collection since 1978, when a disastrous brush fire swept over their ranch and killed their original kangaroo herd.

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Criminal Charges Filed

But now the Marcuses face what they acknowledge is a more permanent threat to their peculiar hobby. State and local animal-control officers have seized their 18 kangaroos, saying that the Marcuses are unable to properly care for them.

The county, which has brought criminal charges against the couple, plans to go to court to prevent them from retrieving their pets.

The animals are stocky, collie-sized kangaroos known as wallaroos in the Australian outback, where they hop over rocks on powerful, heavily padded legs.

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In some ways, it’s like many confrontations involving animal control officers and passionate pet collectors. What’s so unusual about this case, the officials say, is that the collectors are wealthy landowners who have virtually devoted their lives to their pets.

Seized in March

The kangaroos were confiscated in March by Los Angeles County animal control officers and state Department of Fish and Game agents investigating a tip that the pets were being housed in unsanitary conditions at a Malibu home owned by the couple.

The Marcuses, who deny abusing the animals, said the kangaroos were being kept at the home while repairs were being made to their still-damaged Agoura ranch.

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And they allege, in turn, that the kangaroos have been at risk since their confiscation and caging at a Sylmar-area animal compound. Two of the animals have died in state captivity, they said.

“This is worse for me than the fire,” said Violet Marcus, 68, who survived the fast-moving 1978 brush fire by hiding in a dry creek bed as flames killed 29 kangaroos and 270 other exotic animals at the ranch.

Raid at Malibu Home

Authorities contend that they found more than just a dirty house on March 6 when they got a search warrant and raided the Marcus home in Malibu.

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The secluded Sycamore Meadows Drive residence is on a two-acre parcel in an expensive, rural hillside neighborhood that overlooks the ocean.

Rats were scurrying across the driveway as animal-control officers and county health inspectors entered the property, said Lt. Martin Broad, a supervisor at the Los Angeles County Animal Care Center No. 7 in Agoura Hills.

Inside the house, rooms were littered with junk and rotting food that had attracted rats “that would come up to you if you stood still,” Broad said.

Blind Kangaroo

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A blind kangaroo was locked in a hallway; the floor was covered with four inches of urine-soaked feces, Broad said.

“It’s the worst living place for animals I’ve ever seen,” Broad said, adding that he has been an animal-control officer for 14 years.

“We had to go outside to breathe,” he said. “I went out and threw up. I was depressed for three days after I was on the property. I was psychologically drained.”

County officials confiscated several dogs, birds and rabbits in the home and called state game wardens for the kangaroos. Seventeen of them were locked in a pen outside the house.

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Complaints Lodged

Fish and Game agents took the kangaroos to the Wildlife Waystation, a privately run Little Tujunga Canyon facility frequently used by the state as a short-term home for impounded exotic animals.

Afterward, the county district attorney’s office filed five misdemeanor complaints charging the couple with health-code violations and illegal possession of the kangaroos.

Trial is scheduled for Aug. 20. County prosecutor Tim D. Hansen said that the couple could face six-month jail sentences for each count, although he plans to ask for probation--with the condition that the pair not own any more animals.

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The Marcuses have hired Thousand Oaks attorney Arthur L. Scovis to win the kangaroos back.

Animals ‘Well Cared For’

“Messy is a very weak word for what the house was,” Scovis acknowledged. “It was a wreck. I’m not contesting that. But the animals were well cared for.”

Scovis said Marcus and his wife held a state wildlife permit authorizing them to raise kangaroos at their 55-acre Agoura ranch, a mile south of the Ventura Freeway at Kanan and Triunfo Canyon roads.

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He said the animals were moved to Malibu even though they lacked a permit for that site because the childless couple considered them “their babies.”

The disastrous 1978 fire--coupled with the 1972 death of Violet Marcus’ mother in another fire at the ranch--drove the woman into a depression that is to blame for the condition of the Malibu home, Scovis said.

“It doesn’t bother me that the house is dirty,” Violet Marcus said last week, tears welling in her eyes. “But why take it out on the animals? They say we can’t have the ‘roos for two years. In two years, I’ll be dead.”

Agoura-area residents say the couple and their kangaroos have been popular figures in the community.

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Violet Marcus has taken baby kangaroos to show to children at local schools, and her husband dresses up as Santa Claus at events for poor people every year. Murray Marcus was president of the Las Virgenes Kiwanis Club a few years back.

In May, a weekly Agoura newspaper published several photos of the Marcuses and their ranch animals as a Mother’s Day feature. An accompanying story related that Violet Marcus considered the Dellaroo Ranch animals her children. ‘Shangri-La in Agoura” was the headline.

Criticized as Eyesore

Others take a different view of the ranch, however.

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It has been criticized as an eyesore by some residents of the Triunfo and Lobo canyon areas because house trailers and numerous junked automobiles and trucks are parked there.

Some canyon residents complain that Marcus dragged his feet in cleaning up debris and rebuilding damaged structures after the 1978 fire. The trailers were brought in as temporary housing after the blaze.

In 1982, another brush fire burned onto the ranch, although none of the Marcuses’ animals were killed or injured.

‘We Mean It’

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Last week, a brush-clearance notice was dropped off at the ranch by a Los Angeles County Fire Department patrol truck from nearby Westlake Village.

At the bottom of the form, a firefighter scribbled a terse, hand-written warning: “First and final notice, and we mean it.”

Other officials are gentler in talking about the couple.

“The Marcuses truly do love animals,” said Frank Turner, director of the Agoura Hills animal shelter. “They don’t realize what they’re doing to them is wrong.”

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Animals in Good Shape

Martine Colette, director of the Wildlife Waystation, said the animals were in good shape when Fish and Game officers brought them in.

“The primary reason for the confiscation was not their health. It was a lack of sanitation, the condition of the yard and the house,” Colette said.

“The Marcuses are not exactly 18 years of age, and the burden of maintenance of their animals fell on their shoulders.”

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Colette allows the Marcuses to visit the kangaroos and to feed them “treats,” as they call discarded supermarket dumpster corn, powdered doughnuts and fruit they carry with them to the waystation.

Fearful of Escapes

The scraps are tossed through a window covered only with chain-link fencing into a plywood shack that is part of an enclosure built for the kangaroos. Waystation workers say they do not let the Marcuses into the kangaroo cage for fear the animals will hop out.

“Can you imagine trying to catch one of them if it escaped?” an attendant asked.

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Broad, the animal shelter supervisor, said he organized the raid after a disgruntled former ranch hand at Dellaroo reported the kangaroos’ living conditions.

Broad said the kangaroos’ good health and the Marcuses’ reputation as sincere animal lovers may make it hard for him to persuade a judge to keep the animals from the couple.

Photographic Evidence

He said he will take to court a stack of color photographs of the Marcus house and investigative reports from the 1978 ranch fire to support his argument that the couple should never again be allowed to raise kangaroos in Los Angeles County.

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“If they were proper animal managers, the brush would have been cleared, and those animals would never have been burned in that fire,” Broad said.

Violet Marcus said she will go to court prepared to argue for her kangaroos as if her life depends on it. She said it does.

“I feel like I’m going down the drain,” she said.

“We’re oddballs. If we were poor, they’d call us crazy. But because we have property, we’re ‘eccentric.’ I just want my babies back.”

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