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Did a phantom kangaroo once haunt Chicago?
March 11, 2010

Dear Cecil:

I came across a cryptozoology reference which claims Chicago police pursued a mysterious kangaroo or kangaroo-like creature in October, 1974, but the critter escaped. What was that all about? Did it even happen?
 

— Una Persson, Overland Park, Kansas

Cecil replies:

It wasn't a kangaroo, Una. It was a phantom kangaroo. A kangaroo is a cute story in the newspapers for a couple months. A phantom kangaroo, as the cryptozoologists prefer to put it, takes us into the realm of myth. Mark my words, the legend of the phantom kangaroo(s) of Chicago will be told around the campfires a thousand years hence.

The story broke on October 19, 1974, when the Tribune reported that a 150-pound kangaroo had made monkeys out of two Chicago cops in Jefferson Park. That should put you on your guard right there. Nothing ever happens in Jefferson Park, and the cops have a lot of time on their hands. This tempts them to be inventive. (I have personal knowledge of this. No, I'm not giving you any details.) Ain't claiming that's what happened here, just saying I wouldn't rule it out.

Here's what happened, according to the Trib:

The visitor from Australia, owner unknown (she called the police to tell them she was missing her kangaroo, but they forgot to get her name and telephone number), was sighted in the Jefferson Park district early Friday morning by homeowners taking out the garbage.

Police were summoned, and two of them, Leonard Ciangi and Michael Byrne, cornered him/her in a gangway between two houses on Meade Avenue between Eddy Street and Cornelia Avenue.

They were thoroly kicked for their troubles.

"We were trying to grab him and put handcuffs on him," Byrne said. "He took off, and we chased him for about a block and a half before we lost him."

Byrne said the kangaroo is about 4½ feet high and … was making "strange noises," and added:

"He was, well, he was growling at us. It scared the hell out of us, seeing him in a gangway growling."

A few observations:

  • It's too bad the Trib's noble effort to reform the English language never caught on. I wasn't crazy about "klew," but "thoroly" made a lot of sense to me, and as a child I invited the wrath of teachers by persistent use of "tho."

  • You may object that kangaroos don't growl. That's what I thought. However, the miracle of YouTube brings us evidence (possibly doctored, I suppose) that they do.

  • The fishiest part of this story to me is the bit about the kangaroo's owner. I mean, lots of visiting Australians bring their pet kangaroos with them, right?  And of course if I were a cop I too would forget to get the name and number of somebody calling to report her missing kangaroo, because on the northwest side you get so many lost-marsupial calls that you get casual about the details. However, I guess if I'm the night city editor and a kangaroo story comes in, I'm not assigning Woodward and Bernstein to it.

  • The main reason newspapers run stories like this is that they entertain the headline writers, who in this case came up with: 'Keystone Kops' go on kangaroo caper. You know some Trib desk guy went home after that and said: Mildred, I earned my paycheck today.

  • Cuffs on a kangaroo?

To no one's surprise, the story proved to have, you should pardon the expression, legs. The headline over the next day's report read: Invader still staying jump ahead of police. Lame, you say? OK, Mr. or Ms. Literary Critic, we'll put you on the copy desk and hand you a kangaroo-eludes-cops story. I dare you to resist.

The account had its dubious aspects. I quote:

They stood eyeball to eyeball, and the kangaroo blinked.

That's how Kenneth Grieshamer, 13, described his dawn counter Saturday with the mysterious Northwest Side kangaroo as the marsupial continued to bemuse residents and elude police.

Grieshamer, a Tribune news carrier, was delivering papers at about 7 a.m. when he heard the screech of brakes and turned, expecting to see an accident, but instead saw the 150-pound kangaroo, just a few feet away.

Let's pause right there. The kid is a Trib news carrier. The news carriers work for the circulation department. The circulation department's job is to (duh) increase circulation. What better way to accomplish this than to find excuses to keep running ridiculous stories about kangaroos? You don't suppose … ?

Nah. Back to our tale:

Dozens of residents have called the Jefferson Park police station to report seeing the animal, which apparently has confined itself to an area bounded by Belmont Avenue on the south, Addison Street on the north, Austin Avenue on the west, and Menard Avenue on the east.

Police have a hard time taking the whole thing seriously, partly because nobody has reported a missing kangaroo.

Hold on, Trib editors. Your story the previous day said somebody called to report a missing kangaroo. This person has now evaporated. We also have the cops evidently doubting the testimony of their brother officers, Ciangi and Byrne, even though we know from experience that cops will back up virtually anything another cop says. What do we deduce when they express skepticism? Nothing. Just making an observation, is all.

I'm not going to summarize every kangaroo story that ran from this point on, because it would take up the remaining capacity of the Internet. However, the October 23 update in the Trib is worth a mention for two reasons:

  1. The headline is Kangaroo is still one jump ahead, and the lead paragraph reads: "Somewhere in this vast city hops a kangaroo, always one jump ahead of the law." On the Trib copy desk they're thinking: this one-jump-ahead joke, it just keeps getting better and better.

  2. The story is by Jeff Jarvis, now a noted media heavyweight, then a Trib cub reporter. How piquant to think that this estimable personage once put in time on the kangaroo beat.    

By this time the kangaroo story had been picked up by the wire services and was running around the country and in Australia. The Los Angeles Times, New York Times, and Washington Post all weighed in. Radio stations played the old Rolf Harris song, "Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport." President Gerald Ford, discussing the kangaroo situation before a gathering of Republicans in Chicago, said, "The Democrats want to register it [i.e., the kangaroo] to vote, at least once." The crowd busted a gut. We post-moderns may scoff, but it beats what passes for political discourse today.

Initially confined to a few square blocks on the northwest side, the kangaroo began to roam increasingly widely. A November 3 story said an off-duty patrolman had seen the animal near Plano, some 50 miles southwest of Chicago.  The next day, three Plano teenagers were reported to have spotted the kangaroo standing on a highway at 9 p.m. Saturday night. Two other teenagers told of seeing the animal on the city's southwest side a half hour later. Possible explanations: (1) Kangaroos can travel 100 MPH. (2) Multiple kangaroos were now on the scene. (3) Teenagers. Saturday night. 'Nuff said.

After that kangaroo sightings became less frequent, tho (see?) still interesting. On November 13, Jeff Jarvis, doubtless sensing a Pulitzer, reported that three residents of Rensselaer, Indiana had observed the kangaroo. His story, however, provided details on only two, the excitement of the chase perhaps having caused him to lose count. (Headline: Kangaroo has Indiana hopping now.)

On November 16, a woman on the west side found a mysterious mammal on her doorstep. On investigation it turned out not to be a kangaroo but a squirrel monkey, an interesting development all by itself. (Headline: An unwelcome doormat — Kangaroo alert was a wild goose chase. The Trib copy desk is surely thinking: We can keep this up for months.)

On November 24, the Australian consulate in Chicago reported that a kangaroo had been dragged out of the ocean by a fisherman about three kilometers off the coast of Australia. A weary nation thinks: Please, let this be the end of it.

No such luck. The Wall Street Journal ran a page 1 story on December 11 reporting that "the police of two states" were pursuing the kangaroo "with guns and helicopters" but were "hopping-mad because they can't seem to get their hands on him." The paper said there had been nearly 50 sightings over a 250 mile area, including one near Indianapolis November 25, which kiboshed the swam-home hypothesis. An animal expert blamed it all on mass hysteria: "It's really a UJO — an unidentified jumping object."

I'll omit the Christian Science Monitor's page 1 story on December 31, and skip past the Washington Post's July 15, 1975 bulletin about a kangaroo sighting near Decatur, Illinois. I merely note that today if you Google "Chicago cryptozoology kangaroo," you get a lot of hits like this:

See? Right up there with the abominable snowman and the Loch Ness monster. Maybe the phantom kangaroo legend began on a slow news night in Chicago, but it belongs to the ages now.

  — Cecil Adams
Photo by Pat O'Neil

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