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SALT LAKE CITY — A Salt Lake County veterans home director has found the rarest of therapy animals in a baby albino wallaby.
At the William E. Christofferson Salt Lake Veterans Home on Foothills Drive, Navy veteran Ted Hearne fawns over the baby in his arms.
“You’re so sweet,” he whispers to her. “You’re a pretty girl.”
Another vet sits down next to Hearne and coos to the baby.
“Boo, boo, boo, boo, boo,” he says.
The two men laugh. The baby they’re fussing over isn’t human. It’s a baby wallaby.
Elsa the wallaby belongs to the Veterans Home director, Noralyn Snow. For over 25 years, she’s raised 19 kangaroos and used them as therapy animals at assisted living facilities where she’s worked.
She gets them as babies from a kangaroo farm in Arlington, Washington and returns them before they get too big to handle. This time she chose an albino wallaby, named after the character from “Frozen” because of her white coat. Since the animal, a relative of the kangaroo, is smaller, Snow hopes she’ll be able to keep it longer.
“It becomes kind of like a grandbaby or something similar,” Snow says. “The animals accept you whether you can talk or whether you can’t talk. They don’t care. ‘Just love me and I’ll sit on your lap and give you that warm fuzzy feeling.’”
Besides kangaroos and wallabies, Snow keeps a small menagerie of other animals – birds, fish, reptiles, frogs, and an African tortoise named Frankie. Snow and other employees also bring their dogs to work.
“It makes it so children are not afraid to go see grandpa because they can come see Elsa,” Snow says. “It gives us spontaneity in our home.”
“Over my career, I’ve had residents die of nothing more than loneliness. This takes care of the loneliness,” she says.
This day Elsa visited with a group of preschoolers, attending a resident’s 101st birthday party, and spent time with Ted Hearne.
A collection of vintage armed forces posters featuring steely-faced soldiers hang in the hallway – a marked contrast to the retired sailor who, with a baby albino wallaby in his arms, melts.
“It just gets in your heart,” Hearne says. “Animals make your heart happier.”
“Animals love you whether you’re fat or thin, whether you have your makeup on or not, they love you unconditionally,” Snow says. “Often times the unconditional love of an animal makes all the difference.”