Possibly the least-evolved mammals.
Possibly the least-evolved mammals. Photo by Daniel Bar-On
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The Holy Land. Birthplace of three great religions, home to peoples warring against each other over the millennia as people will do – and between the Mediterranean coast and the sweet-water Sea of Galilee, it is also home to a kangaroo petting zoo.

Yes, the good members of Kibbutz Nir David came up with a unique sideline to supplement their income from agriculture and industry – an Australian animal and flora park. Just off Route 669, which cuts through the Beit She'an Valley, Gan Garoo – which takes its name from the Hebrew word for park ("gan") and the marsupial – is but one of the kibbutz's attractions. It features a not-large collection of caged beasts including birds, lizards and some sleepy koalas – obtained after much negotiation with Canberra – along with kangaroos of two species running around freely, available to adore and pet.

Lending credence to the theory that marsupials are among the least evolved mammals, the Gan Garoo staff helpfully explains how to approach a kangaroo – from the rear. If it can see you, it may kick and even though these are not Australia's largest kangaroo species, you don't want that. But if you approach it from behind, surprising the animal as it were, you'll be fine. One would think an evolved animal would react with alarm (or violence) to being pounced on by an adoring child or adult and caressed from an unexpected direction, but not these placid dears.

If you would care to have a kangaroo eat "roo pellets" (which look much like the snacks fed to rodents in living rooms and labs around the world) from your palm, you can – if you come armed with 1-shekel coins. The park features a small machine that spits out a child-size handful of pellets in exchange for the filthy lucre. If a kangaroo, or several, notice you're carrying, they may cluster around you, feeding gently with velvety lips and tongues. Knock-down fights are unlikely, but they may do a little pushing for the goodies, which don’t last long. The kibbutz staff will change a note if they have coins handy but it's best to bring some with you.

The animals brim with bonhomie or at least unconcern, and are healthy, to judge by their proliferation and the state of their fur. In season, joeys peer from their mothers' pouches, presenting a constant challenge to Gan Garoo staff, which must find them suitable homes lest the park become overrun. They have mitigated the problem by isolating some of the males, which explains why some rather large roos are in an enclosure off to the side – not for petting.

While the site has a gift store that sells some edible items, if you want a proper meal, bring a picnic or eat at a nearby restaurant.

The park is open Sunday to Thursday 9:00 A.M. to 5 P.M. and Friday 9:00 A.M. to 3 P.M. On some holidays, the park may be open longer, and on other days, such as Yom Kippur, it closes early, at 1:00 P.M. – so it pays to check. It's closed on Memorial Day. The entrance fee is NIS 45 per person, child or adult; toddlers under age 2 get in free. Coupons for discounted entrance may be available on the Gan Garoo website.