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.
But now the Marcuses face what they admit 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.
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.
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.
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.
"This time, I did it to the animals because I had a dirty house."
But 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.
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.
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. 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.
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 Friday 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.
The Marcuses have hired Thousand Oaks attorney Arthur L. Scovis to win the kangaroos back.
"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.
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.