LACOOCHEE — In his youth, Kevin Wehling would show up to wrestling practice at Zephyrhills High in cowboy boots and a western shirt. Then he'd run 10 miles.
Wrestling, he said, taught him focus and respect. He loved the craft and learning how far he could push his body.
Then, he grew up and left it behind. He started a family. But those days — that fight — stayed in him.
On Sunday, the 46-year-old ironworker with a mustache and a punchy drawl got to wrestle again. But this time, there was no ring, no referee.
Just a man and a kangaroo, face to snout.
"I told my wife," he said, "if that son of a gun jumps my way I'm jumpin' on it."
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The family heard about the kangaroo on the loose from Facebook. There was his wife, Shirley, and their son, Dustin, 13, and daughter, Brandi, 15. They knew there was an exotic animal farm nearby.
"One musta got loose," he told his wife. He knew some of the deputies who were involved, and he knew they were well-equipped to handle livestock. But a marsupial?
Wehling drove out to a large pasture on Cummer Road by U.S. 301 to help. The deputies had the animal corralled, sort of. They shot it with tranquilizer darts. No effect. They got a net over its head at one point, Wehling said, but it dragged a deputy with it. The animal — 5 feet tall and 200 pounds — was tough.
It circled around toward the highway but they kept it along the fence. Then they tased it, and it pulled a deputy's arm like a big dog on a leash taking off.
"We're getting nowhere quick," he said, "and that's when I made my mind up. When you make your mind up, it's a done deal."
The decision, of course, was to take the animal out if he got the chance.
There was a black chain-link fence to his right and a ditch to his left into the street. Wehling watched the deputies chase the kangaroo up the road, but it turned around. It hopped and bounced, he said, but it was obviously tired. Still, here it came. He heard the deputies yelling.
"Probably telling me to get out of the way," he said.
Wehling looked for a sign of aggression in the animal and saw none. He set himself and braced for an impact. The animal went to his right, close to the fence. Wehling made his move, shoving it into the fence, leading with his shoulder. There was give and it shot back. Wehling used the momentum to roll with it and heave the beast to the ground. They ended up in the ditch.
"I went with him," he said, "pulling myself on top of him and locking his feet in my arms."
It's a wrestling move. He held the kangaroo down for about five seconds before a deputy caught up, Wehling said. The kangaroo felt like a deer in his arms, and he remembers thinking how glad he was he had its feet locked up.
"He gave me a good run," he said. "I was holding him and he jerked and I thought, 'Man, this sucker's got some power in him.' "
It took about eight deputies, by Dustin's count, to subdue the animal. Wehling grabbed one of the darts and threw it to the side. We better hogtie him, he said. A deputy produced duct tape and they taped its legs together. Then they all carried it away.
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Wildlife officials on Monday continued to investigate how the animal escaped, and where it came from.
"There's no 100 percent knowing right now, but there is only one kangaroo facility in this large area," Florida Fish and Wildlife Officer Baryl Martin said.
That facility is a private, fenced-off property not far from where the marsupial was captured. It's owned by John Chatfield, the only person in the area who has kangaroos on file with wildlife authorities. He told deputies the kangaroo is not his. He did not return messages left by the Times.
Anyone wishing to own a kangaroo must obtain a class 3 permit, Martin said, and the requirements for the permit are specific. However, kangaroos are not required to be microchipped. But when an animal escapes, the owner can be charged with a second-degree misdemeanor, punishable with a $500 fine and up to 60 days in jail.
"Right now it's an ongoing investigation," Martin said. "Any time an exotic animal escapes, we take it very seriously."
On Monday, the kangaroo was being kept at Chatfield's ranch. There are currently no plans to confiscate the animal.
"It would be like confiscating someone's tiger," Martin said. "Where would we place it?"
The kangaroo, he said, was in good condition.
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Wehling didn't fall asleep until after midnight. Too much adrenaline. He woke up to a news crew wanting an interview. Even on the side of the road as he re-enacted the incident for a Times reporter, people in vans stopped and waved. Co-workers texted him pictures of fighting kangaroos. A deputy drove by and yelled, "Hey Dundee!"
But if you ask Wehling why he decided to take action, he'll tell you he was worried. The animal was headed for the highway. Things could've gotten ugly, he said.
For now, he still can't get over the fact that he wrestled a kangaroo.
"I remember hitting him and I remember spinning him," he said. "After that, it's a blur."
Contact Jon Silman at (727) 869-6229, Jsilman@tampabay.com or @Jonsilman1 on Twitter. Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report.