Jeff the wallaby is safe and sound after being on the run for over two weeks.
"I'm shaking," said Kayla Graham, the pet wallaby owner's girlfriend, in a phone interview with WDAM just moments after reuniting with Jeff.
Logan Whitehead and his family were in Florida vacationing at Disney World when two-year-old Jeff the Joey went missing on March 13. His roommates who also care for the exotic animal told him about the news.
It was at that moment, people from all over the Pine Belt came together to look for Jeff to return him home safely. Whitehead's cellphone and inbox on social media were flooded with tips about Jeff's whereabouts until he was found. He even has a Instagram profile dedicated to Jeff called @jeffthejoey, which he says grew a following after his disappearance and even more so now that he has returned.
"Yes, it really felt surreal," said Whitehead describing the moment he picked up Jeff. "I felt like it wasn't really happening, because he had been gone for so long, so you just kind of lose hope. But, there he was. I was really excited."
He says this wasn't the first time his pet went missing. However, it was the longest stint of time that he was away from his home. He believes he got scared after not seeing his owner for so long and managed to escape from his fenced backyard.
"I felt like a really big weight had been lifted, because my stress level had been up so much for the past couple of weeks while I was at work (and) that's all I could think about," he said. "I wasn't working as good and I wasn't sleeping good knowing that he was out there."
During his journey throughout the Pine Belt, Jeff was seen hopping in the areas including but not limited to Cole Road, Lake Serene near Snug Harbor and HighPointe where he was eventually captured.
"Everybody in Hattiesburg got behind us and was helping us with everything," said Whitehead. "Everyone was giving us tips about where he was at, so we would just go check out the location and either we'd see him or we wouldn't see him. A couple of times we saw him in Lake Serene, but he was so skittish from being in the wild that you would get close to him and he would just run away."
Katherine Smith said the little guy made his way over to her house in the HighPointe subdivision, which is over four miles from his home in the Acadia Oaks subdivision of Hattiesburg on Sunday.
"We just put out bananas every night and we made a trail to our backyard," Smith said. "We left our gate open and for the past two nights, he's been coming in and eating the bananas."
Smith says Jeff hung around her house and was even photographed in her front yard, which spread on social media.
"We tried to keep it quiet, because it did bring a lot of attention to the neighborhood," she said. "We had a lot of people coming in."
Even though Jeff visited the house on multiple occasions, this morning was the first time Smith tried to capture the three-footer.
"We've seen him around the house, but it was too dark to corner him last night," she said. "So, we just kind of watched him and then this morning I went out of the garage and he was standing there. So, we were able to open our side gate and he just went right in."
After he went inside the gates, Smith said she closed the door behind him until Whitehead arrived.
"He was really calm," she said. "I sat down on the ground when I first saw him and he actually came up to me. But, he was really calm this morning and I think it's because it wasn't a lot of people in the neighborhood."
Last week, Lance Sanderford traveled the friendly skies in a powered paraglider to look for the furry creature. In his post on Facebook, he said he "scoured areas from South Lake Serene to almost Highway 42." Sanderford is also the owner of Magnolia Graphics and Design, who offered a reward for his return.
Now, that Jeff is back home, the rewards can flow. Magnolia Graphics and Design, Parris Jewelers and Magnolia Grille offered a reward for his capture. Magnolia Graphics and Design posted a wanted poster on Facebook for "Jailbreak Jeff" offering a $200 cash reward for whoever caught the "crafty fella."
Parris Jewelers posted on their Facebook page that they would give a $250 gift certificate to the person(s) who captured him. Magnolia Grille in Columbia took to Facebook to let the person who worked up an appetite trying to catch Jeff know they would be able to satisfy their hunger with dinner for two. Luckily, for Smith, Magnolia Grille is a place she enjoys visiting.
"I have to say Magnolia Grille is one of my favorite places to eat," she said. "So, I'm really excited. We all love that place. It's absolutely fabulous."
Whitehead is grateful for the businesses who decided to sweeten the deal for people searching for Jeff.
"I really think that was the number one factor, because most people are going to be like he lost his pet--- how sad--- I hope they get it back," he said. "But, when they start offering rewards, some people were going to give (them) cash or you're going to give (them) a gift card or you're going to give (them) a free dinner; I mean it really motivates people."
Another local business cashed in on the #WheresJeff mania by making t-shirts. The Lucky Rabbit created a t-shirt with a picture of a wallaby with a Hardy Street sign hovering over the 'Where's Jeff' tagline for people to purchase.
And he may not have made a shirt or offered a reward, but Van Arnold sang his heart out for Jeff in a Facebook post. Arnold's 'Dang it! Where's Jeff the Wallaby?' has over 20,000 views. He belts out a song to the tune of Elvis Presley's "Kentucky Rain" about the community coming together to return Jeff to his owner.
"Seven lonely days and a thousand yards ago, they looked up one night and Jeff was gone," he sang. "Don't know why he run… what he's running to or from all I know is we need to bring Jeff home."
According to National Geographic, wallabies are not kangaroos despite their striking resemblance. However, they are members of the kangaroo clan compared to cousins of different families. For example, they are various types of wallabies grouped by habitats such as brush, shrub, rock and hare. Jeff is a Bennett wallaby also known as a red-necked wallaby. They are typically found in coastal forests of eastern and southeastern Australia and Tasmania. Wallabies are usually small to medium in size, but they can get as big as six feet. As a herbivore, their diets typically consist of grass and plants. Their life expectancy is estimated at about nine years.
After Whitehead picked up Jeff, he made a visit to his veterinarian, Kirk Frazier,D.V.M, at All Animal Clinic in Hattiesburg. He says prior to his escape, Jeff weighed about 30 pounds and now he's roughly 22 pounds.
"He said he was perfectly fine beside him losing a little bit of weight," said Whitehead. "He drew blood on him and he did fine with that, The results came back good. He has nothing wrong with him just lost a little bit of weight."
With Jeff back home, Whitehead is making sure he keeps an eye on him with all of the attention he's received lately. He says they are planning to purchase a GPS tracker collar in the event he goes missing again. They hope to get the tracker as soon as they are able to find one. Additionally, he is making some changes to his backyard.
"My dad's coming today," he said. "Me and him are going to work on the fence. We're going to put new locks on it and I think that's going to help."