SYDNEY — Rob Kemp and his wife raised hundreds of baby kangaroos over the years. One housebroken joey would watch television in their living room. He liked bacon and eggs and cups of tea. They'd often find him tucked up in their bed, his head resting on the pillow.
“The animals are going to be culled; they might as well be culled humanely with a profit made by someone,” said Kemp, 69, who first accompanied his dad on a hunt as a young boy. “To leave millions of kangaroos in the paddock to breed is a stupid way of going about it.”
Two U.S. lawmakers are trying to disrupt what they say is the largest commercial slaughter of land-based wildlife in the world, with a bill to ban kangaroo trade in the United States.
A coalition of animal rights groups behind the bill is running a campaign called “Kangaroos Are Not Shoes” — directed at companies including Nike and Adidas, which use kangaroo leather for soccer cleats. Australia exports about $60 million worth of kangaroo products each year to the United States, according to industry figures, the second-largest international market after the European Union.
The group’s website, which encourages Americans to contact their lawmakers about the issue, describes Australia’s kangaroo cull as “ten times larger and far bloodier than the notorious seal slaughter in Canada.”
“Commercial shooters kill roughly two million wild kangaroos a year to profit from the trade in their skins, despite the availability of alternative fabrics that are of similar or better quality,” Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-Calif.), who proposed the bill in February with Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), said in an email. “California has banned the sale of kangaroo products, but enforcement is lacking and shoemakers continue to engage in the cruel practice of kangaroo trafficking.”
Some 400,000 baby kangaroos, known as joeys, are killed annually with blunt force after being taken from the pouch of their shot mothers, according to Wayne Pacelle, president of the Center for a Humane Economy, the nonprofit organization leading the campaign.
“Ranchers and the commercial kangaroo industry wrongly demonize these iconic native species of Australia to justify an inhumane open-air slaughter,” Pacelle said in a statement.
Thousands of bills are introduced in the U.S. Congress each year, and many don’t pass into law. But the worry in Australia is that if companies are pressured into ceasing trade in kangaroo leather, it will collapse the export industry and threaten jobs in rural areas where unemployment is high, especially among Indigenous Australians. Nike and Adidas did not respond to requests for comment.
“How ridiculous it is that two American [lawmakers] are trying to dictate to Australians what they should do with a natural resource. Every time I think about it, I just shake my head,” said Luke Demmery, an Aboriginal harvester from Bourke, in northwest New South Wales. The 32-year-old relies on kangaroo shooting to keep up with his rent and car payments when seasonal work in the local cotton industry dries up.
Kangaroos are protected from unlicensed killing in Australia, but there is agreement among wildlife authorities, academics, conservation groups and some animal welfare groups that the four species subject to commercial harvesting for export are neither endangered nor threatened.
Most Australian states allow kangaroos to be commercially culled or managed as a pest. The commercial industry harvests between 3 percent and 15 percent of the species whose populations are considered abundant. Officials say culls are necessary for the welfare of kangaroo populations and the protection of people and biodiversity as farming brings new water sources to Australia’s arid interior, causing the kangaroo population to surge during rainy seasons and collapse in droughts.
“When wildlife are harvested normally, including kangaroos but also bison or ducks, you can harvest at sustainable levels when they’re moving around the environment,” said John Read, an ecologist and expert on Australia’s arid zones at the University of Adelaide. “Ecologically, having kangaroos is preferable in the Australian environment [to] sheep or cows.”
Kangaroos outnumbered the country’s 26 million residents by nearly 2 to 1 a few years ago, until a severe drought gripped a swath of Australia. Up to 7 million of the marsupials died, mostly of starvation.
Rancher Leon Zanker recalls pulling mired kangaroos out of dwindling water reserves and euthanizing them to prevent them from starving — a grueling experience that added to the mental strain of the drought. By that stage, he had no livestock left on his ranch. The kangaroos had stripped any remaining ground cover down to bare red soil.
“We get maligned as farmers by people who say we look at kangaroos as pests and want to drive them to extinction,” said Zanker, 63, who has farmed sheep, cattle and goats in the outback town of White Cliffs for about 40 years. “To see kangaroos die of starvation, knowing that I as a land manager didn’t have the tools to manage them, is heartbreaking. The best form of conservation is a very well-managed commercial industry.”
Ecologists say the kangaroo industry is the world’s most sustainable and ethical meat trade. Professional harvesters are regulated to make sure kangaroos are shot in a humane way, and the meat and skins that would otherwise be discarded are turned into valuable products. In Sydney, Melbourne and other cities, it’s not uncommon to find kangaroo on restaurant menus. The lean, gamy meat is popular with bodybuilders and the health-conscious.
Farmers who cull kangaroos for pest control aren’t subject to the same oversight. Kemp said he’s come across scores of kangaroos that have been poisoned or wounded and left to die a slow, painful death.
“It’s a horrendous thing. No matter what the conservationists think of the commercial kill, it is by far, far better than anything else that is going around,” he said by phone one recent morning from Broken Hill, 700 miles west of Sydney. “If the Americans think they can stop Australian graziers killing kangaroos any which way, there’s no way on earth they’re going to stop it. It will not make an ounce of difference.”
On a recent night, Demmery made more than $500 from shooting 20 kangaroos, which he considered a good haul for this time of the year, when there is a lot of water around. As an Indigenous Australian, he is also entitled to keep some of the meat — known locally as “bush tucker” — which he shares with elders who are too old to join the hunt.
“To a lot of Aboriginal communities, they’re sustenance, a protein. Meat prices just keep going up and up,” he said. Kangaroo tails are often used in place of oxtail in stews, cooked over a fire at tribal gatherings.
“We’ve always shot bush tucker to eat. That’s one thing I like about ’roo shooting. Instead of them becoming big numbers and shooting them willy-nilly,” Demmery said. “At least now I can make a dollar out of it and people get to enjoy the ’roo meat.”