Before the global pandemic turned the world swiftly on its head, another disaster unfolded with fatal consequences: the Australian bushfires.
Flames blazed destruction across our island continent destroying lives, homes and wildlife. Then, as is today, people came together with kindness and compassion to support those in need. But what has happened since?
Australia’s fires, known as “Black Summer,” which began in late 2019 and continued until February 2020, destroyed approximately 17 million hectares of forest, an area the size of the state of Virginia or 13 times larger than California’s worst wildfire in 2018.
Our country is known for having many of the most unique and wonderful creatures on Earth, and people dream of one day seeing a wild kangaroo when they visit Australia. As headlines drew the world’s attention, the plight of Australia’s wildlife was perhaps felt most strongly. No one could fathom that an estimated 1.25 billion animals were killed in the bushfires. And even today, due to scientific research being thwarted by the coronavirus, we still don’t know the total damage to wildlife populations.
At the 77th annual Golden Globe Awards, comedian Ellen DeGeneres told the glittering audience, “My heart goes out to everyone suffering in Australia, all the animals that we’ve lost.”
She wasn’t alone in expressing her sadness over the devastation caused by the fires. Donations poured in from everywhere. Celebrities like Pink, Elton John and Kylie Jenner added to the swelling pool of funds given to firefighters, emergency relief and wildlife shelters. Comedian Celeste Barber alone raised $32 million from over a million people online in the first six days. Scores of volunteers from the United States and across the globe joined Australians to sew and knit pouches for orphaned kangaroos who had lost the warmth and protection of their mother’s pouch and would, without their human carers, face a long painful death. A woman who is a U.S. resident, Patti Kurosky Rowray, posted on Facebook, “Duluth, Minnesota, and surrounding area … Anyone that wants to help me make some wallaby and kangaroo bags and pouches this weekend please let me know.” Others tried to collect donations for wildlife rescuers and veterinarians on the frontline of the blaze.
A mutual trust was created: Americans give generously to help save Australia’s most precious wildlife while dedicated wildlife rescuers and veterinarians put the help to great use, working around-the-clock to find and save any non-human survivors.
But this trust was sadly misplaced.
What Americans may not know is that despite their generosity and the will and skill of wildlife carers and rescue organizations, some of the precious iconic wildlife they were trying to save have no hope of surviving.
It is deliberate. And the fires aren’t to blame. Several species of kangaroo face a fate far harder to overcome than fire: the barrel of a shotgun.
The exact same kangaroos that veterinarians and wildlife carers were valiantly saving and rehabilitating are today being hunted down.
State governments set annual kangaroo quotas based on estimated populations, however, there are reported issues with the numbers. In a public statement, eighteen esteemed Australian scientists specializing in the kangaroo industry argue there is a lack of transparency about how kangaroo populations are estimated and “claims of exploding populations and over-abundance are not scientifically valid.”
The estimated $88 million commercial industry largely relies on kangaroo meat and skins to be sold to the United States and other countries across the globe.
Scientists have little idea about how many kangaroos have died in the fires and the commercial kangaroo industry—despite a temporary stop in Victoria to ascertain damage—continues in the most scorched states of Australia. The government said it’s not in the impacted areas, but many disagree.
Mark Pearson, a member of parliament representing New South Wales, said, “Unless a sophisticated aerial count is done, there’s absolutely no way the minister for the environment should allow any slaughter of any kangaroo for any purpose.”
“Given the added dimension of the loss of substantial areas of bush land due to ravaging fires,” said kangaroo carer Greg Keightley. “Kangaroos are even more of an easy target as they attempt to live out their lives in diminished environments.”
Australia’s 20,000 wildlife carers volunteer an average of 898 hours and spend $3,213 of their own money every year and now they are also experiencing collective grief.
Imagine saving a kangaroo from certain death, waking up every three hours to bottle-feed the kangaroo, pouring your time, love and savings into its’ rehabilitation, seeing the strength and health slowly return, nervously releasing the kangaroo back into the wild and praying your baby will be safe, and then … discovering that it has been shot by a commercial hunter. Keightley explained, “We are shattered, frustrated and bitterly disappointed. It is emotionally debilitating for the carer to know that chances of survival are slim for our kangaroos, and beyond comprehension that they may be soon under the shooters’ spotlight, running for their lives and then killed in often an inhumane way, only to be minced into pet food and exported to a far away country. It is the stuff of nightmares that won’t let you sleep, yet it is much worse for the kangaroos, who are loving, loyal, peaceful beings, entitled to a life just as much as we are, yet remain victims of the largest slaughter of terrestrial wildlife anywhere in the world.”
Wildlife carers like Keightley—along with a growing number of Australians—understand exactly what happens at the time of a kill, usually in remote locations and at night.
The industry claims that kangaroo shooting is humane but perhaps the definition of “humane” needs to be further explored. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, it is “marked by compassion, sympathy, or consideration for humans or animals.”
Many don’t believe the treatment of joeys (baby kangaroos) meets this definition. The National Code of Conduct recommends joeys be killed in the following ways:
“To deliver the concussive blow, remove the young from the pouch, hold the young firmly by the hindquarters (around the top of the back legs and base of tail) and then swing firmly and quickly in an arc so that the joey’s head is hit against a large solid surface that will not move or compress during the impact (e.g. the tray of a utility vehicle).
DO NOT hit the joeys’ head against the railing of the utility rack, as this can result in decapitation rather than the intended concussive blow to the head.
DO NOT suspend joeys upside down by the hindquarters or tail and then try to hit the head with an iron bar (or similar). Holding them in this manner allows the joey to move around and makes it difficult to make contact with the correct location on the head. In addition, the force of the blow may not be sufficient to render the joey unconscious with only one strike.”
Swinging an animal’s head against the vehicle, or beating it with a rock, an iron bar or stomping on it is not many people’s definition of “humane.” The recommendation above also does not relate to older joeys who live outside of their mother’s pouch. They are not killed immediately and will likely experience painful protracted deaths as a result of starvation, exposure or predation without their mothers to teach them vital survival skills such as finding food, water, and shelter.
For this reason, Keightley focuses his rehabilitation efforts on joeys who are left as “waste” from the commercial killing of their mothers. “Left to starve or be predated upon after their mothers have been shot and butchered in the fields, thousands of these joeys die a horrible death.”
Due to animal advocates raising awareness about the welfare issues, parts of the industry adopted a voluntary policy to kill only males. But it is legal and common for shooters to still kill female kangaroos with dependent young.
Dr. Dror Ben-Ami, a kangaroo biologist and senior researcher at the University of Technology Sydney, Centre for Compassionate Conservation, said, “At last count, an estimated 10 percent of kangaroos shot were females and females often have a joey in pouch and even a dependent young also outside the pouch. Government statistics show that in recent years an annual 1.6 million adult kangaroos are killed, meaning that 100,000-200,000 joeys are also collateral ‘waste’ and of no value to the industry. It is also estimated that up to 40 percent of adult kangaroos are mis-shot and suffer slow painful deaths.”
The national code for the commercial killing of kangaroos went under review recently. My organization, Voiceless, The Animal Protection Institute, concluded in a submission to the government, “As the Government can not ensure compliance with the Code and therefore compliance with the Government’s obligation to ‘promote the humane treatment of wildlife’ under s.303BA of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, the industry must no longer be supported.”
Because Australia has no independent office of animal welfare and government and industry are partnered (causing underlying conflicts and pro-industry biases), there is little chance of change at a legislative level.
If the fires in Australia did one small thing to help it’s, ironically, to help save kangaroos. Since Black Summer, animal experts and advocates have come together in unprecedented numbers to protect them from commercial killing.
Animal organizations around the globe are learning about kangaroo welfare and are now talking to consumers about how and where meat and skins are being used in their country. New awareness—with the help of award-winning documentary “Kangaroo: A Love-Hate Story”—has led to many companies ending their use of kangaroo products. This includes major supermarkets such as Carrefour in France and Belgium, Italian shoe brand Diadora and international fashion brands Versace and Paul Smith. The European Union is currently being lobbied to ban imports over animal welfare and conservation concerns.
Americans also have a part to play.
California banned imports of kangaroo parts in 1971 due to serious concerns over the declining numbers of kangaroos. In 2007, the ban was replaced by a moratorium allowing the sale of kangaroo meat and leather. In 2016, it expired and imports stopped again.
But this is just one state.
Kangaroo products are hidden in many items sold in the United States. Take a look at your favorite sports shoe brand, for example, and their soccer cleats. A new campaign, Kangaroos are Not Shoes, launched this May asks Nike to stop using kangaroo skins. David Beckham, the former captain of England’s national team, has been a vocal opponent of kangaroo use and today activists are continuing to urge Adidas to stop using kangaroos. Another campaign focuses on American pet food company Chewy, asking it to stop selling kangaroo meat in their pet food, especially in the aftermath of the fires.
Historically, it is often not governments, but the power of consumers that make real and lasting change. Voting with your wallet is not just a platitude; it is a real and effective way to support ethical companies while shunning unkind ones. Companies care about consumers and respond accordingly.
In these dark days, let’s not forget about Australia’s iconic kangaroo; they deserve our protection.