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US activists try to halt an Australian way of life: Killing kangaroos

SURAT (Australia) — Mr Ian White drove slowly over the red dirt track, past wheat stubble and into the long grass, where he glimpsed a tuft of white fur moving near the woods to his left.

A worker at Warroo Game Meats removes kangaroo skins in Surat, Australia on April 21, 2021. A bill in the US Congress aims to ban all kangaroo products from Australia, setting up a clash between two very different kinds of people on opposite ends of the earth.

A worker at Warroo Game Meats removes kangaroo skins in Surat, Australia on April 21, 2021. A bill in the US Congress aims to ban all kangaroo products from Australia, setting up a clash between two very different kinds of people on opposite ends of the earth.

SURAT (Australia) — Mr Ian White drove slowly over the red dirt track, past wheat stubble and into the long grass, where he glimpsed a tuft of white fur moving near the woods to his left.

It was a warm autumn night in the Australian outback. He turned on the spotlight sitting atop his truck, finding a kangaroo 150 yards (137 metres) away.

“See, that’s a doe,” he said. “I don’t especially want to shoot a doe.”

A doe usually has a joey in her pouch. He and others who hunt kangaroos bear this in mind, Mr White said, despite claims to the contrary by American activists who are trying to shut down their livelihood, calling it inhumane.

These critics, he said, just don’t understand how life actually works here in the middle of Australia. Kangaroos have been hunted on the continent for thousands of years, “and there are still more of them than people,” Mr White said.

He insisted that Australia’s commercial kangaroo industry isn’t like a John Wayne Western with guns blazing. It’s a regulated business that works with the government.

Hunters must pass a sharpshooting course to ensure a humane kill, and kangaroo numbers are closely monitored by state and federal officials, who set quotas to ensure sustainable populations.

Most important, said Mr White, 58, a third-generation full-time shooter who goes by “Whitey,” kangaroos produce healthy meat, strong leather and the jobs that keep small towns whole.

“I don’t like killing things,” he said. “I only do it if I want to eat the animal or make money.”

A dozen kangaroos suddenly bounced into view. Mr White pulled over and carefully loaded the Sako .222 rifle resting on his lap.

He exhaled and fired at a young buck standing still in the light.

A GLOBAL CAMPAIGN

Around the same time that Mr White started shooting kangaroos, activists in the United States began fighting to protect them.

In 1971, California banned the import of kangaroo parts. Three years later, the US Fish and Wildlife Service did the same for three commercially shot kangaroo species — all based on concerns about declining kangaroo populations, concerns that many Australians did not share.

Dr George Wilson, a professor at the Australian National University who has spent 50 years in wildlife management, recalled telling a worried American biologist who visited in the 1970s that there was a reason so many trucks in Australia had metal bars on the front.

“It’s in case they hit a kangaroo,” he said. “That’s how abundant they are.”

Kangaroos were removed from the US list of endangered and threatened wildlife in 1995, and the California law lingered without much notice until the mid-2000s, when a vegetarian activist group sued Adidas for selling soccer shoes that used imported kangaroo skins.

In 2006, David Beckham, the English soccer player, stopped wearing the Adidas shoes (called Predators) after watching an activist group’s video of a doe and a joey being killed.

Now, the campaign is being revived through a collaboration between international activist groups, a member of the US House of Representatives and an Australian politician who is the lone elected representative of the Animal Justice Party.

Their goal is to persuade companies, consumers and lawmakers to boycott or ban anything that comes from what is often described as the largest commercial animal kill in the world. They argue that especially after the fires that tore through Australia last year, possibly killing several million kangaroos, the commercial industry must be shut down.

“What we realised after the fires was that we don’t know how many of the animals survived,” said Mr Mark Pearson, who was executive director of the group Animal Liberation in Australia before entering the New South Wales Parliament in 2015.

“If we don’t know how many are there, there shouldn’t be anyone out there shooting them.”

Mr Pearson said the current effort had gained momentum much as the ones before did, through a push from the United States. Though many Australians find that irksome — local media outlets have repeatedly chastised the “hopping mad” Americans — Mr Pearson said he had welcomed a call a few months ago from Mr Wayne Pacelle, a prominent animal welfare activist in Bethesda, Maryland, who asked him for relevant research.

That connection eventually led to an international campaign, “Kangaroos Are Not Shoes,” that includes an online video, a website and lobbying efforts around the world.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, considered by many to be the highest-profile animal welfare group in America, praised the “Kangaroos Are Not Shoes” campaign.

“Any move to stop kangaroos from being shot, their joeys from being pulled from their dead mothers’ pouches, and their heads from being bashed in — which is what kangaroo killers do — is a good one,” it said in a statement.

A SMALL-TOWN INDUSTRY

Mr White’s first shot that night hit the kangaroo just above the eye. He walked to the grass and picked up the dead animal, draping it over his shoulders and carrying it back to his truck, guessing that it would weigh 18 kilograms, or around 39 pounds.

He put on yellow rubber gloves and gutted the kangaroo with the precision of a butcher. He weighed his catch: 17.94 kilograms, which would earn him about AUD$18 (S$18.50).

He took off his gloves.

“There are no diseases, but I got all me little grandkids,” he said. “If you don’t wear gloves, little tiny bits of blood get under your fingernails, and you never get it all out.”

The line between cruelty and compassion can be hard to draw in a place like Surat. The town has a population of 407, which means one grocery store, one pub and one school. It sits in the grassy heart of cattle and kangaroo country, a few hundred miles west of Brisbane. People speak about shooting kangaroos for money with the nuance of a rural hamlet where both loving and killing animals are inevitable parts of life — sunrise and sunset.

The rhythms of kangaroo breeding and population are well known in these parts. Periods of plenty lead to booms in population for the four kangaroo species that are legally harvested — between 2001 and 2011, their numbers ranged from 23 million to 57 million, according to government surveys.

When drought comes, the population shrinks dramatically. Hundreds of emaciated kangaroos appear all over the area, especially near the roads, where dew nourishes the tiniest sprouts of grass.

Seeing the animals starving and hit by cars — or worse, seeing farmers massacre them to preserve feed for cows and sheep, a culling that happens outside the formal kangaroo industry, and often illegally — has made most of Surat believe that commercial shooters are helping kangaroos by minimising the suffering of the outback’s boom-and-bust cycles.

“The people far away, they don’t see that,” said Ms Megan Nielsen, 29, a farmer with three children who sometimes keep kangaroos as pets. “If you have a shooter, you know they’re doing it the right way.”

Driving through a local farmer’s hilly paddock, Mr White said he had seen firsthand the greater agony caused by farmers and the less scrupulous killers they often hire, leaving gut-shot kangaroos to die in the fields.

By night’s end, his process, by contrast, looked almost mechanical.

Just after 4am, he pulled into the parking lot of Warroo Game Meats, a processor in Surat co-owned by a family with Aboriginal roots and a Chinese investor — Australia old and new. Mr White had 21 kangaroos hanging on his truck, each of them killed with a single shot to the head, each of them tagged with his name and the location for biosecurity tracking.

“If we’re not doing it, the cockies will blast them,” Mr White said, using a slang term for small-scale farmers. “They won’t stop.”

Mr Leslie Mickelbourgh, the managing director of Warroo Game Meats, said the soccer shoes campaign was something of a gimmick. Though neither the government nor the industry breaks down exports or total revenue by product, Mr Mickelbourgh said that kangaroos from Surat were mostly used for meat.

The animals are increasingly seen as a more ethical alternative to beef and lamb because kangaroos do not contribute to climate change by belching out methane, and because they are harvested in their habitat.

The industry’s critics, Mr Mickelbourgh said, “don’t understand our country.”

He was sitting in an office near photos of his father, the founder of the business, with giant piles of kangaroo skins. Mr White, who happened to stop by, was sitting on a chair next to a banner that read “think local.”

“When I can’t shoot I find other jobs,” Mr White said. “But I’d rather be here.” THE NEW YORK TIMES

Related topics

Australia wildlife kangaroo PETA animal rights

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