MELBOURNE – The red kangaroo, the largest of all kangaroo species, is Australia’s national animal. Kangaroos appear on the country’s coat of arms, on its coins, on its sporting uniforms, and on the aircraft flown by Australia’s most popular airline. On a hike in Australia, seeing these magnificent animals bound across the landscape awakens my sense that I am in a unique country, with its distinctive flora and fauna. Yet, as the recent internationally acclaimed documentary “Kangaroo: A Love-Hate Story” (for which I was interviewed) demonstrates, Australia’s relationship with kangaroos has a much darker side.
Every year, millions of kangaroos are shot, in the largest commercial slaughter of terrestrial wildlife anywhere in the world. No one really knows how many are killed. Australia’s state governments issue quotas, which in recent years have allowed for the killing of more than five million kangaroos, but the quotas are not a reliable indication of the number actually shot. On one hand, the quotas are not fully taken up, so the number killed may be less than five million. On the other hand, hundreds of thousands of joeys inside the pouches of female kangaroos who are shot are not counted, though they will invariably die. In addition, no one knows how many kangaroos are killed illegally, outside the quota system.
There are two main reasons why so many kangaroos are killed. First, there is money to be made from the sale of their meat, skin, and fur. Kangaroos were hunted and eaten by indigenous Australians, but among urban Australians, the meat is not popular. Tourists coming to Australia often try it, and there is a modest export trade as well, but much of it ends up as pet food. Kangaroo skin is used for leather and the fur for souvenirs.
The other major reason for killing kangaroos is that farmers regard them as a pest, eating grass that they want to use to feed more profitable cattle and sheep.
There is some evidence that there are more kangaroos in Australia now than there were when Europeans first arrived, though this is controversial. There are many parts of Australia where kangaroos were once plentiful, but now are rare. Some kangaroo species are endangered, but the government asserts that the four species that can legally be hunted — which includes the red kangaroo — are not. Some wildlife ecologists challenge that assertion, but even if it is true, this fact would not end the controversy about killing kangaroos, which in its simplest form is about the inhumane way in which many kangaroos die.
The kangaroo shooting industry’s code of practice states that the animals must be killed with a single shot to the head, which would lead to a death that is instantaneous, or close to it. But a report commissioned by the government showed that at least 100,000 kangaroos die each year after shots to other parts of the body. Their deaths are not likely to be humane.
Then there are the joeys; As many as 800,000 die each year, usually clubbed to death by shooters who don’t want to waste another bullet. Older joeys who are outside the pouch when their mothers are shot are likely to hop away into the darkness — commercial kangaroo shooters work at night — and starve to death.
Given the remote areas in which kangaroo shooting takes place, enforcement of humane slaughter is not practical. Nor can kangaroos be farmed and taken to slaughterhouses — they are wild animals, and cannot be herded or induced to board a truck. Their ability to jump standard fences with ease means that barricading them into a field, or keeping them out of the vast cattle ranches typical of outback Australia, would be prohibitively expensive.
There is, however, a deeper ethical question about the large-scale slaughter of kangaroos. Should we be giving precedence to sheep and cattle, and the money they earn for the community, over native animals who have little commercial value, but are not environmentally damaging in the way that cattle and sheep are in Australia’s arid interior?
The underlying issue is played out all over the world. We do not have to shoot an animal to bring about his or her death. We can do it just as cruelly when we take over, for our own purposes, the land that wild animals use. The displacement and killing of orangutans by palm oil plantations in Borneo has received extensive publicity because we readily identify with animals so closely related to us, and with such demonstrable intelligence. But everywhere, as the human population expands, the space we leave for wild animals is steadily shrinking.
We rightly oppose the invasion of one country’s territory by another. “In The Outermost House,” the American naturalist Henry Beston wrote, of nonhuman animals, “They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the Earth.” We should take seriously the idea that taking land from wild animals is like invading another country, even if its inhabitants are of a different species.
Peter Singer is a professor of bioethics at Princeton University, laureate professor at the University of Melbourne, and founder of the nonprofit organization The Life You Can Save. © Project Syndicate, 2018 www.project-syndicate.org