U.S. Activists Try to Halt an Australian Way of Life: Killing KangaroosU.S. Activists Try to Halt an Australian Way of Life: Killing Kangaroos

A bill in 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.


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SURAT, Australia — 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 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


Removing kangaroo skins at Warroo Game Meats in Surat.


Kangaroo tails are a popular meat source among Aboriginal people.

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 U.S. 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.

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 mid-’70s 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 U.S. 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 California member of the U.S. 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 realized after the fires was that we don’t know how many of the animals survived,” said 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 Wayne Pacelle, a prominent animal rights activist in Bethesda, Md., 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.

Mr. Pacelle said that he had taken a bill that would ban kangaroo imports to Representative Salud Carbajal, a California Democrat, whom he described as one of several animal-friendly lawmakers. If the bill, known as the Kangaroo Protection Act, passes, both leather and meat — which often finds its way to pet food — would no longer be allowed. It would cut off a large portion of Australia’s global exports, estimated to be worth $60 million annually, and other countries could follow suit, shrinking the industry or forcing it to fold.

“We think this would reduce the overall kill,” Mr. Pacelle said. “You wouldn’t have this energy for the kill if you didn’t have markets for it.” (In 2018, Mr. Pacelle resigned after 14 years as president of the Humane Society of the United States, one of the most powerful animal welfare groups in the country, after being accused of sexual harassment — accusations he vehemently denies.)

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, considered by many to be the highest-profile animal rights 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


Surat sits in the heart of cattle and kangaroo country, a few hundred miles west of Brisbane.


Playing in the streets of Surat. The town has a population of 407, with one grocery store, one pub and one school.

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 $18.

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.

400 miles















By The New York Times

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 minimizing the suffering of the outback’s boom-and-bust cycles.

“The people far away, they don’t see that,” said 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.


A worker at Warroo Game Meats with packages of frozen meat. Kangaroo meat is increasingly seen as a more ethical alternative to beef and lamb.


A museum display in the nearby town of St. George showing the strong connection to kangaroos.

Just after 4 a.m., 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.”

In the end, the argument over Australia’s kangaroo industry has always been only partly about cruelty and only partly about animals. It is most viscerally about whose values rule.

To Mr. Pacelle, Australia’s professional hunters are justifying harm to wildlife to get paid. To Professor Wilson, animal rights activists are engaging in “imperialism” that forces their sensitivities onto others.

The case against the kangaroo business brings with it a sense of rectitude that transcends borders. The defense is provincial; it’s less moral than pragmatic. And what’s clear, at least in outback Queensland, is that while distance can deliver perspective, it can also overlook facts and oversimplify complicated truths.

The fires that sparked calls for regulation last year, for example, were concentrated in New South Wales, hundreds of miles from where Mr. White hunts. In his state, Queensland, survey data earlier this year put the kangaroo population for the three species that are harvested at 16.7 million — a far cry from endangered.

Leslie Mickelbourgh, the managing director of Warroo Game Meats, said the soccer shoes campaign was also 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.”


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

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