It opens like a horror film. Mysterious footage depicts someone running through the bush at night, torch in hand, talking in hushed whispers. In the distance, the sound of vehicles revving, occasionally cracks of gunshots. The camera pans up and picks out an adult kangaroo, standing upright above the grass line, dazzled by a bright spotlight. Another loud crack echoes through the night and the kangaroo falls violently to the ground. It’s still convulsing as a man picks it up, guts it and removes the head and limbs before chucking it onto the back of a truck. In the morning, the landscape depicts a massacre, strewn with guts, limbs and severed heads.
Such footage, captured by whistleblowers on the scene at the time, is far from the image those involved in the kangaroo meat trade would wish the world to see. Kangaroo meat was initially sold purely as pet food, but later rebranded as a natural, premium, low-fat, free-range alternative to traditional beef and lamb for humans. Such harrowing footage understandably takes place under the cover of darkness, because it’s unlikely many Australians would condone such activity if they were to ever see it take place before them – as opposed to hundreds of miles away in remote corners of the bush. As Mark Pearson, member of the New South Wales Legislative Council on behalf of the Animal Justice Party, describes: ‘It is the dirty, dark secret of the great southern land.’
As numerous talking heads – predominantly university academics, researchers, politicians and campaigners – stress in Kangaroo: A Love-Hate Story, the marsupial is perhaps the most iconic symbol of Australia. Other countries have cricket, sunshine, beaches and the like, but kangaroos are unique to Australia. They feature on Qantas aeroplanes, on sports logos, and on numerous coats of arms across the country. But there are few countries where a national animal is also food, or a pest that needs to be wiped out, as many farmers argue. The British don’t eat swans. Americans don’t shoot bald eagles. Killing a panda in China is a crime. Kangaroos are not only allowed to be shot, but many politicians promote their slaughter, either so they can promote the kangaroo meat and leather industry overseas, or because farmers – such as Stephen Tully, who appears on camera – argue that populations are growing unsustainably and damaging the landscape. Unsustainable, perhaps, to farmers who see the land as worth nothing except for producing industrial quantities of meat from livestock. Anything that doesn’t make them money is therefore entitled to be shot (as government-issued permits allow them to do, up to 1,000 kangaroos at a time, as part of ‘pest mitigation’).
Are their populations exploding to ‘plague’ proportions, as news reports often claim? Australia Zoo’s Terri Irwin – widow of late TV conservationist Steve Irwin (aka the ‘Crocodile Hunter’) – insists that when left to their own devices, kangaroo numbers will naturally stabilise with the rest of the environment. By exposing the extrapolation of sample numbers, and the ‘correction’ numbers applied to raw data, the film argues that not only are numbers probably not growing, but they could in fact be dramatically shrinking. It’s very hard to know how many animals there are over such a ridiculously vast area as the Australian landmass, but as one ecologist argues, perhaps it would be sensible to apply the precautionary principle and stop the killing until more information is known.
Ultimately, the meat industry wants to show a stable population in order to promote a sustainable industry whereby kangaroo meat and leather can be sold to China or Europe to be turned into pet food and football boots. Until recently, Russia was a major consumer, until Pearson and colleagues alerted them to the presence of E.coli and salmonella in kangaroo meat sold on many supermarket shelves, causing imports to be banned. In Australia, such concerns were dismissed. The meat stays on the shelves.
The film unashamedly plays to raw emotions, unafraid to show truly horrific footage of decapitated kangaroos (heads devoid of bullet wounds, evidence that hunters are missing the ‘humane’ brain shots which the law technically demands). Images of tiny, frail joeys ripped from their mothers’ pouches well before they are ready are undeniably upsetting. Such shots are then brutally juxtaposed with both pro-hunting spokesmen outlining all the positives they see in the industry, as well as beautiful, slow-motion drone footage of healthy kangaroos bounding across the outback. As American author Jeffrey Masson asks in the film, why not promote kangaroo tourism as a major domestic industry – similar to whale watching – instead of seeing the animals as vermin to be wiped out by any means necessary?
Despite the best efforts of Pearson and many other campaigners, little has changed in kangaroo legislation. In a similar vein to renowned and influential documentaries such as Blackfish and Sharkwater – and even early 1970s Greenpeace activity with regards to whale-hunting – Kangaroo has the potential to make the fate of Australia’s kangaroos a global issue, to take a grubby and brutal activity occurring deep in the Australian bush and put it on display for the world to see.
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