When Captain Cook first landed in Australia in 1770, kangaroos were there to greet him. While the humble kangaroo has turned into something of an Australian icon since this time, its current presence in Australia is fraught with legal and ethical issues.
Kangaroos are native to Australia however, when early settlers cut down trees to make way for development, grassland became more prevalent. As a result, the kangaroo population began to grow in enormous numbers and there are now an estimated 500 million in the wild, though this number has been subject to much debate. Many farmers have therefore come to view kangaroos as ‘pests’, even though they are not an introduced species.
Ordinarily, it is illegal to kill, buy, sell or possess a kangaroo in Australia. However, in response to the growing kangaroo population, the Australian government permits licence holders to ‘cull’ or shoot kangaroos. This has resulted in the largest slaughter of land-based wildlife on the planet. In the past 20 years, 90 million kangaroos and wallabies have been lawfully killed for commercial purposes. Approximately 3 million adult kangaroos are killed in Australia per year.
Due to the fact that the law is divided between the Commonwealth and the state governments in Australia, the regulation of kangaroo culling is complex. Additionally, there is different legislation dependent upon whether kangaroos are killed for commercial or non-commercial purposes.
The commercial killing of kangaroos is governed by the National Code of Practice for the Humane Shooting of Kangaroos and Wallabies for Commercial Purposes. Under the Commercial Code, ‘a commercial purpose is where the animal shot is to be used as a product to be sold within Australia or overseas’. This definition takes into account the demand for both kangaroo meat, as well as hides or leather. Russia for example, accounted for about 76% of kangaroo meat exports, before the halt of export in August 2009 after a consumer health scare. Kangaroo meat is used both for pet food and human consumption. The Commercial Code was produced in order to minimise pain and suffering caused to kangaroos and wallabies as a result of being killed in the wild. Shooters must take a marksmanship course before being provided with a licence.
The non-commercial killing of kangaroos is governed by the National Code of Practice for the Humane Shooting of Kangaroos and Wallabies for Non-Commercial Purposes. The Australian government justifies the non-commercial killing of kangaroos based on the aforementioned environmental concerns.
A number of legal and ethical issues arise as a result of the regulatory framework governing the killing of kangaroos. While licence holders are permitted to shoot kangaroos, they may only do so in specific areas and up to a certain quota. Similarly, while the Codes do not override state and territory animal welfare legislation, acts of cruelty are very rarely reported as shooting usually takes place at night. As such, the first shortcoming of the regulatory system is that it is very difficult to enforce.
The second issue concerns animal welfare. The Code specifies that the shooter must aim in order to shoot the kangaroo or wallaby in the brain, thereby minimising suffering. If shooters miss, ‘every reasonable effort’ must be made to locate the animal and kill it, before moving on to shoot another. However, in reality, there is nothing to stop licence holders from shooting at kangaroos randomly in order to immobilise them. As such, there is much pain and suffering involved before the animal eventually dies.
The Commercial Code also instructs that any young kangaroos (joeys) found in the pouch of adult kangaroos, are also to be killed. The Code recommends:
- For furred pouch young: euthanasia by a single ‘forceful blow to the base of the skull sufficient to destroy the functional capacity of the brain.’ This is usually undertaken by a steel water pipe or the tow bar of a vehicle;
- For small furless pouch young: ‘stunning, immediately followed by decapitation by rapidly severing the head from the body with a sharp blade’ or a ‘single forceful blow to the base of the skull sufficient to destroy the functional capacity of the brain.’
These recommendations throw up obvious issues of animal welfare, as it is estimated that 1.1 million joeys are killed each year in accordance with the above processes or are left to die from hypothermia, starvation or predators.
The third issue relates to the issue of consumer welfare. Given kangaroos are shot in the wild, the environment they are killed in is far from sanitary. Recent samples of kangaroo meat bought from local supermarkets have indicated high levels of E. coli and tested positive for salmonella. This creates understandable health concerns both for the Australian public, as well as overseas exports and the viability of the industry as a whole.
Scientific studies have recently shed doubt on the Australian government stance that kangaroo numbers are ‘unsustainable’. The growing evidence leans towards the idea that the kangaroo population is not in epic proportions and can be managed via more humane means. Therefore, the treatment of kangaroos in Australia is fraught with regulatory and ethical difficulties and as such, requires much legislative reform.