The professional, ethical, humane, kangaroo harvest observed.
THOSE WHO PROMOTE commercial and non-commercial killing of kangaroos, counter public unease by assuring everyone the hunt is professional, ethical and humane. Most people want to believe that is so and not think about it. But observations and experience relayed by activists and disillusioned shooters, including to me for this book, have seriously questioned whether in aggregate the nightly killing today is any less brutal than in past decades. Neighbours where shooting takes place also have seen the worst.
West of the Blue Mountains in NSW, Greg Keightley and Diane Smith had almost a decade to document the commercial kangaroo harvest along three kilometres bordering their 500-acre property, bought with the idea of owning a conservation property. Three species of kangaroo exist in their area. Little did they dream of the neighbourhood nightmare they would encounter, including threats, because they are non-conforming with the ‘harvesting’ of kangaroo supported by other landholders. “We have watched with our own eyes, and it is inherently cruel,” they wrote in 2015 to the Sacramento Bee newspaper in California prior to that US state’s legislative vote on resuming import of kangaroo products (it was voted down). Night after night they witnessed trucks with bright lights shooting at and pursuing what were family groups of kangaroos.
They testify that they saw and heard many distressed animals that were wounded and not killed immediately. They have found the remains. They have seen the lost and bewildered joeys. They have documented the frequent body-shooting that is almost inevitable. They wrote in their testimony:
“We have seen hundreds of kangaroo heads that have been butchered and left in the field. Many do not have a gunshot wound to them. The heads are cut off very low down the neck indicating that the kangaroo may have been miss shot, struck by a bullet in the neck or the torso.
“We have witnessed kangaroo heads that have been shot in regions of the head other than the brain case, often in the front of the head. The animals may not have died until sometime after, often showing the signs of gruesome secondary trauma from a length of metal pipe or an axe. Joeys are often not killed with their mothers but ripped from her pouch and discarded into the bushes, not even counted as a statistical ‘kill’.
“We hear joeys calling for their dead mothers until the sun comes up. We see them in the mornings lost and bewildered. We may see them again the next evening, but usually never again after that. This is considered ‘acceptable collateral damage’.
“We often see kangaroos shot on a previous evening who died on our property while escaping the terror of being continually hunted. We see the trails of blood where the kangaroo has had her throat cut. The body is hung on the back of the truck to bleed out. We see the butchering sites where the shooters stop to ‘dress’ the kangaroo.
“The group social structure is ruined. The mob is in disarray. The fields smell of death. Such an integral part of the biodiversity of the Australian rangelands — hunted down, killed and then butchered in a dirty, dusty truck bed. Squashed into pet food cans, or sold as sausage, or to manufacture soccer boots and gloves, or testicle key rings for tourists. It just doesn’t add up.”
In 2019, Greg and Diane were still documenting the hunt that disturbs their nights, even following the shooter to the chiller box. Diane is now taken up with caring for rescued joeys. Greg told me that the big male kangaroos are all gone, shot out of the area. The bodies going to the chiller boxes are all female, and small and young animals. The remaining mob’s guard is now a matriarch rather than the alpha male kangaroo. The shooters’ vehicle is followed regularly by foxes that eat the decapitated heads and other discarded body parts. The couple has not seen any mainstream media outlet in Australia show interest in what really goes on Outback under cover of darkness.
One-time professional kangaroo shooter David Nicholls has written about and also spoke to me about his experiences, and the nightmares he endures from his time in the industry. He remembers the terrible wounding, the “slaughter of the innocents,” the “juggernaut that was and is altering the genetic makeup of a marvellous animal,” and feels he must bear part of the blame every time there is a wanton act of cruelty to kangaroos. One-time kangaroo shooter Lyn Gynther, to whom I spoke extensively about the situation in Queensland, now runs advocacy group KangaWatch and spends her days as a wildlife carer.
These voices pull the veil from the “humane” and professional hunt advocated by some applied ecologists and wildlife officials. I wonder whether the science badge has convinced the long-silent peak environmental groups and Australia’s peak animal welfare organisation, the RSPCA. A spokesperson for the RSPCA hinted at how the slaughter has been rationalised. She told a reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald in 2016 that the commercial hunt is more acceptable because the government has set standards and someone is overseeing the activity, so cruel practices are less likely to occur than with ad hoc shooting. Unfortunately, this is a delusion shared by many. No-one — other than citizens who attempt to bear witness like the Keightleys or those who protest at Canberra’s government cull — oversees or monitors the nightly commercial kill, or the non-commercial slaughter on grazing properties in every state, or on public lands, barring the occasional ranger.
FROM WITHIN THE INDUSTRY A DARK PICTURE EMERGES
Amongst the writers for AWPC-published Kangaroos Myths and Realities is former kangaroo shooter David Nicholls, who also spoke to me for this investigation. He says kangaroo shooting is inherently cruel, and he has no doubt that if the public could actually see an unsanitised version of what goes on under cover of darkness in the kangaroo killing fields, the trade would stop overnight.
Nicholls told me that his hunting memories still haunt him every day. Nowadays we call this post-traumatic stress. Shooting is not an exact science because of the many variables, and the result causes horrific non-fatal injuries:
“You cannot shoot an animal from 300 metres away and not stuff it. You can be an Olympic marksman, and most roo shooters are not, and still not hit the head which is a very small target. [At that distance] You can’t tell males from females. The shooter could be tired, sick, pissed … Difficulties include nervous roos that have been continually shot at; weather conditions; telescopic sights; butchering on site. There only has to be slight error in aim for wounding to occur.
“The mouth of a kangaroo can be blown off and the kangaroo can escape to die of shock or starvation. Forearms can be blown off, as can ears, eyes and noses. Stomachs can be hit expelling the contents with the kangaroo still alive. Backbones can be pulverised … hind legs can be shattered with the kangaroo desperately trying to get away on the other or without the use of either. To deny that this goes on is just an exercise in attempting to fool the public.
“Another form of cruelty is straight out of the annals of our brutish past and is a blight on all that we hold to be decent and fair … young joeys are unceremoniously dragged out of their previously secure world [the pouch] and swung against a hard object. One swing may be followed by another and yet another if the prior does not complete the kill … even hardened kangaroo shooters are often sickened by this never-ending process.
“It was not understood that the joey-at-foot would also die in a state of terror by psychological deprivation, predation and starvation. Many kangaroo shooters now convince themselves that the joey escapes and lives happily ever after. Delusions of this sort are not uncommon in the industry and in governments and their acting agents. Self-delusion played a large part in my experience as a kangaroo shooter …”
The problem is compounded by the tradition and lack of legal restraint allowing people on rural properties to feel entitled to ‘manage’ the wildlife however they wish. In Nicholls’ view, things have not changed much from the colonial days. He calls it a total disregard for law and order when you step outside the cities.
— Extract from Injustice, hidden in plain sight… Words, image © Maria Taylor, 2021.