Australia is home to 24 million people and roughly 60 million kangaroos. The cuddly looking creatures are still a beloved national icon, but they're also the scourge of ranchers, frequent roadkill, a favorite on restaurant menus, and now the target of government-sponsored sharpshooters. Our writer hops Down Under for a rugged tour of one of the world's most surprising human-animal conflicts.
We spot 40 kangaroos in the distance and creep toward them. “Act like they do,” Don Fletcher whispers. “Put your head down, like you’re grazing. Don’t move straight at them.” Fletcher goes full kangaroo, drooping his head, hunching his shoulders, dangling his hands from his chest and zigzagging slowly forward. He does everything but bounce and eat grass.
I follow his lead. The tactic lands us not only in the center of the mob, but 30 feet from a big male putting the moves on a feisty female. Above us, constellations glitter in the night sky. A nearby lake glows in the moonlight. In the world of wildlife biology, this is a perfect moment.
Then a car horn honks, and the moment vanishes.
Fletcher and I are standing not in the sweeping Australian Outback, with its red-rock mystery and timeless vistas. We’re at the traffic circle where Fairbairn and Limestone Avenues meet, in front of the Australian War Memorial, in the middle of the city of Canberra. Traffic zooms by. Car stereos blare. Someone’s dog barks. To passersby, we’re a couple of downtown vagrants off our meds, pretending to be kangaroos on the memorial’s manicured lawn.
The big male loses interest in the female and wanders off. “It’s not mating season anyway,” Fletcher says, breaking character and returning to an upright position. “I don’t know what the hell he was up to.” He checks his watch, and we climb back into his truck. It’s 10 p.m. “Let’s go.”
We’re prowling the dark streets of Australia’s capital city in search of kangaroos, and Fletcher knows the hot spots. He works for the Australian Capital Territory, the autonomous province comprised of Canberra and vast amounts of surrounding parkland. (Think of Washington, D.C., encircled by 640 square miles of wilderness.) As one of the ACT’s senior ecologists, Fletcher is tasked with helping keep Canberra’s nature reserves healthy. If kangaroos weren’t overrunning these public lands and spilling into city streets, ecosystem health wouldn’t be an issue. But they are, and Fletcher wants to show me how acute the situation is. The war memorial backs up to Mount Ainslie Nature Reserve, and when Fletcher turns onto the street separating the two, there they are—three more kangaroos, frozen in our headlights. Two others pop out of nearby bushes. They stare at us. Then they hop off to the war memorial. More follow, one after another, a bouncy column of refugees fleeing the forest. “The grass has been devoured on Mount Ainslie,” Fletcher says. “They’re looking for better forage.”
Each year, Fletcher has the unenviable task of calculating how many of these kangaroos to kill. The magic number for this year’s citywide cull is 2,466, from an ACT population of more than 50,000. This is a thankless job, and some Australians have dedicated themselves to never letting Fletcher forget that. This morning I spoke separately to three animal-rights activists, and each referred to Fletcher as Josef Mengele, the notorious Nazi physician who chose victims for the gas chamber. A week earlier, 51 prominent Aussies, including Nobel Prize–winning author J. M. Coetzee, published a letter condemning the science behind the cull. And just a few days ago, someone registered not-so-subtle anti-cull sentiment by stuffing the bloody carcass of a baby kangaroo—known as a joey—inside Fletcher’s home mailbox.
“They think I personally shoot all the kangaroos!” he says, driving. “How the fuck am I going to shoot 2,500 kangaroos?” Fletcher has a certain manic energy. At 63, he’s fit and cuts a fairly dashing figure, with intense eyes and salt-and-pepper hair. He likes kangaroos, he insists. In fact, he calls them essential to conserving the Australian landscape. Grazing kangaroos create multiple levels of ground vegetation that serve as microhabitats for many plant species. If you removed kangaroos, grass would grow uniformly and other plant species would disappear. On the other hand, too many kangaroos obliterate ground vegetation and threaten smaller animal species that need healthy grass. This is the case on Canberra’s reserves. Armies of kangaroos have pushed more than a dozen threatened species to the brink. It’s a pretty uncharismatic bunch—the earless dragon, the striped legless lizard, the golden sun moth. Still, a “conservation cull” of a few kangaroos will save these ecosystems, Fletcher says, a fact that escapes the activists targeting him. “I see that joey in my mailbox as a rude e-mail, not a threat,” he says. “Threats from activists? Give me a break.”
We find kangaroos lurking everywhere. At one suburban park, several graze at the edge of a basketball court. At another, a few munch grass near a soccer goal. On the campus of Dickson College, we watch 30 of them gobble up the lawn. This particular mob—the actual term for a group of roos—had to negotiate several city blocks to get here from Mount Majura Nature Reserve, where the grass has been reduced to nubs. Running such a gauntlet reflects their desperation, Fletcher says. Ecologists call it predation-sensitive foraging, when animals living in habitats that can’t support them take more risks to find food. In the wild, hungry kangaroos increase their range despite the danger of encountering predators like dingoes. In this case, the city itself becomes predator—the pavement, the lights, the cars, the dogs. The risks are innumerable.
We watch the Dickson mob in our headlights. For now these kangaroos are lucky. They’ve found dinner and, unlike many of their brethren across the city at this very moment, are not being shot in the head by Fletcher’s colleagues.
I arrived in Canberra five weeks into the cull, and craziness was erupting all over. Polls suggested that 83 percent of Canberrans supported the cull, but a very vocal minority did not. Anti-cullers were risking $5,500 fines to disrupt government shooters, who worked at night when the roos were foraging. Wielding air horns and spotlights, the protesters were running toward gunfire, raising hell, and praying that the shooters would cease fire. On one reserve, a protester had hidden remotely operated speakers that blared the U.S. cavalry charge and “Taps” at regular intervals all night. On another, activists had allegedly destroyed a fence, resulting in the escape and injury of a farmer’s horses from a neighboring paddock.
In today’s Australia, the question of what kangaroos are—pest, resource, untouchable native wildlife—has become extremely contentious. The nation is home to 24 million people and an estimated 60 million kangaroos, and the relationship between man and hopping beast might be the most fraught, love-hate bond between any two species on the planet. No creature is more closely associated with one nation and its people. Kangaroos adorn Australia’s coat of arms, its Olympic flag, its sports teams, and the jets of its national airline. Australians love kangaroos. Except when they hate them, which is not infrequently. Speak to a rancher in rural Queensland and a city dweller in Canberra and you’ll hear the same incompatible rhetoric you might hear about wolves in the American West.
Oddly enough, I understood how kangaroos could arouse such conflicting emotions. I’m not Australian, but the animal and I go way back, for better and worse. One night, in 1987, I was camping with friends in the state of Victoria when we hit and killed a kangaroo with our truck on an isolated road. Somberly, we examined the body, only to have the head of a joey pop out of the pouch, look around, and wonder what the hell was going on. We brought it to our campsite, where it proceeded to burrow beneath my friend’s sweatshirt and snooze. The next day we delivered it to park rangers. I was smitten. And then, a week later, I was abruptly unsmitten. I was doing my business in the woods, squatting, underwear around my ankles, when a large, blurry object came crashing through the bush straight at me. I wasn’t wearing my glasses. Terrified, I tried to run but immediately face-planted. Sprawled on the ground, smeared in my own feces, I watched the kangaroo bounce away. I hated that fucker.
Still, most Americans would probably be shocked to learn that Australia kills three million kangaroos annually. This slaughter is possible for several reasons. First, none of the four harvested kangaroo species—eastern greys, western greys, reds, and wallaroos—are threatened in any way. Secondly, the animal is perfectly adapted to Australia’s wildly fluctuating climate, so during multi-season droughts they survive by, among other things, ceasing reproduction altogether. Then, when conditions improve, roo numbers can expand rapidly, and populations are no longer managed by traditional predators like dingoes and Aboriginal hunters. The vast majority are culled as part of a commercial meat-hunting industry tied to the entrenched notion that kangaroos are pests that compete with livestock for grass. Farmers hire marksmen to thin wild kangaroos from their pastures, and the meat is exported to more than 55 countries or sold to Australian grocery stores and restaurants. (Foodies are increasingly extolling a taste that falls somewhere between venison and buffalo.) Kangaroos are not farmed, which means that, after commercial fishing, this cull is the largest for-profit slaughter of free-ranging wildlife in the world. But whether killing for meat production or to protect biodiversity, nearly all of it takes place in Australia’s vast, unpopulated interior. Eighty-five percent of Australians live on the coast, while most kangaroos live inland, surrounded by a sparse human population with little interest in their cuddly charms. Last June, a town in rural Queensland began culling after kangaroos laid siege to the local elementary school and parents concluded that they might attack their children. There were no protests to speak of.
Feelings about the kangaroo slaughter in Canberra are more complicated. Located between Sydney and Melbourne, Canberra is the nation’s only large inland city. Nowhere else does a highly educated, urban population of 169,000 people (390,000 if you include the entire ACT) interact daily with thousands of kangaroos. Seventy percent of the ACT is undeveloped public land, and the extensive nature reserves are prime habitat for a roo population explosion. The animals are everywhere. In 2009, Fletcher was finding kangaroo densities of 510 per square kilometer on some reserves, more than five times the desirable amount for healthy grassland ecosystems. The ACT leads the nation in car-kangaroo collisions, with an estimated 2,000 incidents each year. There are even 90 roos living on the Royal Canberra Golf Course, where, though very rare, harrowing human-kangaroo incidents do occur. In one case, a golfer jogged back to the fourth tee box to retrieve a forgotten driver head cover, only to have a startled roo chase him flat-out for 200 yards. His foursome buddies had to brandish their irons to stop the charging marsupial, but not before the terrified man vomited all over the fairway. Now the club hires a veterinarian to stalk the course with a dart gun, tranquilize the male roos, and perform in-the-field vasectomies.
In short, Australia’s capital is ground zero for kangaroo mayhem. While Fletcher’s cull of 2,466 is peanuts compared with the millions that are quietly killed every year in Australia’s boondocks, in Canberra people notice. And they’ve got something to say about it.
Carolyn Drew and I are sitting in her parked car at the edge of the Pinnacle Nature Reserve in northwest Canberra when we hear a gunshot. We rush to investigate, squeezing through a barbed-wire fence and trekking across a field, dodging rocks and fallen branches in the moonlight. After a while, Drew, a spokeswoman for Animal Liberation ACT, stops and scans the shadowy landscape of this 341-acre reserve. She has no clue where the shooter is. He could be on a neighboring reserve. Or he could be in a suburban backyard with a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and his redneck cousins. “Shine your flashlight in the air, wave it around,” she says. Shooters aren’t allowed to fire if anyone else is on the reserve, and our lights are meant to signal our presence. It feels like a fairly impotent tactic, but we do it. Then we hike back to her car.
It turns out that two nights previously, when I was out stalking kangaroos with Fletcher, his men were here at Pinnacle stalking Drew. She had followed the sound of six gunshots to their source and flashed lights on the shooting crew. The crew gave chase, and Drew hid for three hours behind a gum tree. “There were no shots after that,” she tells me now as we walk. “We stopped them!” Drew is lucky she didn’t get nabbed. She’s a squat, plodding woman, and at 60 she resembles a garden-club president more than the standard-bearer for Animal Liberation. But she’s fueled by fierce conviction. She monitors Pinnacle every night during the cull. Her colleagues watch other reserves. Hunting the hunters seems like a needle-in-a-haystack strategy, given nearly 5,000 acres on nine reserves and only a handful of activists. Still, no kangaroo deserves to die, Drew insists, so she’s here every night, as a witness if nothing else. “Kangaroos are sentient beings with feelings, hopes, and dreams,” she says. “Do you know how they kill them?”
I do. I had discussed this with Fletcher, who insisted that the cull adheres to strict animal-welfare standards. The ACT’s shooters (only one or two work each night, with support crew) must be proven marksmen, and kangaroos must be dispatched with head shots. Surviving pouch joeys are bludgeoned to death with a blow to the head. I’m pretty sure no amount of focus grouping could make this sound less brutal than it is. “This might be discomforting to humans, but we’re only concerned with the joeys,” Fletcher had told me. “A sharp blow to the head is recognized as the most humane approach.”
After 20 minutes on the reserve, Drew and I reach her car and climb in. June is the start of winter in Australia, and it’s below freezing out here. We huddle under blankets and wait for more shots. Drew doesn’t mind this nightly hardship. At one point earlier in her life, she lived in a tent in the forest with her husband, two dogs, and three donkeys. She gave birth to her son in that tent. She spent her days meditating and communing with the forest animals. “Hunters would come, and we felt what the animals felt,” she says. “We were sensitized to their perspective.”
Drew became radicalized about kangaroos in 2008, when the Australian military conducted a cull at the decommissioned Belconnen Naval Transmission Station in north Canberra. There were 650 roos living on one square kilometer of grassland, and officials determined that they were wreaking ecological havoc. Over several days, wranglers herded them into a corral with 12-foot-high fencing, tranquilized them, and administered lethal injections. Unfortunately, this happened in broad daylight, and Canberrans stopped on their way home from work to watch. Like cats, kangaroos refuse to be herded. They ran into poles. They ran into each other. Joeys were ejected from pouches. “Lots of people are still suffering PTSD from seeing that,” Drew says. “The fencing was covered with burlap bags, but we could see the shadows of the kangaroos. The big boys were trying to clear the fence. It was like this horrific shadow-puppet show.” They culled 514 roos. Drew was arrested for throwing rocks. Even Fletcher conceded that it was an unfortunate event. “I don’t think anyone associated with that cull would want to see it happen that way again,” he said.
In 2009, the ACT government announced it would begin culling kangaroos for conservation purposes. A government report concluded that 20 percent of the ACT’s native grassland sites were in “critical condition,” with another 40 percent approaching that. Scientists reported that 19 threatened animal species on Canberra’s reserves require healthy grass to survive. Drew and others didn’t buy it. “Kangaroos have been around forever,” she says. “They’re a native species. They’re going to drive other native species to extinction?” The government insisted this was possible, given that large urban kangaroo populations now lived hemmed in by roads and subdivisions. Officials also stressed that this cull had nothing to do with the commercial kangaroo-meat industry. Only four of Australia’s eight states and territories have commercial culls, and the ACT is not one of those. No one would profit from the ACT cull. The bodies would be buried in an undisclosed pit.
In both 2013 and 2014, activists delayed the start of the cull for several weeks with legal challenges, alleging that the killing was inhumane and based on faulty science. They argued that the annual growth rate for kangaroo populations was around 5 percent, not the 40 percent Fletcher had posited. They said that roo numbers in the ACT were shrinking, not exploding. Urbanization is wiping them out. If the competing narratives presented in court were startling in their differences, they were downright hilarious when the court reviewed the population data submitted by both sides. For example, at Goorooyarroo Nature Reserve, the government counted 1,173 kangaroos; the anti-cullers counted 280. At Mount Majura, the government counted 1,242; the anti-cullers, 80. Ultimately, the court ruled for the government, which had the backing of pretty much the entire scientific establishment in Australia, and when the 2013 cull took place, 728 kangaroos were culled from Goorooyarroo, nearly three times the number that activists claimed lived there. The anti-cullers insist that even if the government’s population estimate was accurate—which they refuse to concede—killing 728 out of 1,173 roos would devastate the population there.
As we shiver beneath blankets in her car, Drew admits that it’s hard, year after year, tramping into the bush in freezing weather at night, risking arrest, and having little to show for it. Since 2009, the government has slaughtered more than 10,000 kangaroos.(Some 1,689 would ultimately be killed in the 2015 cull.) The legal process has achieved squat. And many of her fellow activists, Drew reckons, have simply been too traumatized to return to the fight. In 2012, for instance, in a driving rain, some visiting activists from South Australia discovered the pit where shooters had buried the bodies. Who wouldn’t be disturbed seeing those soggy, bullet-ridden carcasses in the mud? “Realistically, we can’t make much of a dent,” Drew acknowledges. “I go out every night not necessarily to stop death but to challenge the civilization project, which is squeezing the life out of animals.”
The “civilization project” in Australia began about 50,000 years ago, when Aboriginals arrived and found not only the large and small species of macropods that exist today—kangaroos, wallabies, pademelons, and others—but a subfamily of giants called sthenurines. The largest, Procoptodon goliah, stood ten feet tall and weighed 550 pounds. So big was this pouched monster that it was mechanically unable to hop. Instead, it ambled about upright on the hoof-like tips of its back feet and ate tree foliage. Aboriginals feasted on the sthenurines, to the point where none were left when the first British fleet of convicts, marines, officials, and their families sailed into Sydney Cove in 1788.
These first Europeans brought sheep and cattle, but they were reluctant to eat them before herds could be established, making kangaroos essential. Kangaroo grounds were designated for hunting, and wealthy families hired their own shooters. Kangaroo was a key part of convicts’ rations. “They were highly valued,” says Ray Mjadwesch, an ecologist who has studied the history of kangaroo-human interaction. “People didn’t hate them. It took 80 years for that hatred to set in. People had immense pride in kangaroos. They sent them live back to Britain.”
Once the colonies had raised sufficient livestock herds, people killed kangaroos mostly for recreation, mimicking British foxhunting. Well-dressed gunmen on horseback galloped across the countryside with dogs chasing kangaroos. Paintings of the time show frilly ladies picnicking while their men blast away.
By the second half of the 19th century, farmers began complaining that kangaroos were outcompeting their livestock for grass. An article in the Geelong Advertiser in 1867 argued for the “wholesale destruction” of kangaroos. Farmers resorted to battues, highly organized hunts in which lines of men drove kangaroos into a huge stockade that narrowed to a smaller corral. Edward Wakefield, a colonial official, wrote about a battue he participated in on a friend’s sheep farm, where dozens of horsemen armed with clubs pushed countless kangaroos for miles toward an enclosure:
Steadily we rode after them, farther and farther into the enclosed and constantly narrowing space, until the whole surface of the ground was literally covered with kangaroos, so closely packed that they could not leap. Then, at a signal which ran rapidly along the line, all the younger and more active men charged into the mass, striking right and left with their clubs and felling a kangaroo at every blow. … I got into the swing and slew and slew and slew, until my arm ached so I could not slay any more. By this time my dirty clothes and my horse were smeared and splattered with blood and we looked as if we had waded through a river of gore.
They killed 40,000 kangaroos and left the bodies to rot.
In 1876, Henry Bracker, a Queensland farmer, initiated a battue that in six weeks killed more than 17,000 kangaroos. Bracker became a folk hero in rural communities and inspired similar slaughters. His effort also prompted a resolution in the Queensland legislative assembly, calling kangaroos “an evil of such magnitude … as to demand the immediate and earnest attention of the Government.” In 1877, Queensland passed the Marsupial Destruction Act, a bounty program that by 1930 resulted in the eradication of 27 million animals, mostly kangaroos. By the 1880s, all the states in eastern Australia had bounty programs.
Somehow, despite their pest status, kangaroos still remained part of the proud Australian sense of identity. In 1908, Aussies added the kangaroo to their national coat of arms. During World War I, troops smuggled kangaroos to Europe as mascots. In World War II, they featured in propaganda campaigns. Together for Victory posters showed a boxing kangaroo and an English bulldog attacking a Japanese soldier.
But in rural Australia, the slaughter continued. By the 1950s, with advances in refrigeration, a meat trade developed. Exports supplied markets for both pet food and human consumption. At the same time, budding environmental and animal-welfare movements were materializing in the U.S. and Europe. In 1974, the U.S. banned the import of kangaroo products, citing concerns over welfare and sustainability. Australia responded by instituting strict hunting quotas and a code of conduct that required, among other things, that kangaroos be dispatched with bullets to the head. The U.S. rescinded its ban in 1981, and you can now buy kangaroo leg and loin on Amazon, although some states, like California, still prohibit the import of kangaroo products.
More recently, scientists have challenged the notion that kangaroos compete with livestock for forage, citing a lack of empirical evidence. The linkage is so squishy that no numbers exist on how much damage roos may have caused over the years. Increasingly, ecologists are viewing the kangaroo not as a pest to be managed, but as a valuable product to be conserved through a sustainable-use framework, similar to wild fish stocks. In most Australian states, kangaroo-management plans are now less about property-damage mitigation and more about maintaining healthy roo populations.
Still, as Australia has evolved into an urbanized society, the country’s environmental and animal-rights movements have become stronger, more vocal, and more insistent that kangaroo culling should stop altogether. The Green Party is now the third most powerful political party in the country, and this year its branch in the state of New South Wales condemned the ACT’s conservation cull. Ironically, that cull is overseen by an ACT Green, a cabinet minister named Shane Rattenbury. Rattenbury once coordinated antiwhaling campaigns for Greenpeace. Now he supervises the killing of a couple thousand roos every year in Canberra. The cull has exacerbated the split between the party’s conservation and animal-welfare wings. “The conservationists look at it holistically,” Rattenbury says. “We can’t go back in time and undo development. We have to do what we can to conserve species. The welfare people are against killing animals.” Not surprisingly, Rattenbury receives a daily barrage of Twitter hate. “It’s fueled by inaccuracy,” he says. “I get tweets saying, ‘Stop burying joeys alive!’”
Roos rarely attack people, which is a reassuring way of saying that they sometimes do. Maybe it was bad karma, then, when Rattenbury went for a morning run in 2013 and collided with a roo rounding a hedge. The animal clawed the hell out of his legs, sending him to the hospital. Rattenbury posted photos of the wounds on social media, and images of his diced-up thighs appeared in newspapers around the world.
Politically speaking, anti-cullers have few better advocates than Steve Garlick, a retired ethics professor at the University of Technology Sydney who founded Australia’s Animal Justice Party in 2009. Infuriated at the Greens, Garlick determined that “the only language these people understand is taking away votes.”
I drive out to visit Garlick, who lives just over the ACT border in New South Wales, amid bucolic wine country. But when I arrive, he’s flying out the front door, headed on a rescue mission. Garlick runs Possumwood Wildlife Recovery Center, and he’s just learned about a kangaroo lying motionless off a dirt road in a nearby vineyard. We pile into his station wagon and take off. We find the animal sprawled beneath a tree, 30 feet from a rusty wire fence. Garlick feels along the kangaroo’s flank. “Hello, boy,” he says, softly. “He could have tried to hop that fence. Maybe he fractured his pelvis.” Garlick injects it with a sedative and we load it into the car.
“There’s not much you can do for a fractured pelvis,” he says, driving. “You can give them an antipsychotic, which reduces anxiety. We’ll give him physiotherapy.” Garlick and his wife, Rosemary Austen, rescue about 300 animals a year, two-thirds of them kangaroos, most of them injured by run-ins with cars and fences. Except in extreme cases, they don’t euthanize animals.
On Garlick’s property, two modest houses stand next to each other. One he shares with his wife. The other is shared by 60 kangaroos. They’re not all inside at once. Some enjoy the veranda. Others mosey about the backyard. But they come and go through the sliding-glass back door as they please. We enter the living room and find two lounging on recliners, one on the love seat, and one rummaging through the kitchen. One bedroom is occupied by a large wombat, and another serves as a treatment room, where two injured roos lie on cushions. We carefully lower the latest rescue between these two. “There you go,” Garlick reassures it. “Want some water?” He offers the roo a bowl. The roo hisses.
Out on the veranda, ten roos are chilling on La-Z-Boys and piles of hay. Garlick introduces me around. Coco has two torn Achilles tendons. Sally recently had her cataracts removed. Noah is awaiting ankle surgery. Every patient has a name. I meet a wallaroo named Princess Rosalinda. Everywhere, kangaroos limp around with bandages on their legs, tails, or feet. Most will recuperate and return to the wild. The excessively hobbled will remain as pets. A small female named Cheeky sniffs my shoes. A year ago, Garlick found her tangled in a wire fence. “She was the most dehydrated, maggot-infested thing I’ve ever seen,” he says. “Anyone else would have euthanized her.” She lost her toes and now moves awkwardly in little cloth booties.
We sit in the living room to chat. It’s an unusual interview. Kangaroos amble in, sniff about, and leave. One snuggles next to Garlick. Another nibbles my notebook.
In his academic career, Garlick researched the emotional lives of kangaroos. As a result of the culling, he says, those on ACT reserves exhibit anger and hypervigilance. They play less. Many suffer PTSD. If there’s an overpopulation problem, they could clearly be relocated. “We’ve moved 3,500 kangaroos over the years,” he says, referring to his rehabilitated patients. “We’ve got a 97 percent survival rate.” (Fletcher says this solution would only “move the problem somewhere else.”)
Garlick has a plan to end culling, and he’s attacking on multiple fronts at once—legal, economic, and political. He calls the administrative tribunal where the ACT cull was challenged “a joke.” He’s assembling a supreme court challenge. “I’ve got a pro bono barrister on this,” he says. “I can’t stop the cull happening now, but we’ll stop the next one.” He also wants to shut down the larger commercial cull. In 2009, Garlick was part of a group that persuaded Russia to ban kangaroo-meat imports after testing showed elevated levels of E. coli. Russia was the biggest importer, providing the industry $180 million a year. Australian politicians lobbied successfully to reverse that decision in 2012, but in 2014 Russia reinstated the ban after encouragement from Garlick and others on the E. coli issue. “Our worry now is the Chinese,” he says. Australia has a new free-trade agreement with China, but kangaroo meat is not a part of that. Still, with market demand seriously dented by Russia’s pullout, Australia is pressing China hard on the product.
The solution, ultimately, may be political. Garlick’s Animal Justice Party claims a fast-growing membership of 5,000 people, and earlier this year they celebrated their first election victory, sending a candidate to the New South Wales state legislature. Soon that legislator, Mark Pearson, will travel to China to lobby officials there against importing kangaroo. The commercial cull will end when more people like Mark Pearson get elected, Garlick says. “Our leaders walk beneath our coat of arms every day and turn a blind eye,” he says. “Horrific stuff is done under the cover of night, and they support it.” He strokes the roo sitting next to him and adds: “It’s a barbaric industry, run by thugs.”
I wanted to see for myself if the commercial industry is run by thugs, so I contacted David Coulton, a professional kangaroo shooter in rural Queensland who goes by Cujo. Cujo didn’t seem very thuggish over e-mail. He seemed nice. In fact, he gave me some great advice that I wish I’d taken. Whatever I do, he warned, don’t drive the four-hour leg from Torrens Creek to Aramac after sundown. Aramac, Cujo’s hometown of 300 people, sits at the edge of the desert in the middle of nowhere. Just getting to Torrens Creek involved a four-hour flight north from Canberra to Townsville and then a three-hour drive inland. By the time I start down the road to Aramac, it’s dark.
The road is sometimes paved, sometimes not. There are no towns, no lights, no cell reception. An hour in, the kangaroos appear, first the dead ones. They’re scattered along the roadside—whole bodies, stray legs, stray tails, and random heaps of pulpy viscera. It’s nonstop roadkill. The live roos materialize out of the blackness in midhop, springing across my tunnel of vision individually and in pairs, darting one way, then the other, making me swerve, making me slow down, near miss after near miss, for miles. I grip the wheel. I focus. Except when, for a second—less than a second—I look away, reaching for my water bottle, and thump! I nail a wallaby, plow right over it. Dead. The little guy wasn’t two feet tall. He was innocent. I stop. Aside from the wallaby, the only damage is to my spirit. An eastern grey would have totaled my rental, so I’m lucky there. But I feel terrible.
I keep driving. The roos keep coming. In the ghostly half-light on the sides of the road, they assemble in great mobs, watching me, challenging me. I drive for two more hours, bleary-eyed, past darting roos and endless carnage. The road is death.
Cujo urges me not to worry about the wallaby. We’re driving the next evening to one of the properties where he’s in charge of thinning the kangaroos. “Every property in this shire has a shooter,” he says. “A landowner may have no kangaroos one week, but he’ll have tens of thousands the next, and wallabies. They’ll mow down his grass.”
Kangaroos are just one of Aramac’s problems. A drought has gripped central Queensland for three years, turning the landscape brown. Farms are going under. Aramac once had seven full-time sheep-shearing teams, 13 people each. Now one guy shears full-time. Then you’ve got dingoes eating sheep and roos stealing grass. Ecologists may say there’s no evidence that kangaroos compete with livestock for grass, but don’t tell folks here that. This morning a farmer, Louellen Hannay, showed me a dusty stretch of her property and said, “We used to run cattle and sheep in that paddock, but the roos have completely flogged it.”
The Queensland government conducts an annual aerial kangaroo count to determine hunting quotas. This year, Aramac is allotted 800 per week. Cujo, one of four full-time shooters here, hunts sundown to sunup, every night except Sundays and Christmas. He bags 4,000 to 6,000 roos annually. Cujo tells me that officials regularly remind shooters to avoid journalists, but he sees no reason for secrecy. “I welcome media, greenies, everyone,” he says as we barrel along in his white Toyota Land Cruiser, the words Outright Crazy emblazoned across the top of the windshield. “I’ve got nothing to hide.”
Indeed, Cujo is an open book. His tattoos size him up pretty well—a wild boar on his calf, two roos on his torso, and Aramac’s postal code on his right biceps. He’s bald, with a bushy mustache. Rather than shy away from controversy, he says the meat industry should be touting its rigorous standards. His gear is inspected regularly by the same government agency that regulates butchers and restaurants. Cujo has his own standards as well. He’s allowed to kill 63 roos a night, but he typically stops at 40. “It’s about sustainable harvest,” he says. “I want my son to live this life.” He insists that kangaroos are superior to any other animal and that the meat can all but raise you from the dead. “It’s the free-range king,” he says. “It’s high-protein, low-fat, no-chemical, super-strength meat. You can’t get cancer if you eat it.”
When we arrive at the property, we lower the hinge-mounted windshield and turn on the spotlight fixed atop the cab. Motoring slowly along, Cujo steers with one hand and operates the spot with the other. A small red kangaroo bounds by. Several more appear, greys, all female. We approach some acacia trees, and a small mob hops out. Cujo stops the truck. The roos freeze in our light, 25 yards away. While still seated behind the steering wheel, he shoulders his 223 Remington and peers through the scope. Crack! The largest roo jerks and falls. The others scatter. We drive up and find the animal with a halo of blood expanding around its head. Cujo drags it to the back of the truck, snips off its right foot with bolt cutters, runs a hook behind the Achilles tendon, then hoists the carcass onto a horizontal bar. He runs a knife from the sternum to the crotch, opening up the roo and removing the innards. He tosses those into a bush.
On his second opportunity, a big red 100 yards off, Cujo misses. He won’t miss again all night. Thirty seconds later, the big boy stops and stares at us again. Crack! Cujo blasts the third roo on a fence line. The fourth and fifth he drops from the same mob, in rapid succession. The sixth he nails 200 yards away. He frees his two dogs, Roxie and Ugly, to find it. Sitting next to Cujo, I soon become numb to the slaughter and transfixed by the accuracy, speed, and efficiency with which he kills. The man is presiding over his own Red Wedding on House Roo.
By 10 p.m. we have eight carcasses, and Cujo announces that it’s time for a “gut-up.” I’m confused. Hasn’t the whole evening been one big gut-up? I quickly learn that there’s a second part to the butchering process. With the bolt cutters, he goes down the row of hanging roos and prunes each left foot with a quick chop. Then, with a knife, he removes the heads and tails. We leave these amputations scattered on the ground, including the eight little heads, their eyes clotted with blood and dirt staring blankly at the stars.
Cujo is just warming up. Several dead roos later, in the middle of our second gut-up, a wild boar sprints through our idle spotlight. Roxie and Ugly tear after the pig. We give chase in the truck, and moments later anguished screams pierce the night. We find the brave mutts with their jaws locked onto the pig’s face, despite its four-inch tusks. The animal is black and hairy, nearly six feet long and maybe 200 pounds. Cujo grabs its back legs, shakes off the dogs, then dives onto the back of the great beast, plunging a knife into its jugular. There’s more screaming, then silence. Cujo is soaked in blood. He guts the boar and cuts out the teeth with his bolt cutters. A trophy. “Pretty nice pig,” he says.
By 3 a.m., we’re back in Aramac at Cujo’s “chiller,” a shipping container serving as a deep freeze. A hundred roos already hang in here. We add 37 more, the largest a red weighing 90 pounds. The processor’s truck comes from Brisbane once a week. Cujo used to earn 45 cents per pound, but then Queensland’s nine processors consolidated. Now he earns 27 cents. I need sleep, so much so that I apparently start hallucinating, or at least Cujo tells me I’m hallucinating. I thought I was looking at 37 decapitated kangaroos dangling upside down from hooks. But Cujo says I’m looking at money. “That’s five, six hundred dollars,” he says. “A good night.”
The next day, I’m leaving Aramac when I notice something more grisly than anything I’d seen here, if that’s possible: five dead dingoes hanging on a barbed-wire fence outside town. Cujo mentioned this, a means of “bush communication,” he called it. In this instance, the community knew that five dingoes were eating sheep on this property, and with the appearance of each carcass, folks learned that the threat level was decreasing. That may be. But as I observe the gruesome display, I have to think that the message is really meant for the greater cosmos, from a desperate people with little sway over powerful outside forces—climatic, economic, ecological. The message is that, despite everything, we are in control.
I drive east into the morning sun, distancing myself from the blood rituals of rural Australia. As I pass miles of roadkill, I think about the fluffy stuffed kangaroo I’ll buy in the airport for my seven-year-old. It will no doubt have a joey in the pouch, and maybe a bush hat or a little Australian flag. It will be bloodless and meatless, and it will chomp nobody’s grass. No one will hate it. Everyone will love it, especially my kid.
Paul Kvinta wrote about rhino poaching in South Africa in the April 2014 issue.