We wait for the sun to drop. Then Craig turns to me. “Here’s what you do. Get out of the cab and up on the back of the ute with this spotlight here. I’ve got on on my side as well. You move that light nice and slow over the left side of the road while I drive and do the right. You see any ‘roos with that thing, tap the roof with your hand.”
Simple enough, it seemed. The hard stuff came along pretty quickly. We stopped with a jerk, Craig mashing the brakes with his feet as he loaded a shell into his rifle and took aim. A kangaroo sat frozen in my spotlight’s cone of light, its eyes two tiny reflectors and its jaws the only movement.
When a kangaroo gets shot in the head, it jumps straight up and flips over backwards like some kind of weird 3-D Atari game. One leg vigorously pumps the air, a flailing faucet draining away the last of a kangaroo’s energy until it drops into the dust with the rest of the body. My job was then to leap off the Ute, run up to the kangaroo, grab it by that same recently-kicking leg or the tail and drag it back. Ninety percent of the time the animal was dead by the time I made it to the truck.
As I walked slowly to my first dead kangaroo, processing all of what had just happened and what I was about to do through thin filter of functioning emotional shock, Craig barked at me from the Ute.
“Let’s get a wriggle on, we haven’t got all bloody night!” His shouts were punctuated with the rhythmic clacking drags of a knife on steel.
I dragged the dying beast as fast as I could, trying to block out the little shakes traveling up my arm as its shattered head bumped over uneven ground. This was even harder than it sounds because I was also trying to block out the distinct thought that I had seen something writhing in the kangaroo’s pouch as I grabbed its leg.
I didn’t have time to dwell for long. As soon as I got to the truck, Craig handed me an enormous machete and a bloodstained wooden block.
“You know how to use these? You’re gonna learn fast, mate. Watch close and listen carefully. I fuckin’ hate having to repeat meself. First, we get in there and split the heart. If ‘e’s not quite dead, that’ll do him quicker than anything. It gets all the extra blood out too so’s you don’t have such a fuckin’ mess later. Then we get the head off and put it out here.”
With this, Craig stabbed the kangaroo in the neck, rummaging around in the spine for what seemed like a particular juncture of vertebrae. Upon finding it, he quickly slashed through the remaining neck tissue, grabbing the poor creature’s head by its long ears and flinging without even looking into the dark bush, where it hit the dirt and rolled with a series of sloppy wet flopping sounds.
With maximum efficiency, he turned to the tail, severing it from the ‘roo’s rump with a few deft strokes, grunting “these’re worth a dollar apiece. Coons buy’em and make soup out of em. Bloody beautiful soup, too. Lotsa guys don’t save ‘em, but I say why throw money away? Now get over here with that block and machete.”
I was responsible for hacking the forepaws off of each kangaroo while he beheaded and be-tailed them. Craig reckoned I’d pick this skill up quickly enough. I had no prior machete experience, and found that I had to hack repeatedly at the animals’ wrists, sending a fine spray of blood and bone splinters onto my face and into the night sky. I learned very quickly to keep my mouth shut at work, both literally and figuratively.
“Yeah, you’re crap at that, alright,” Craig said. “Now, take this knife and cut that bit of skin there on the back leg.” Although longer, the bit of skin Craig referred to is analogous to the skin between a human’s Achilles tendon and the bones of the ankle. Under Craig’s guidance, I guided a large, S-shaped meathook tipped with very sharp points through the hole. Surprisingly enough, I had not yet vomited.
“Now, for the big boomers, there’s no way you’re gettin’ ‘em up by yourself. I’ll help you with this’n and the other big boys. But the does, you can get those alone. That’s why you’re here. Me arm is all fucked from years of this shit.”
Female kangaroos, however, pose their own problems. Although easier to lift than male ‘roos or “boomers,” the does are often pregnant. And in those cases, the only humane thing to do for the joeys that can’t survive outside the pouch is to kill them on the spot, quickly and decisively. It can be an emotional challenge. Even for Craig, who accepted this part of the job decades ago.
The best methods for dispatching joeys include beheading them or stomping them beneath your boot. The bigger ones you grab by the back legs and smash against a nearby rock or even the truck’s tire. After we killed five or six ‘roos, Craig would stop to gut them, pulling the babies out to dispatch them en masse. After one such performance Craig peered at me through the swirling dust and sighed.“Mate, I’ve been doin’ this for fifty years, and this part always makes me feel like such a cunt.”
Let the record show that I didn’t participate in this part of the job. The one time that I did, I made a horrible mistake. I was dragging a doe up to the Ute and could see something wriggling in the pouch. All of a sudden two legs stuck out. I grabbed them, pulling the joey free. I meant to hold it up and shout to Craig, “Hey, what should I do with this one,” but it leaped out of my hand and hopped into the distance with a chirping scream.
“You stupid fucking fuckwit, that joey’s not big enough to survive on its own out here! E’s gonna go off and get eaten or starve to death all alone all because you think you’re such a fucking animal lover! Now chop that cunt’s paws off doubletime and help me get these fuckas up on the Ute!”