As you can imagine, a raging debate exists in Australia over the ethics of kangaroo shooting. A dozen Australian environmental groups have joined forces to mount a legal challenge to the hunting. This bloc has also found a powerful ally in the British animal-rights group Viva! (Vegetarians’ International Voice for Animals). Viva!’s Save the Kangaroo campaign has attracted sympathizers outside of Australia, including famous vegetarians like Paul McCartney. Accusing Australia of conducting “the biggest wildlife massacre the world has every seen,” Viva! has scared major UK supermarket chains into removing kangaroo meat from their shelves and has also targeted soccer stars like David Beckham for wearing Adidas kangaroo-hide soccer boots.
Viva!’s most successful tool has been a video that shows an “experienced, unlicensed but commercial killer” brutalizing kangaroos in the outback at night and claims the activity is standard industry practice. The Kangaroo Industry Association of Australia (KIAA) vehemently refutes every single claim made by VIVA—chiefly that, due to underreported kill rates, kangaroos are being driven to extinction—and reserves an exceptional level of rancour for the video in question. KIAA counters that non-commercial and illegal kills are a very minor problem and that the shooter in the video “was actually entrapped into performing his misdeeds by the film crew telling him they were from an American game-shooters magazine.”
As for the Australian RSPCA, it neither categorically rejects nor condones kangaroo shooting, but takes every opportunity to clarify that certain parts of the country are overpopulated by kangaroos and culling or selective shooting of the population “is essential for a humane management of the population.” The official RSPCA line is to prevent cruelty and seek the humane treatment of kangaroos. “If kangaroos are to be killed,” the society argues, “then every effort should be made to ensure it is done humanely.”
Kangaroo shooting is, in truth, nothing so much as working in a free-range slaughterhouse. Most people don’t want to see films of their sausages being made any more than they want to see kangaroos being shot responsibly, much less brutalized by someone who may or may not have been paid to prove a lobby group’s point. Interestingly enough, while I lived in Australia, unless I raised the issue I never heard anything about it there. People talked about the surf, the weather, the war in Iraq, sheep and shearing, mining, all sorts of other things. A number of my male friends had some passing knowledge of it, having grown up in rural areas before moving to Perth. They’d either done a bit of it themselves in a responsible fashion or gone on the piss with a bunch of their yobbish friends. But they had quickly outgrown the practice. Kangaroo shooting may not be pretty, but it’s necessary; most ordinary Australians don’t give it much thought past that.
Craig and I hunted from sundown to sun-up. We trawled the flat, red flood plains, bumping over dead fences and long-dried washouts, constantly combing the land with our massive, high-powered cones of light. I would zone out and get lost in the wonder of the Australian night sky. The stark light cast on the gnarled trees and brush made it feel like we were a deep-sea craft trawling the bottom of the ocean—the trees, giant anemones; black, invisible water all around us. Occasionally the lights would sweep across a bizarre, neglected sight, like the disembodied legs of an emu wound in razor wire. I would not have been surprised in the least if we had trundled past the exposed skeleton of a massive prehistoric whale.
I started taking my thoughts away, just to cope. I would remember the way that my girlfriend looked in the ocean as she swam up to me, clutching my torso to bob together through waves. I’d think about my grandmothe’s voice, calling me for dinner as a kid, and my dog’s paws on my leg reminding me of her dinnertime. These reveries would invariably be shattered by the sound of Craig’s barks from the cab. “Move that fuckin’ light, cunt, you’re off with the fuckin’ fairies up there, I can tell!”
The nights were really shocking and appalling to an American city kid—every time I drifted into mind-insulating escapism, we’d stop with a jerk and have to kill some more. We slowly marinated for hours in our sweat and the ’roos’ blood, dust settling into the mix to form a nearly visible, sludgy paste. Craig would take his shirt off early in the evening, exposing a torso that looked like a model of Mars built across a whale’s belly—broad expanses of craggy, handbag-quality skin marred with amateur scars from knife slips over the decades and a professional kidney removal. I was, at those moments, making a mental note: “This, Jeff … This is what happens to people who think sunscreen is for pussies.”
“What the fuck are you starin’ at, mate? If you’re a fuckin’ poof, I don’t care, just keep it to your fuckin’ self, aye?”
Once we got back to camp, the task at hand was as simple as the night was nasty: get all twenty or so kangaroos off the truck, sever the legs, slip the government-issue tag through the animal’s rump and hang it in the massive diesel-powered meat locker. One living kangaroo smells wild and pungent. Over a tonne of dead ones slowly oozing their remainder blood is an unbearable olfactory experience. After several days, the smell would worm its way into our water supply, making the water taste like it had been poured over a kangaroo’s chilled, blood-clotted hide.
We generally finished the night around five in the morning and would finally collapse onto my sweat-stained foam mattress. After about three minutes, I couldn’t even hear the diesel generator roaring outside my door.