It’s often said that Australians are the only people who eat the animal on their coat of arms. While Australia is not alone—Danes eats swans, and Saudi Arabians love a bit of camel—there is something particularly interesting about the casualness with which Aussies both consume and wear their mascot. There’s a reason Anglo-Saxon Australians are often called “skips”; Skippy the kangaroo, is in many ways. the whiskered face of Australia, an emblem of its character. Then again, eating the national icon has always seemed, in its own way, a very Australian thing to do: impertinent, flippant, dismissive of pomp.
Kangaroo: A Love-Hate Story, a new documentary from directors Kate McIntyre Clere and Mick McIntyre, explores the conflicting feelings Australians have toward the kanga, and the ongoing animal-welfare debate surrounding its culling. We treat our cultural mascot like a national resource: a loveable, edible, wearable, sellable resource.
As an Australian, I’ve never really stopped to think about what the kangaroo actually is. We don’t ride in their pouches (“it’s not like in cartoons!”), and as a lifelong city dweller, I rarely saw the buggers. But I’ve spent 20 years of my life loyally supporting a scrappy inner-city footy team named for them: Carn the Roos! There are both childhood and adult photos of me ecstatically feeding wallabies and ’roos at an open-range zoo an hour outside of Melbourne. I’ve enjoyed kangaroo meat in restaurants, and even attempted to cook it myself. I’ve long been terrified of hitting a ’roo ever since the time Dad struck one as he bounded across the road on a drive back from the coast; the dogs were fascinated by the bumper smells when he got home. A few weeks before I moved to New York, I spotted one in marshland not 20 minutes from my house (the closest to the city I’d ever seen one) while hunting for Pokémon and almost cried.
Mascot, meat, hazard, tourist attraction, magical creature: The kangaroo’s purpose is not something Australians regularly think about. For many of us, they are simply there. But the kangaroo sits at the heart of a major conflict going on down under, with animal rights activists on one side, and farmers and the meat industry on the other.
Kangaroo: A Love-Hate Story seems, at first, to be a cultural and historical exposition, shedding light on the fractured way in which Aussies see the animal while showcasing stunning footage of kangaroos bounding across the distinctive Australian landscape. There are interviews with Indigenous Australians, farmers, academics (including Peter Singer), conservationists, politicians, activists, former ’roo hunters, as well as—for reasons that are entirely unclear—the heads of several major Australian banks. “Kangaroos are wonderful, fuzzy, natural parts of our environment,” says University of Sydney lecturer Peter Chen, “and they are also a pest that should be eliminated wholesale.” “The kangaroo looks after his mates,” says Chris “Brolga” Barnes, aka Kangaroo Dundee, a khaki-clad conservationist whose kangaroo sanctuary you really ought to follow on Instagram. “You know, they all watch out for each other.” Gordon Grigg of the University of Queensland summarizes it thus: “A lot of people regard them as a pest, a lot of people regard them as a valuable resource, and a lot of other people regard them as sacred.”
Indigenous Australians have a relationship with the kangaroo going much further back than colonial settlers. Indigenous Australian Uncle Max Dulumunmun Harrison says, “This is their land. They are the first Australians.” He means the kangaroos, but the statement is powerfully resonant, especially at a time when more and more Australians are beginning to think about their land’s true owners—that as the activist chant goes, Australia “always was, always will be, aboriginal land.”
To many white farmers, however, these furry “first Australians” are a native pest. Kangaroos, like Miley Cyrus, can’t be tamed, making them an anathema to colonizers. “I think it must have bothered them that we couldn’t conquer this animal,” suggests Jeffrey Masson. “We couldn’t control it: It is a wild species and we don’t like that, I guess.” These wild animals—roaming free, bounding across the boundless plains, eating and hopping as they see fit—are competing with sheep for grass and threatening to overwhelm us all, apparently. Kangaroos, many farmers would have you believe, are reaching “plague proportions,” a phrase often repeated on the nightly news—though as one academic asks, “in proportion to what?”
So they shoot them, or they let professional shooters do so on their property. Kangaroo shooters roam the countryside by night, hunting down the hoppy “pests.” The killing is not in vain: Kangaroo meat, at first used mainly as pet food, has since become a popular food for humans around the world. But while farmers may have started shooting kangaroos to protect their land and livestock, the kangaroo-meat business has since become a powerful, profitable industry, killing kangaroos by the thousands each night. The question becomes: Are we culling kangaroos or harvesting them?
The documentary isn’t prescriptive on the kangaroo-culling debate, at least at first. But it isn’t long before the film takes a sudden, dark turn, revealing the true story of what goes on out there in the bush: brutal, inhumane killing; border wall–like fences built around enormous properties, trapping confused kangaroos to die of thirst and starvation; joeys ripped from their dead mothers’ pouches and slammed against truck beds (they’re too small to be worth a bullet), or left to die inside them. The documentary is not for the faint of heart: One hairless, pink joey is found dead in a blackberry bush, having been flung at the property of two outspoken anti-hunt activists. It’s the most brutal depiction of ’roo-killing since Wake in Fright.
“If we were processing domestic livestock in the same way we do kangaroos, it would be shut down immediately,” says Terri Irwin, American doyenne of the Australian animal, causing me an undeniable and immediate sense of national shame. “We need the same empathy for kangaroos that we have for cows.” Some countries and U.S. states—including the strange combination of California and Russia—are more on top of this issue than Australia, having been effectively lobbied by animal rights activists to stop accepting kangaroo products. But Australians themselves are still largely ignorant of what goes on in their big, beautiful backyard.
Kangaroo: A Love-Hate Story hopes to change all that. A few people, within the documentary and without, have compared the mistreatment of kangaroos, often conducted under the cover of darkness, to the clubbing of baby seals in Canada. One hopes that this behavior, as with the seals, only needs to be seen to be condemned. Perhaps this documentary will force Australia—an ostensibly animal-loving nation, critical of animal rights abuses in other countries—to rethink its relationship to its national icon.
The film is currently out in U.S. cinemas, with the Australian theatrical release scheduled for March 15. With any luck, a national reckoning will follow.
One more thing
You depend on Slate for sharp, distinctive coverage of the latest developments in politics and culture. Now we need to ask for your support.
Our work is more urgent than ever and is reaching more readers—but online advertising revenues don’t fully cover our costs, and we don’t have print subscribers to help keep us afloat. So we need your help. If you think Slate’s work matters, become a Slate Plus member. You’ll get exclusive members-only content and a suite of great benefits—and you’ll help secure Slate’s future.