Why Would You Skin a Kangaroo?

To make kangaroo sneakers.

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David Hicks, the first Guantanamo detainee to face trial under the Military Commissions Act, pleaded guilty to terrorism charges on Monday. News reports described the man, who comes from Australia, as a “former kangaroo skinner.” What good is a kangaroo skin?

You can use it to make bags, purses, wallets, jackets, shoes, and, most notoriously, sporting goods. Australia exports an estimated 3 million kangaroo skins, worth more than $17 million, to Europe and the United States annually. Kangaroo leather is known for its strength and lightness. When split to make thinner materials, it retains up to 60 percent of its original tensile strength, according to the Kangaroo Industry Association of Australia. Most major footwear manufacturers, including Adidas, Nike, and Puma, use kangaroo skin. (In 2006, David Beckham gave up wearing Adidas cleats to oppose the practice.)

Kangaroo meat is also a major export. Humans can and do eat kangaroo—check out the different cuts here and facts about their nutritional value here. In Russia, for instance, kangaroo is often used in sausage products as a cheaper, leaner alternative to beef. Dog and cat food frequently contain kangaroo meat as well. Overall, the kangaroo industry in Australia generates an estimated $200 million a year and employs more than 4,000 people. It also helps to keep the population of kangaroos low, which means livestock have less competition for grazing areas. (Many animal-advocacy groups dispute the need for population control.)

Just about anyone can hunt kangaroos for noncommercial purposes provided they have a license. But if you want to sell the carcasses, many Australian states require that you be a professional trapper. To get certified, you’ll need to show a valid firearms license, in addition to completing special accreditation and meat-hygiene courses. Only then can you sell the carcasses to licensed fauna dealers, who hand the animals off for wider distribution.

In the United States, buying and selling kangaroo products is legal in every state except California, which banned their sale (along with crocodile, ocelot, and polar bear products, among others) in 1970. In 2003, the animal protection group Vegetarians International Voice for Animals sued Adidas for importing shoes with kangaroo skin into California. The state Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case but has not yet set a date.

Bonus Explainer: So, how do you kill a kangaroo anyway? The proper method is laid out in the Code of Practice for the Humane Shooting of Kangaroos, a government-issued set of guidelines intended to ensure the kangaroo’s “sudden and painless death.” For starters, you can’t shoot a kangaroo from a moving vehicle. If you’re using a rifle, aim for the brain, preferably the side rather than the front. Hunters must inspect the pouches of female kangaroos for young: If they find a joey, the code recommends “decapitation with a sharp instrument”; larger ones get a “heavy blow to destroy the brain.”

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Explainer thanks Megan Doughty of the Embassy of Australia and Lauren Ornelas of Vegetarians International Voice for Animals.