Australia’s wildfires have singed the souls of bystanders in an ongoing tragedy, the dimensions of which haven’t been fully realized. From the millions — perhaps a billion — animals destroyed to the unfathomable suffering of survivors, it is too much for the human psyche to absorb.
Most have seen the heartbreaking images on social media and elsewhere of Australia’s iconic wildlife — kangaroos, koalas and wallabies — burned, starving or dead. One image of a tiny wallaby grasping the ankle of a man who saved it haunts me, as do the orphaned joeys snuggled in handmade pouches sewn by volunteers around the world.
People moved by the tragedy have contributed millions of dollars in donations, while others have air-dropped food and water to help sustain wildlife. Even these efforts seem merely symbolic against the enormity of the devastation. What more can any mortal do to alleviate such suffering and loss? The laws of supply and demand may point the way.
For starters, Australia could stop its slaughter of kangaroos, at least until the population stabilizes. This is, needless to say, a provocative suggestion. Hunters and the Australian government together kill over a million kangaroos every year — 1.5 million in 2017 — and process their parts for export to Europe (the largest consumer), the U.S. and, if lobbyists get their way, China.
Further complicating even a sensible discussion about curtailing what is viewed by many as sustainable culling is the popularized view that kangaroos are pests, competing with sheep and cattle for grazing lands. There’s also the small matter of national autonomy. What Australia does with its own resources is no one else’s business, some might reasonably argue.
However, what is everyone’s business is how we consumers contribute to these massive culls. Many readers probably would be surprised to learn that some soccer cleats and other athletic footwear, including models made by Adidas and Nike, are made from kangaroo leather.
Why are shoes made of kangaroo leather more offensive to some than are shoes made of cowhide? It may be that kangaroos are simply cuter, hopping around like happy children while carrying babies in their pockets. We Disney acolytes have trouble killing and eating certain animals. Seeing images of kangaroos hugging people resonates on a profound human level.
Others are repelled by the scale of the kangaroo harvest — the largest terrestrial slaughter in the world. To animal rights activists, concerns focus on the animal’s sustainability and whether the kills are humane.
Australia stands by its National Code of Practice, which requires that all kangaroos be killed with a single shot to the head by trained hunters — and that mothers carrying joeys should be avoided. If a joey emerges from its slain mother’s pouch, guidelines “recommend” that the baby also be killed quickly by clubbing or decapitation “to prevent the inhumane death of young that cannot survive on their own.”
Animal activists argue, however, that such regulations can’t be properly monitored when hunters are 2,000 miles away in the bush and that there are otherwise too few enforcers to keep up. The award-winning 2017 documentary film “Kangaroo: A Love Hate Story” illustrates their point in such graphic detail, even the most-dedicated exotic meat consumer would have cause to pause.
Such conflicts won’t likely be resolved without external pressures, which is why letters have gone out to the CEOs of both Adidas and Nike urging them to halt the use of kangaroo products for cleats. (The author of the letters is Wayne Pacelle, the former CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, who left the organization after several female employees accused him of sexual misconduct. He continues his life’s work through several entities he has founded, including the Center for a Humane Economy.)
If Nike and Adidas take a stand against kangaroo products, the hope is that others will follow. Both companies are sensitive to sustainability and humane practices, having already switched over to manmade materials for some of its products, but synthetic cleats could break new ground in these critical, environmentally unstable times.
The very last thing Nike and Adidas should do, Pacelle wrote in his letters, is to provide financial incentives for people to chase down and kill kangaroos in their native habitats. And, the very least thing individuals can do is starve the market by declining to eat kangaroo meat and refusing to buy anything labeled “K-leather.” Such small gestures may seem mostly symbolic, but millions of such gestures would mean reduced demand — and, ultimately, a more humane world.
Kathleen Parker’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org.