All over the world, kangaroos are celebrated as "quintessentially Australian". But the relationship of the people Down Under to their national animal is ambivalent. Farmers call kangaroos a plague, gourmets a treat, and animal rights activists an evolutionary miracle.
Dot happily hops through the enclosure. She got her name because of a small dark spot in her fur, just below her right eye. The seven-year-old has a good life with her group of five other female kangaroos at Wild Life Sydney Zoo. She is trusting, gluttonous and extremely cute while wide-eyed at visitors. But Dot would have died as a cub by a hair's breadth: her mother was fatally hit by a car on Kangaroo Island off Australia's south coast.
"Dot was in the bag at the time and was largely protected from the impact," says Jessica Dick, who works as a keeper at the animal park in Sydney's famous Darling Harbor district and has a particular weakness for kangaroos. A passerby noticed the baby in the bag and called the authorities. Dot had to be bottle raised and could not be released back into the wild. "She shares her story with many of the kangaroos that live in wildlife parks across Australia," says Dick, while providing sweet potato snacks for the bouncy gang.
"I don't know anyone in my circle of acquaintances who hasn't hit a kangaroo in their car," says Louise Anderson from near Melbourne. She herself is no exception. According to estimates, there are at least two kangaroos for every Australian - that would be around 50 million specimens in the huge country. But the relationship of the "Aussies" to their national animal is ambivalent.
"Kangaroos are our national icon and are celebrated around the world as 'quintessentially Australian'," says Mick McIntyre, who released an award-winning documentary film Kangaroo - A Love-Hate Story five years ago. The strange love-hate relationship between Australians and their icon, on the other hand, is hardly known internationally. The film shows how thousands of kangaroos are shot night after night. An illegal hunt because in Australia it is illegal to kill, buy, sell or own a kangaroo. However, in response to the high kangaroo population, the government issues licenses that allow kangaroos to be culled. But the animals are also killed without a license - and on a large scale.
According to McIntyre, kangaroos are commercially exploited to the extreme "with no regard for their place in the ecology of this continent or for their welfare." "Barbaric cruelty is inflicted on the animals every night by the pressure of the kangaroo industry, which also supplies Europe with meat and skins." Australians like to use the kangaroo emblem as a mascot for their sports teams and as a logo for companies, "but at the same time, no other terrestrial wildlife is slaughtered on the scale that the kangaroo is," says McIntyre, who, with his partner Kate, has been responsible for years of slaughter researched the documentary. For example, the marsupial is emblazoned on the machines of the national airline Qantas.
A tour of Sydney's traditional district of The Rocks shows how the animals are traded: a saleswoman praises kangaroo skins, handbags and purses made of kangaroo leather are also offered for sale. Restaurants from Adelaide to Darwin have kangaroo steaks or burgers on the menu. McIntyre says it's a "national shame" to use kangaroo meat and skins in luxury goods, pet food and gourmet restaurants.
While filming the documentary, the team realized that the lack of respect stems from the country's white colonial history. Since then, many farmers have believed that the herbivores posed a threat to agriculture, says McIntyre. They are a miracle of evolution and have populated the continent for 25 million years. The native people worship the kangaroo as their totem. "This is their land," says Max Dulumunmun Harrison of the Yuin people in the film. "They are part of our ceremonies."
There are four main species: the red kangaroo, the eastern gray kangaroo, the western gray kangaroo and the antelope kangaroo. The males are real muscle packs. They often grow to be almost two meters tall and weigh around 90 kilos. With jumps of up to nine meters, they can reach a speed of up to 65 km/h. The hind leg tendons are like springs, and the powerful tail helps with balance. There have been several attacks on people in residential areas this year, with the victims requiring hospital treatment. "When they don't feel threatened, they're pretty relaxed, but that depends on the species," says caretaker Jessica Dick.
The females are mostly occupied with raising the young, which they suckle for about a year. Six-week-old kangaroos are barely the size of a thumb and naked - it seems incredible that they could grow into such powerful creatures in just a few years. The mothers can have offspring again while they are still suckling an older baby. They produce two different types of milk for their young - the smaller gets milk with antibodies from a teat, the larger "Joey" gets high-fat milk for rapid growth.
Filmmaker Mick McIntyre has since founded an animal welfare organization called Kangaroos Alive. "We are now committed to helping Australians learn to live with the kangaroos and appreciate their place in this country - not just as a sports mascot or for corporate logos." Because kangaroos are rightly Australia's national icon and a real treasure in the animal kingdom.
(This article was first published on Sunday, June 12, 2022.)