Why Shouldn’t I Eat Kangaroos?

kangaroo meat

The kangaroo is one of Australia’s most iconic and instantly recognisable animals. Most people would be unaware of how poorly they are treated across Australia. Kangaroos are considered an iconic species to be protected, a resource to be ‘harvested’, and pests to be ‘controlled’ [1]. This lack of continuity leaves them vulnerable to a range of welfare issues. Additionally, ongoing threats posed by climate change coupled with the commercial and non-commercial killing of kangaroos posing a significant risk to the long-term viability of this iconic species. We will delve into kangaroos, how the industry operates, the environmental impacts, and health issues.

About Kangaroos

The kangaroo sits pride of place beside the emu on the Commonwealth’s coat of arms, indicating their fame as one of the most well-known and widely recognised of Australia’s native animals. According to the Department of the Prime Minister, the shield is held by a kangaroo and an emu, both of whom were chosen “to symbolise a nation moving forward” because “neither animal can move backwards easily” [2].

Commonwealth's Coat of Arms
Commonwealth’s Coat of Arms

There are 46 species of kangaroo!

When people think of kangaroos, the ones that come to mind are generally the four largest species, being the red, the common, the eastern and the western grey. There are, however, 46 kangaroo species of the macropod family endemic to Australia [3]! Sadly, there were over 50 species, however, six have become extinct since European invasion, human activity, and encroachment [45], and many continue to be considered as threatened species [6]. There was once even giant kangaroos, who weighed over 200 kilograms, though these have also become extinct [7]. 

Kangaroos are sentient.

Sentience is the capacity to experience or endure different feelings and emotions. These include sensations such as joy, suffering, pain, fear, pleasure and grief [8]. It is highly likely that people have been aware of sentience in other animals since the dawn of time; as people have always known that other animals think, feel and suffer [9]. 

“The question is not, Can [animals] reason?, nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?” The inevitable answer is “yes, they can and they do”. “Why should the law refuse its protection to any sensitive being?”

Jeremy Bentham, 1789 [10]

Australian researchers have studied kangaroos ranging in size and age, and they consistently attribute them to have “something that almost amounts to human reasoning” [11, 12]. Thus, kangaroos are conscious beings, like us, who have the ability to perceive and experience a range of emotions [13]. This includes negative sensations such as fear and event post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) [14]. Elephants, dogs, parrots, chimpanzees and baboons also exhibit PTSD [151617, 18,]. One of the key instigators of PTSD in kangaroos is cited as recreational hunting and commercial slaughter [19]. These researchers ultimately found that “strong one-on-one carer engagement and input, having a kangaroo soul-mate and the judicious use of calmative medication will aid recovery from PTSD”. This is because “kangaroos have strong social bonds within their mob, and therefore, attachment is a significant part of their psychological make-up” [20]. They also mourn their friends and family [21].

kangaroo mourning friend
Male kangaroo mourning his female companion, who was hit by a car.
Image: Pam Rixon

They have homes!

Kangaroos were often thought to be nomadic, however, studies have shown that they generally choose to live in one area and essentially call it “home” [22]. 

They form close bonds with their family.

Kangaroo families are known as “mobs” and can range from small groups to over several hundred individuals [23]. These mobs are known to coexist peacefully with other macropods and species [24]. Within the family structure, juveniles groom and play with mothers [2526]. Pairs are often more frequent than individual animals, a fact that experts believe indicates a gregarious and social tendency, which some claim has been underestimated by others [27]. This is further shown by other social behaviours, such as nose touching and sniffing, which build unity and decrease friction in the mob [28]. Similarly, bonding between mother and daughter is known to contribute to social cohesion and mob perpetuation [29]. The famous “boxing” routine of the kangaroo, which became a national symbol of Australia, is usually restricted to males and is used to establish a hierarchy in the mob [30]. 

kangaroo mob
Mob of kangaroos.

Mother kangaroos are maternal.

Perhaps one of the most well-known characteristics of the kangaroo is the mother’s pouch, known as a marsupium. The term has been used in other languages to refer to bum bags (marsupio in Italian means pouch)! Here, depending on the species, the joey remains for between 120 and 400 days [31]. During this time, the joey nurses and develops before leaving the pouch. After leaving, the joey continues to feed from the mother for up to a year and a half. Incredibly, the kangaroo has developed a biological adaptation to the often harsh Australian environment. During periods of drought, females lose the ability to conceive and produce offspring [32]. This challenges the argument that unless “controlled”, kangaroo populations will balloon into unsustainable numbers.

mother kangaroo with joey

The Industry

Since the early colonial era, kangaroos have been commercially killed for a range of reasons, largely to profit off of their flesh and fibres [33]. There is a common belief that kangaroos are farmed for their flesh in much the same way as other animals are, but this is not true. The kangaroo meat for sale on supermarket shelves or restaurant menus is taken from kangaroos who are killed in the wild [34]. This, however, leads to a common misconception that kangaroo meat is “farm-free”, a concept that lends itself to consumer perception that it is even better than the misleading agribusiness rhetoric of “free-range” farming [35] when in reality, they suffer just the same. 

As kangaroos and wallabies are considered protected native fauna, they may only be killed under a range of set conditions. It is argued that killing is critical for conservation and to ensure that populations do not become too big and thereby damage the environment [36]. Critics, however, are increasingly arguing that the hunts are inhumane, unsustainable and unnecessary [37]. 

A short history of kangaroo hunting.

The coordinated killing of kangaroos began “at exactly the same time” that kangaroos were first identified by invading colonists [38]. Soon, they were formally classified as a “pest” species, a “type of vermin to be destroyed en masse” [39]. In 1770, Lieutenant John Gore was the first to shoot a kangaroo [40]. The hunting of kangaroos quickly became a common pursuit, something akin to a social activity, so much so that it became a popular subject of colonial artists [41]. Even famed biologist, Charles Darwin, joined in a kangaroo hunt in 1836 [42]. This pastime was considered an effective way to consolidate settler ownership of large properties and was “a triumphant announcement of the absolute dispossession of Aboriginal people” [43]. Many have since come to see kangaroos as one of these resources [44]. 

hunting kangaroos
Nicholas Chevalier, Mount Abrupt and The Grampians (1864).
National Library of Australia [45].

The Commercial Industry

Canada’s annual slaughter of Harp seals is seen as the only competitor for Australia’s commercial kangaroo industry, in terms of the enormous scale of killing undertaken. Kangaroo slaughter, however, receives significantly less international condemnation and the killing is shrouded in layers of state-sponsored propaganda [46]. Despite this, it remains one of our most jarring wildlife management programs, not least due to the iconic nature kangaroos have in Australian national rhetoric and indigenous mythology [47]. 

slaughter of kangaroos
Harp seal and kangaroo slaughter.

How many kangaroos are killed in Australia?

Of the 46 species of macropods in Australia, only four species of kangaroos and two species of wallabies can be commercially killed. In the last three decades, almost 90 million kangaroos and wallabies have been killed for their flesh and fibres [48]. Each year, state governments across the country set quotas intended to regulate how many can be killed. In 2019, the “sustainable quota” was set to over 6 million individuals [49]. In 2012, approximately 1.61 million kangaroos were commercially killed to produce domestic and export products [50]. The Government argues that only a small percentage of annual State quotas are fulfilled each year [51].

slaughtered kangaroos meat
Kangaroos on a chiller truck.

Domestic and International Demand.

While the majority of kangaroo meat is intended for human consumption, a large amount is still produced and sold domestically as pet food [5253]. This is because many Australian’s view eating kangaroos as a controversial idea, largely due to their status as the national symbol and the (inter)national icon, “Skippy” [54]. A study published in 2008 revealed that less than 15% of Aussies had ”knowingly eaten kangaroo more than four times” in the past year [55] and only half have ever tasted it [56].

skippy the bush kangaroo
Skippy the Bush Kangaroo – hit 1960’s TV series

The Federal Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment regulates the export of kangaroo products, which currently enjoys trade with over 60 international markets [57]. International demand for kangaroo flesh has fluctuated over the years from over 10,000 tonnes in 2008 to less than 3,000 in 2010 [5859], and back to 10,000 tonnes in 2017 [60]. According to the executive director of the kangaroo industry lobbying group, Asian markets have “a strong culinary tradition in using wild foods [and] kangaroo will to a large extent just slot right into that existing tradition” [61]. As a result, they have generated significant increases in kangaroo meat consumption by exporting to China and Japan [6263]. In 2017, Japan was receiving approximately 50 tonnes of kangaroo each month [64].

Kangaroo advocates viewed the excitement surrounding possible export access to China as a death knell, arguing that the species could not withstand such an increase in commercial killing [65].

Challenges to the kangaroo industry.

Animals are culturally and morally significant to Aboriginal Australians. As a result, they have a diverse set of views, attitudes and priorities regarding the use of wildlife [66]. As one community believes, “they’re related to us [and] animals were human before” [67]. Aboriginal people are generally not involved in the killing of kangaroos, commercial or otherwise [68]. Some believe that “strict cultural protocols” should “preclude any involvement in the commercial harvest”, while others express interest in such enterprises [69, 70]. Community consultation, however, unanimously indicates that Aboriginal people value kangaroos and “want to be included in decision-making processes” regarding their killing [71]. 

In 2011, an alliance of Aboriginal elders declared their intention to challenge the commercial kangaroo industry [72]. This stemmed from State moves to dramatically increase the export of kangaroo meat to other nations [73]. At the time, the media reported that “a new indigenous animal liberation organisation is threatening to take the government to the Federal Court to stop the proposed new exports” [74]. 

kangaroo rock art
Kangaroo rock art drawing in the Kimberley.
Credit: Macquarie University

Hunting and the non-commercial killing of kangaroos.

Non-commercial kangaroo killing refers to the legal shooting of kangaroos, which does not result in profit from the sale of their meat or skins [75]. This can include hunting for ‘sport’ or government-sponsored killing for ostensibly conservative reasons. All kangaroo shooters are obliged to follow the standards and guidelines laid out in the National Codes of Practice for the Humane Shooting of Kangaroos and Wallabies [76]. In saying this, non-commercial shooters are not required to pass a competency test before they are allowed to kill kangaroos, and according to the RSPCA, this results in a far higher degree of inhumane killing, and thus cruelty [77]. 

Crucially, the RSPCA report that though some non-commercial kangaroo shooters will attempt to follow the code and its requirements, “there will always be those who are, at best, indifferent to the pain and suffering they inflict”. This is shown by the provision of recreational licences, which the RSPCA claim “encourages those shooters who are only interested in killing kangaroos for the thrill and ‘fun’ of it” [78]. Tellingly, these are referred to by the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment as “licences to harm kangaroos” [79]. 

kangaroo hunter
Non-commercial kangaroo hunter
Credit: Unknown

Licence to Harm

A licence provides consent to kill a set number of kangaroos under the provisions described in the code and state that “all kangaroos including young must be harmed in accordance” with this code [80], though orphans are not included in this quota [81]. The application form to be permitted to recreationally kill kangaroos in NSW requires only personal details, such as name, address and phone number, firearms licence details, information on the property the killing will occur and the species proposed and requested to be killed [82].

The number of animals the licence permits is provided on an area basis. For example, 25 kangaroos may be killed from 21 to 40 hectares (ha), 50 kangaroos from 41 to 100ha, 125 kangaroos from 101 to 500ha, 250 kangaroos from 501 to 5000ha and upwards [83]. These area limits are subject to change [84, 85]. Other recent changes to the system enable more shooters to operate under licences and the removal of the use of carcass tags. Importantly, the 2018 changes made by the NSW Government enable landholders and shooters to “use carcasses for non-commercial purposes” [86]. This could include using their flesh as bait, such as composing the meat in 1080 poisoning programs [87]. 

kangaroos paddock
Kangaroos in paddocks with sheep and cows.
Credit: Christine Randall

Welfare Issues

Calling a kangaroo a ‘pest’ or ‘resource’ strips them from their values and leaves them vulnerable to a range of welfare issues. The two most common are improper shooting and the killing of orphaned joeys.

Improper shooting

Commercial shooters have stronger incentives to follow the code, as processors may not accept carcasses who have not been killed by a head-shot and are liable to lose their licence if they continue to offer “non-head shot kangaroos” [88]. While the code for hunters states that a kangaroo can either be killed by a head or chest shot [89], non-commercial hunters are not checked. With no training, testing, monitoring requirements, or incentives for compliance or best-practice, kangaroos are left to suffer terribly painful deaths [90].

In 2019, Kangaroos Alive exposed the cruelty of commercial killing of kangaroos. Watch it below.

The killing of orphaned joeys

When a female kangaroo is shot during a commercial operation, it is a mandated requirement for any dependent joeys to be “euthanised” to “reduce joey suffering”. Depending on the size of the joey, they are usually killed by decapitation, cervical dislocation, or if furred, a blow to the head, such as blunt force trauma [91, 92]. If they are not killed, it is highly likely they will die of starvation, exposure, or predation [93].

Despite it being mandated, there is evidence that suggests operators cannot do so or will not do so. Studies have shown that even a stated intention to euthanise an orphan “rarely translated into actual behaviour”, i.e., carrying out the killing [94]. The study also found that “the greatest limiting factor preventing them from euthanising young at-foot is that they escape” and that there are “deficiencies in knowledge and training of kangaroo harvesters with regard to humane harvesting practices” [95].

The killing of orphan joeys is consistently criticised by animal protection agencies. Current policies are “basically saying that the federal government believes it’s okay to blast a defenceless joey to bits with a shotgun” [96]. Our submission to the most recent review of the national commercial code of practice explained that “up to 800,000 dependent young are killed as collateral damage”, often by decapitation or blunt force trauma, in the commercial kangaroo industry [97]. 

Joey in kangaroo pouch
Joey in their mother’s pouch.

The Environment

Animal agriculture, and thus eating animals, are major contributors to global warming, greenhouse gas emission production, and land clearing [9899]. These concerns have sparked controversy about the appropriateness and sustainability of continuing to consume animal products [100101]. Despite this, worldwide demand for meat and other animal products continues to rise as incomes and populations increase [102]. Experts and international organisations have recognised this as a global problem due to the environmental harm caused by meat production [103104].

Kangaroos are considered “pest” – why?

Despite the common misconception that only introduced or “non-native” animals are classified as “pests”, native species are regularly included in this category. As a result, they are often killed in ways which would be unthinkable for other animals [105]. According to the Federal Government, native species can be considered “pests” or “invasives” if they are transferred or develop populations outside their “natural range” [106]. The reasons any animal is classified as a “pest” vary according to species. Many are blamed for environmental damage [107]. Others are perceived as threats or competitors for valuable habitat or home ranges [108]. Otherwise, they are considered to pose unacceptable social impacts, such as those experienced by animal farmers and their families [109].

kangaroo drought
Kangaroo drinking water from farm trough.
Credit: Rachael Webb

But are they really?

A significant myth associated with the kangaroo and its inglorious “pest” status is the argument that kangaroos are prolific breeders. This is an underlying assumption behind the “plague” rhetoric [110]. This, however, is contentious.

Approximately half of the female joeys born die before they reach breeding age and the percentage of males who die before they do so, is even higher. In a typical Eastern Grey kangaroo mob, only 25% of all joeys reach adulthood [111]. Males who survive, generally do not breed until they are around 5 years of age, with males of all four large species reaching sexual maturity later than females [112]. Alpha status, which is a significant contributor to the ability to breed, is reached at between 10 and 12 years of age. Estimates suggest that in some areas of Australia only 5% of males survive this long [113]. Among Eastern Grey kangaroos, only the alpha male in the mob has the social power to mate [114]. Alpha males are known to generally produce up to or over 80% of the offspring, sired with over 50% of females in a single mob.

In some regions, notably in temperate habitats, a single alpha male may have “exclusive dominion over a mob of females that may number 30-40 or more” [115]. This is true in many mobs [116]. This indicates that indiscriminate killing may significantly threaten social structure, and cause issues with breeding [117118].

Further, reproduction often depends on weather conditions [119]. As mentioned above, females lose the ability to conceive during periods of drought and begin again only when grass and rain make resources available. Drought is therefore considered to pose a significant threat to the viability of kangaroo communities [120]. Rainfall necessarily impacts plant productivity and according to the NSW Government, it is “the single most important influence on kangaroo populations” [121,122]. 

Other threats to kangaroo populations

Aside from commercial and non-commercial killing, significant dangers and threats include vehicle collisions, habitat loss, climate change, malnutrition, disease, and hunting [123124125]. 

Vehicle Collisions

Every year, over 9 million kangaroos and wallabies are killed by vehicles Australian roads [126], leaving countless young kangaroos orphaned [127,128]. A joey can survive in the pouch for up to four days after their mother’s death [129].

Kangaroo on road.

Habitat Loss

The clearing of land for residential and agricultural purposes, has dramatically reduced viable kangaroo habitat. It is considered one of the most pressing threats to their survival [130]. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), “developing land for human needs reduces the amount of natural space available to wildlife. As natural space diminishes, so does habitat diversity – the great variety of forests, bushlands, grasslands, wetlands, and deserts that exist in nature. The result is both a decline in the number of species and even fewer individuals of those populations survive” [131]. In Australia, most land is cleared for cow and sheep grazing – yet, the native animals are called ‘pests’, for simply trying to survive [132].

land clearing habitat loss kangaroo
Clearing for farm land.
Credit: WWF

Climate Change

The scale and ferocity of the 2019-2020 Australian bushfires, which took the lives of over 3 billion animals, and placed many Australian species at risk of extinction [133134135], were influenced by climate change. According to the Scientific American, “such an extreme fire season is at least 30 per cent more likely because of global warming” [136].

Haunting photos of kangaroos in burnt forests filled the nightly news and spread across the globe, making them one of the international faces of the fires [137138, 139]. Many would have presumed that the commercial killing of kangaroos would halt under a temporary moratorium, however, it didn’t. The surviving kangaroos continue to be commercially killed in the largest government-sanctioned slaughter program currently underway anywhere in the world [140141142]. According to the government, the ongoing commercial and non-commercial killing of the kangaroo is a benevolent act informed by kind conservation goals [143]. Critics claim that business-as-usual means “we’re killing the last of them” [144].

While the government showed a complete lack of regard for their suffering, wildlife carers were working around the clock to rescue and rehabilitate the surviving animals, and donations were received from across the globe from concerned individuals [145].

kangaroo joey in burnt forest
Kangaroo with joey in burnt forest.
Image Credit: Jo-Anne McArthur/We Animals Media

Kangaroos are important for the environment

Much of the literature available on kangaroos and the environment focuses exclusively on their allegedly negative impacts. Yet, when the argument is convenient to use, the government and kangaroo killing enthusiasts concede that “they [kangaroos] don’t damage the land” [146]. The literature fails to acknowledge the fact that a network of functional microbial, fungal, plant, and animal groups are vital to maintaining a healthy ecosystem [147].  Macropods play an important role in promoting regeneration of native plants and reducing the fuel load in forests and grasslands [148]. As kangaroos are a native animal, who have lived and thrived in Australia for thousands of years, maybe we should question who the real ‘pest’ is.

Our Health

The ethics of eating meat has become an increasingly popular topic and with it, the impacts it has on our health. For many of the reasons described, meat is a controversial food. There is also ample evidence showing that plant-based diets contain significantly less harmful contents. As a result, mortality rates are lower for vegetarian, plant-based, and vegan diets, and also include the added benefits of minimal negative ethical outcomes, and significantly diminish the strain on the environment and its limited resources [149]. 

plant based diet healthy

Kangaroo meat is dangerous to human health.

There are a range of elements that contribute to the perception that kangaroo meat is a healthier option than the flesh of other animals. Some of these include the presence of iron, zinc, and comparatively low-fat content when compared to other red meat products [150]. The latter is one of its most visible elements, as nutritionists often explain [151]. Though some have argued that kangaroos “produce some of the healthiest meat humans can eat”, invoking the absence of “mad kangaroo disease”, there is significant and compelling evidence suggesting that this is not the case [152].

In 2013, researchers found that a compound present in all red meat is actually highest in kangaroo flesh. This compound, L-carnitine, is tied to the creation of arterial plaque. The same year as L-carnitine was first found in kangaroo meat, a Harvard study revealed that L-carnitine is positively associated with higher rates of heart disease, including cardiovascular disease, heart attacks and strokes [153]. Thus, experts advise that kangaroo meat should only be eaten in moderation [154]. The health benefits of eating wholly plant-based, however, remove many of the risks associated with diet.

It could start the next pandemic.

The majority of all pathogens are zoonotic, meaning they originate in other animals [155]. They are responsible for causing serious illness in billions and killing millions of people every year [156]. COVID-19 represents the latest in zoonotic pathogens, though there are many more, some of which are potentially present in animal products purchased at supermarkets. Following an investigation into the kangaroo meat industry in 2015, the late Greens MP John Kaye stated that kangaroo meat represents only a “so-called healthy alternative” which “could be riddled with pathogens” highly dangerous, and potentially poisonous, to consumers [157]. Five years earlier, Fairfax Media revealed that independent testing had “found dangerously high levels of salmonella and E.coli in kangaroo meat bought from supermarkets” [158]. 

kangaroo cull
Kangaroos on open truck, exposed to bacteria.
Credit: Unknown

The industry is known for their lack of hygiene.

The kangaroo industry has consistently faced challenges based on poor hygiene and threats to human health. Dangerous levels of salmonella and E. coli have been regularly found in kangaroo meat intended for human consumption and have led to criticisms from public health officials that the industry is “failing to adhere” to Australian standards [159]. 

“…kangaroo meat is marketed as being a healthy superfood, yet we have a country that doesn’t want to buy it any more because they’ve found excessive amounts of bacterial contamination” .

Fiona Corke, Australian Society for Kangaroos, said following the 2014 Russian ban on imports [160].

Following investigations by state authorities which found significant deficiencies in monitoring and hygiene control, media sources described the industry as a lawless “wild west” [161]. Part of this is the fact that workers in the industry “don’t know what they’re doing”, placing possible consumers at significant risk of poisoning in the process [162]. 

Government raids Animal Liberation offices

In 2009, Animal Liberation collected contaminated samples, which were subsequently tested by an independent laboratory. The investigation led to raids on our offices by NSW and Queensland Police amid accusations that we had “broken into chillers in northern NSW and southern Queensland and contaminated carcasses” [163]. We denied these allegations and maintained that access had been made in unlocked chillers, with samples and video evidence taken during the investigation.

Then chairman of the food advisory committee, Dr Desmond Sibraa, explained that the footage obtained by Animal Liberation “showed paws and necks touching dirty floors stained with old blood and kangaroo carcasses crammed so close that it would be impossible for cool air to circulate adequately” [164]. Leaked documents obtained by the Sydney Morning Herald revealed that the trucks used to transport the kangaroo carcasses were “loaded hot”, which exposed the carcasses to excessive temperatures over “extended periods” [165]. In response to the investigation, the executive officer of the Kangaroo Industries Association of Australia claimed that “animal liberationists treat the truth with great disrespect in a cynical attempt to appeal to well-meaning but poorly informed concerned members of the public” [166]. Toxicology reports revealed otherwise. Experts publicly challenged the claims made by the industry lobby group, stating that “the low standards in the industry mean it’s a problem begging to exist” [167]. 

The existential problems facing the industry didn’t end there. In 2015, kangaroo harvesters were exposed as again failing to adhere to even “the most basic of hygiene standards” [168]. The NSW Food Authority revealed “numerous breaches of hygiene and safety rules”, including keeping live animals alongside carcasses [169]. 

kangaroo industry lack of hygiene
Kangaroos in truck with wild pigs.

What’s Next?

Learning about how the industry operates is an important step in becoming a conscious consumer. The reality is, kangaroos play an important role in the Australian ecosystem and should not be labelled as ‘pests’ for trying to survive. They are, however, used as scapegoats for destroying the land, when the real issue is land clearing, particularly for cattle and sheep farming.

You can help kangaroos, by never purchasing any kangaroo meat, pet food containing kangaroo meat, or kangaroo skin products.

Support Animal Liberation

Animal Liberation has historically backed the battle against the commercial killing of kangaroos. For example, Animal Liberation was in full support of the 2011 campaign led by the Australian Alliance for Native Animal Survival, with our then director and now Animal Justice Party member, Mark Pearson, explaining that we “objected to the commercial harvesting of kangaroos on the grounds of hygiene, inhumanity and sustainability” [170]. Similarly, our founder Dr Christine Townend is an expert advisor to the Kangaroo Think Tank of the University of Technology [171]. We also consistently provide submissions to Federal and State inquiries into kangaroo issues, such as the recent kangaroo commercial code review [172]. 

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