Why is Connecticut considering a ban on kangaroo products? Soccer cleats.

Amid the flurry of bills introduced in the current session of the Connecticut General Assembly is the Kangaroo Protection Act of 2023. The bill would prohibit the sale, barter or offering of dead kangaroos and any products derived from dead kangaroos within the state. The bill was referred to the Joint Committee on Commerce for consideration but so far does not appear on any of the committee’s agendas.

Still, the bill begs the question: Why is protecting kangaroos an issue in Connecticut?

“The kangaroo industry in Australia engages in the largest commercial slaughter of land-based wild animals in the world,” said state Rep. David Michel, D-Stamford. He said he introduced the bill as part of his role as the co-chair of the Animal Advocacy Caucus. “Each year, around 2 million wild kangaroos are gunned down in their native habitat to primarily provide their skins to Nike and Adidas to manufacture under-performing cleats.”

If the billl were enacted, Connecticut would be the second state, following California, to ban the sale of kangaroo carcasses and products. Connecticut is not alone in considering legislation like this either. Oregon , home of Nike, is weighing a similar ban.

A similar bill was also proposed in New Jersey and federally in 2021, but neither went anywhere. Across the Atlantic the Dutch Party for Animals is pushing the EU to ban the importation of kangaroo-based products. Historically, national bans have been discussed since the late 1980s .

“We traditionally don’t get involved in international issues,” said Jo-Anne Basile, executive director of CT Votes for Animals, who brought the issue to Michel’s attention. “But we have an opportunity to take action against what I consider a pipeline of cruelty coming into the state.”

Do we even use kangaroo products?

Most Americans probably have never considered kangaroos as a product or commodity. For most, they’re animals you might see in a zoo or in a nature documentary or a conservation organization’s TikTok being adorable.

But in Australia the commercialized hunting of kangaroos is big business. Between 1.5 million and 2 million kangaroos of the four most common species are killed every year. Up to one-fifth of a region’s estimated kangaroo population can be taken by hunters in a given season.

Kangaroo meat is processed into pet food or carved into steaks/at high-end Aussie restaurants . Amazon, perhaps unsurprisingly , carries kangaroo meat. Their pelts are tanned into leather destined for expensive shoes and boots. Most of it ends up as high-end soccer cleats . A lot of it isn’t advertised as kangaroo. Some shoes made of it might be identified as “k-leather.”

California, which has had a ban on kangaroo products since the 1970s has struggled to enforce the ban. A recent report from the Center for Humane Economy documents many shoe retailers stocking kangaroo-based products . Spokespeople from PUMA and Adidas insisted they comply with California laws and would comply with a ban in Connecticut.

“PUMA has taken steps to ensure compliance with all applicable law and does not currently sell kangaroo-based products to consumers or wholesale accounts in jurisdictions where the sale of such products is prohibited, such as California,” wrote Puma spokesperson Melissa Garbayo in an email to CT Insider. She asserted that Puma only used a small amount of kangaroo leather sourced from producers that follow Australia’s code of practices.

Adidas said kangaroo leather played a “minor role” in its manufacturing and that the company has been substituting kangaroo leather for other substances.

“Adidas is opposed to kangaroos being killed in an inhumane or cruel manner,” wrote Adidas spokesperson Rich Efus. “We will certainly adhere to all applicable legal regulations.”

Scott Edwards, chief counsel for the animal advocacy organization Center for Humane Economy, said that in spite of industry controls they were able to find k-leather cleats in California easily.

“Some of them are not even labeled at all, you sort of have to know the model of shoe,” Edwards said. “But generally people who go looking for them know what to look for.”

Animal rights groups in the US and Australia have taken aim at the industry for hunting practices that they call cruel, unsustainable and unnecessary.

“It’s not like we need kangaroo cleats,” Edwards said. “It’s a niche, luxury product.”

The kangaroo shooters

Kangaroo hunting is conducted by a cottage industry of “shooters.” These independent hunter-contractors, or small businesses, are invited onto a landowner’s property in rural Australia to hunt kangaroos. The shooters are government-certified for their accuracy with firearms and regulated by the Australian government.

Four kangaroo species, the eastern and western grey kangaroo, the common wallaroo and the iconic red kangaroo are hunted. None of those species are considered endangered.

The Australian government and the kangaroo products industry claim that killing kangaroos this way is necessary to cull their numbers on the Australian landscape. Ranchers see kangaroos as competition for grazing livestock like sheep and cattle for food and water. They contend that kangaroos overgraze fields.

“The commercial industry doesn't exist just because we want to sell meat and skins,” wrote Dennis King, executive officer of the Kangaroo Industry Association of Australia. “There are too many of these abundance species, and we are a tool the Australian government uses to try and control those numbers.”

Shooters are supposed to take kangaroos down with shots to the head, instantly killing them. They’re also supposed to avoid killing mother kangaroos with joeys. In the event that a mother kangaroo is shot, the joey is supposed to be euthanized.

“Standard procedures for dealing with dependent young-at-foot can be found in the Code,” King wrote. “The industry does not target mothers with joeys.”

Most kangaroo hunts are conducted at night by spotlight when kangaroos are most active. These animals are agile and highly mobile. Grey kangaroos and red kangaroos are capable of attaining speeds of roughly 40 mph. Kangaroo advocates say the hunts are highly error prone and that many kangaroos are not killed in the proscribed way.

"They know that most animals are mis-shot and die from secondary trauma," said McIntyre.

It’s common practice to decapitate kangaroo carcasses in the field, delivering headless carcasses for processing. This makes it very difficult to determine if a kangaroo was killed in the legal way.

“There is zero monitoring at the point of kill,” McIntyre said. “If you are so determined to show that this is a humane industry, leave the heads on so we can see how the animal died.”

Joeys caught up in a hunt are killed by blunt force to the head . Documentary footage from "Kangaroos: A Love Hate Story" s hows shooters swinging baby kangaroos by the tail, slamming their heads against truck beds. If they escape euthanasia they starve without their mothers. An inquest by the Parliament of New South Wales found that there was no reliable data on how many joeys were killed every year.

“It is a shame that we treat the joeys, the baby of our national icon, in such a cruel and barbaric way,” McIntyre said.

That same parliamentary inquest also found that the overall population data for those four kangaroo species was deeply flawed. It’s hard to say how many kangaroos are on the landscape. And the conduct of shooters is impossible to verify because there are no inspectors monitoring the point of kill.

Animal rights activists and conservationists say that this casts doubt on the sustainability of the kangaroo industry and the overall posture of the kangaroo cull as humane and necessary. These are charges that are flatly rejected by the kangaroo industry.

“We are calling out the misinformation being circulated around kangaroo management and the need for greater awareness of managing overabundant species,” wrote King, of the Kangaroo Industry Association. “The industry is extremely confident in its robust standards of excellence in animal welfare, sustainability and food safety.”

Kangaroo industry is a legacy of pest management

Kangaroos have existed on the Australian continent for millions of years . Kangaroos and their wallaby cousins are highly adapted to dry climates with uncertain rainfall. Red kangaroos can go days without drinking, extracting most of the water they need from the plants they eat. During famines, female kangaroos can pause the development of embryos until conditions improve.

Their distinctive hopping is highly energy efficient. They make good use of this to escape extreme drought conditions. Mobs of kangaroos will descend on places that smell like water during drought.

Aboriginal peoples developed a close relationship with kangaroos. They relied on them as a food source and there is evidence that some Aboriginal peoples cultivated kangaroo habitat using controlled burns . They are sacred animals to many Aboriginal peoples.

When white settlers arrived, kangaroos were at first a novelty and a symbol of tough, outback independence . They too hunted kangaroos for food. But the growth of the ranching industry quickly recast kangaroos as a pest and competitor to nonnative sheep and cattle.

“For generations, the wildlife have been considered something to be managed and gotten rid of,” McIntyre said. He said the attitude to start was to create a ‘Little England’ in Australia. “That permeates our farming culture.”

David Croft, a retired kangaroo behavioral ecologist who studied kangaroo-human interactions for over 50 years, said that over time a perception grew among landowners and ranchers that there were too many kangaroos on the landscape. Kangaroos happen to like grassy pastureland, which didn’t help their reputation.

Over time a regime of culling developed, Croft explained. By 1880s all Australian states had enacted legislation to encourage the eradication of kangaroos. By the 1960s, repeated scaremongering about kangaroo “plagues,” eradication pressure and drought had sharply reduced the population. Australian commentators wondered if it was too late to save “Big red” Australia’s national symbol.

“The industry reinvented itself in the 1990s from a pest management service to become a gatherer of sustainable resources to tempt the carnivore palate and invoke the athleticism of kangaroos in your sports shoes,” Croft wrote in an email to CT Insider.

The current regime of using the commercial hunting industry to reduce seemingly abundant pastureland kangaroo stocks arose from this period. Arial surveys were introduced in this period, along with caps on hunting. In recent years, Croft wrote, the protections established by this regime have been weakened by landowner lobbies and increasing vehicle collisions in suburban areas.

Croft argues that there are gross exaggerations on both sides of the kangaroo question. On the one hand, kangaroos are fairly common across Australia and aren’t likely to go extinct. But on the other hand, Croft says kangaroos pose little actual threat to ranchers and that the hunting industry isn’t a necessary component of ecological management. This is further exacerbated by the extreme swings of drought and fire caused by climate change.

Croft argues that kangaroo management should be returned to the Aboriginal peoples with a focus on ecotourism and coexistence. He said that the kangaroo industry fundamentally doesn’t hold much of a value proposition as an export product.

“The question to me is why does Connecticut need kangaroo products from an industry which is eternally in search of a rationale but is very good at propaganda to its clients and to its consumers?” Croft wrote.

McIntyre said it was fundamentally an embarrassment for Australia to be having this conversation at all.

“As an Australian, I’m embarrassed by this,” McIntyre said. “I’ve been out there. I’ve been out on the kill. I’ve witnessed it, and it’s a shameful, shameful practice.”

A kangaroo industry spokesperson argued that a ban from Connecticut would constitute meddling in internal Australian kangaroo management policy and vowed to take the fight to Washington.

“The Kangaroo Industry Association of Australia will be approaching the Australian embassy in Washington in response to the misinformation fueling the US State of Connecticut to consider legislation prohibiting the sale of kangaroo products,” King wrote.

Fundamentally local proponents said they aren’t interested in the wildlife management elements of the kangaroo question. For them its almost entirely about eliminating niche products connected with animal cruelty. Do we really need soccer cleats made of kangaroo leather, kangaroo jerky or novelty items made of tanned kangaroo scrotums?

“We’re not getting involved in the middle of what they choose to do in terms of managing their wildlife,” said Basile of CT Votes for Animals. “What I have an issue with is whether we in this country should take advantage of that for commercial gain.”