As the colder weather starts, the annual conundrum of kangaroo population management in the ACT rears its ugly head.
It’s a divisive issue and the subject of long-term campaigns from Canberrans dedicated to protecting their beloved local mobs of kangaroos from being culled in the thousands.
I love kangaroos. In fact, I love all animals, and like many fellow Canberrans, it fills me with dread to think of thousands of innocent, wild animals being shot dead as a solution to problems that we humans have created.
But unfortunately, as the impacts of climate change become ever more evident, it’s becoming clear that population management of kangaroos is not a simple binary issue of right versus wrong. We’ve created a complex problem, and now we have to deliver a nuanced solution.
Why are kangaroos culled in the ACT? The ACT Government kangaroo management web page tells us it’s because of overgrazing. Without natural predators to keep roo populations in check, they run rampant and overgraze in our parklands, damaging ecosystems and affecting endangered flora.
But anti-cull activists will tell you that the research backing up that assertion is flimsy at best and that the numbers of kangaroos targeted don’t necessarily match with the extent of damage they are accused of wreaking.
And even if we all agreed that a cull is necessary, there’s the question of how roos are culled and by whom. Animal welfare assessments of past culls have pointed out that the single biggest impact on how humanely roos are killed is the skill and training of the shooter (which is highly variable). The RSPCA also points out that as well as killing adult kangaroos, shooters need to be trained in how to humanely kill joeys and pouch young after their mothers are shot.
Even just writing all of these facts makes me feel squeamish.
I completely understand why those who are the most vocally against the culls are driven to protest and disrupt the cull processes. The thought of shooters descending on unsuspecting roos in their natural environment and unleashing fear, stress and ultimately death on them is sickening.
But on the other side of the coin is the race against climate change and the impacts of overgrazing on native grasses and park ecosystems. There is enough evidence to show that overgrazing does have an impact, though blaming the roos entirely while ignoring the impact of land developments encroaching on previously wild land, the impacts of agriculture and grazing of livestock, and even the issue of invasive species like rabbits seems like a cop-out (and the research that is available from the ACT Government to validate their culls does not meaningfully address any of these additional issues).
Understandably, when faced with these opposing issues – do we save the lives of kangaroos now to the detriment of their future offspring who will starve to death? – it’s easy to feel helpless. For the majority of my adult life, I chose to see it as morally cut and dried: kangaroos are innocent and shouldn’t be killed, and that was that.
But the more I’ve grown to learn about the complexity of animal welfare, and the long-term impacts of drought and starvation on roo populations if no control measures are used, I’ve had to realise that the options aren’t just life or death, but more a humane death now for some so that others may avoid an inhumane death from starvation or traffic incidents in the future.
Animal welfare experts will tell you that humane euthanasia is not an animal welfare issue. If an animal isn’t stressed at the point of euthanasia, and the process is carried out by a qualified and skilled professional, death can be painless. Of course, this applies a very human-centric approach to valuing life in animals (that is, assuming that physical pain is the only pain an animal feels and that there is no inherent value to the life of a healthy animal beyond the absence of pain).
But for as long as culls continue, I would rather see a focus on upskilling shooters, ensuring a low stress and humane approach, and a long-term shift to fertility control instead of focussing only on ending the shooting in its entirety.
It feels naive to expect the culls to stop anytime soon, so the biggest impacts we can have on animal welfare are to enhance the humaneness of the approach to ensure as little suffering as possible. Am I being a realist, or is it a disservice to our beautiful local kangaroos to ask for anything less than an end to the culls?