We’ve been hammering at the Outback Highway since dawn. Red dust and spinifex grass run to the horizon in every direction, forming a long ribbon of alien terrain under a technicolour blue sky. Craig hasn’t said a word for the last six hours. He’s already played both of his Elvis tapes and is saving Jerry Lee Lewis for the all-night drive back. On the way home from a shooting trip, you have to drive all night so the meat doesn’t spoil.
We turn off the paved road onto a dirt track that leads us deep into the bush. Soon, we pull up to a long corrugated-steel shack graced by a concrete-slab porch. Two giant refrigerators sit out front like fat metal marshmallows dotted with faint crimson stains.
“Go on, pick your room, mate, just not the one with me cooler in it,” Craig orders. “I brung that up special.”
My bedroom contains a low metal cot and a foam mattress. Red dust covers everything: my bed, the table, the toothbrush and wadded-up tissue the last guy left behind. A table stained with oil and dried blood and scarred with the cuts made by a million knives sits next to a dusty generator out on the front porch. Imagine an abandoned prospector’s cabin on Mars, or an axe murderer’s holiday home.
“Craig, this is so cool,” I shout. “It’s the most godforsaken place I’ve ever seen in my life!” I mean it with the sort of artificial exuberance my friends back home in Virginia use to describe roller skating, duckpin bowling or their supposed love for Journey. You know the tone.
Craig grunts, “Call it what you want, mate, but it’s me fuckin’ life, and I like it.”
Embarrassed, I stutter out an apology. I later learn it’s impossible to hurt a ’roo shooter’s feelings with a bunch of tiny words. As I’ll discover when I chop off the paws of my first kangaroo, its blood spraying into my eyes and open mouth, my own life had already become more different than I could ever have imagined.
Richmond, Virginia, is the sort of town that’s friendly to boredom and torpor. For a couple of years after college, I scraped by on nine dollars an hour, did my laundry at my parents’ house and claimed to be a writer and a musician.
In hindsight, it seems perfectly apt that I fell in love over the Internet with an Australian woman. Natasha was everything my life was not—hilarious, exciting, mysterious and exotic. Flirtatious emails turned into instant-messaging sessions that deepened into telecom-assisted soul communions. Then one day she asked, “If you were to visit me and sleep on my couch, would you come into my room for a cuddle one night?”
I was hooked. I donated my drums to the thrift store, sold my records and my van and bought a ticket to Sydney, Australia.
Natasha and I worked even better in person, and after a Hollywood-sweet cinematic week together in Sydney, she invited me back to her home in faraway Perth, on the other side of the continent and one of the most beautifully isolated cities in the world. It was a dream come true—my frustration and loneliness were suddenly replaced with the picture-book perfection of life on a foreign beach with a gorgeous lady by my side.
Then I ran out of money.
Natasha took care of me the best that she could, and I managed occasional work as a dishwasher, furniture mover and stonemason. But my meagre income was eating into my pride. I was tired of the wide, silver-paint-lined grins that the Aborigines at the city centre always flashed when they saw me shoplifting my meals. I was tired of shoplifting my meals.
Then Craig rang.
“G’day…is that Jeff?” It was.
“This is Craig Murphy. Steve Evans told me you was lookin’ for a bit of work as an offsider to a ’roo shooter.” That was true, yes.
“Well, I’m gettin’ ready to go up to Nookawarra out in the bush for a couple days and I could use a bit of help. I can’t lift the boomers onto the ute like I used to, and I’m lookin’ for someone to work the light and go get the ’roos after I shoot ’em. I’ll take you up there, take care of all your food and offer you four hundred bucks flat.” Sounded cool to me.
“I’ll meet you Monday at the train station,” Craig said. “Bring a couple of pillows and a towel and some clothes you can get messy. We leave Tuesday mornin’, first thing.”
The kangaroo is a striking, strange creature, at once silly and majestic, like the moose. It’s also the primary symbol of Australia. Portrayed on the national coat of arms, the creature has been used to advertise and anthropomorphize the Australian psyche all over the world. Not only does it adorn everything Australia produces—from postcards to foodstuff logos, from children’s books to novelty T-shirts—but it has proudly crept into the vernacular. White Aussies are referred to as “skips.”
For Australians, the kangaroo is both a boon and a pest, a national icon and a creature to despise. The country is overrun with the creatures—58 million according to the latest census, making the species one of the most common wild land mammals. This, ironically, is mostly thanks to a sheep and cattle industry that has created an abundance of man-made pasture grasses and watering holes and driven dingoes—the kangaroo’s only predator but a “vermin” to sheep farmers—into the centre of the country. The cute, fuzzy hoppers now pose a serious environmental threat to the rangelands. Travelling in packs of several hundred, kangaroos can easily cover up to 500 kilometres in a day. A mob of kangaroos can bisect a farm on one of these journeys and cause thousands of dollars’ worth of damage to valuable crops in a single night, wrecking fences and outgrazing cattle for rare desert grass.
Consequently, it’s perfectly legal in Australia to kill kangaroos—but not all kangaroos. Only the four most plentiful species can be commercially harvested. This is not an indiscriminate course of action, but part of a far-reaching management plan drawn up by the federal conservation department. The plan basically acts as a system of population monitoring and quota setting. After deciding on a maximum allowable “take” for a given year, the state authority sells individually numbered plastic lockable tags. To qualify as a legal kill each kangaroo must be tagged in proper numerical sequence (to keep track of the order in which they have been killed); the circulation of these tags is also watched closely to ensure the harvest in any one area doesn’t top the quota.
So if you’re a licensed hunter, you buy tags from the government, load up a truck with a week’s worth of food, water and fuel, and drive out into the bush to slaughter as many kangaroos as you can safely tag and carry. You then lug the carcasses back into town and sell them to a kangaroo processor. Processors will only buy those beasts you’ve killed humanely (i.e., by a shot to the head rather than a “skin only” shot, which targets the legs and the neck). It works in everyone’s best interest this way: the ’roos are killed quickly, and the processors don’t buy meat that’s been contaminated by lead bullets.
The culling is vast. At its highest, in 2002, the total number of kangaroo deaths hit seven million. In that single year, 20 percent of Australia’s kangaroo population was wiped out. Little surprise, then, that these prolific breeders are now considered a natural resource by many; the processing of their body parts is one of Australia’s fastest-growing industries. Kangaroo meat is also considered a delicacy outside of Australia and it is exported to fifty-five countries. The soft hides are highly prized by tanneries for being extremely durable, yet lightweight. The kangaroo economy brings in over us$175 million a year and currently employs about 4,000 people.
Craig is a professional “harvester” and has been shooting the animals since he was eight years old. “Most weeks, if we wanted to eat meat, we shot a ’roo. That’s how it was in the early days, mate.” After finishing high school, Craig trained as a roof carpenter, supplementing his income with money earned from ’roo-shooting trips and occasional work as a driller on an oil rig. The man had apparently never worn a shirt to work either—his skin looked like a crocodile hide stretched over a giant sack of rice.
I imagine that most licensed hunters are, like Craig, men who grew up in the bush their entire lives, where kangaroo killing is part of the lifestyle. The most vocal of the four kangaroo-shooter associations—the New South Wales Professional Kangaroo Cullers—have stated they’d like to see shooting recognized as a full-time occupation, much like fishing. And interest does seem to be high: over 6,000 licences were issued in 1999 and more than 5,000 in 2000.
That said, I doubt anyone in their right mind would classify commercial kangaroo shooting as a career with long-term prospects. It’s certainly not the type of work you’d take up if you could be doing something different. Nor is kangaroo shooting something that is particularly revered or immortalized in Australian culture. Even the gruffest, grizzliest shooter recognizes the job has some nasty aspects, which he puts behind him as quickly as possible. Craig confided in me that he no longer dreamed when he slept.
We wait for the sun to drop. Then Craig turns to me, “Here’s what you do. Get out of the cab and up on the back of the ute with this spotlight here. I’ve got one on my side as well. You move that light nice and slow over the left side of the road while I drive and do the right. You see any ’roos with that thing, tap the roof with your hand.”
Simple enough, it seemed. But the hard stuff came along pretty quickly. We stopped with a jerk, Craig mashing the brakes of the pickup truck with his feet as he loaded a shell into his rifle and took aim. A kangaroo sat frozen in my spotlight’s beam, its eyes two tiny reflectors and its jaws the only movement.
When a kangaroo gets shot in the head, it jumps straight up and flips over backwards like some kind of weird 3-D Atari game. One leg vigorously pumps the air—a flailing faucet draining away the last of a kangaroo’s energy until it drops into the dust with the rest of the body. My job was then to leap off the ute, run up to the kangaroo, grab it by that same leg or the tail and drag it back to the truck. Most of the time the animal was dead by the time I’d finished dragging it.
As I walked slowly toward my first dead kangaroo, processing all of what had just happened and what I was about to do through a thin filter of functioning emotional shock, Craig barked at me from the ute.
“Let’s get a wriggle on, we haven’t got all bloody night!” His shouts were punctuated with the rhythmic clacking sounds of a knife on steel.
I dragged the dying beast as fast as I could, trying to block out the little shakes travelling up my arm as its shattered head bumped over uneven ground. This was even harder than it sounds, because I was also trying to block out the distinct thought that I had seen something writhing in the kangaroo’s pouch as I’d clutched its leg.
I didn’t have time to dwell on it for long. As soon as I got to the truck, Craig handed me an enormous machete and a bloodstained wooden block.
“You know how to use these? You’re gonna learn fast, mate. Watch close and listen carefully. I fuckin’ hate having to repeat meself. First, we get in there and split the heart. If he’s not quite dead, that’ll do him quicker than anything. It gets all the extra blood out too so you don’t have such a fuckin’ mess later. Then we get the head off and put it out here.”
With this, Craig stabbed the kangaroo in the neck, rummaging around in the spine for what seemed like a particular juncture of vertebrae. Upon finding it, he quickly slashed through the remaining neck tissue, grabbing the poor creature’s head by its long ears and flinging it into the dark bush, where it hit the dirt and rolled with a series of wet flopping sounds.
With maximum efficiency, he turned to the tail, severing it from the ’roo’s rump with a few deft strokes, grunting, “These are worth a dollar apiece. Coons buy ’em and make soup out of ’em. Bloody beautiful soup, too. Lotsa guys don’t save ’em, but I say why throw money away? Now, get over here with that block and machete.”
I was responsible for hacking off the forepaws of each kangaroo while he beheaded and betailed them. Craig reckoned I’d pick this skill up quickly enough. I had no prior machete experience and found that I had to hack repeatedly at the animals’ wrists, sending a fine spray of blood and bone splinters onto my face and into the night sky. I learned very quickly to keep my mouth shut at work, both literally and figuratively.
“Yeah, you’re crap at that, all right,” Craig said. “Now, take this knife and cut that bit of skin there on the back leg.” Although longer, the bit of skin Craig referred to is analogous to the portion of skin between our Achilles tendon and the bones at the ankle. Under Craig’s guidance, I guided a large S-shaped meathook tipped with a very sharp point through the hole. Surprisingly enough, I had not yet vomited.
“Now, for the big boomers, there’s no way you’re gettin’ ’em up by yourself. I’ll help you with this one and the other big boys. But the does, you can get those alone. That’s why you’re here. Me arm is all fucked from years of this shit.”
Female kangaroos, however, pose their own problems. Although easier to lift than the male kangaroos or boomers, the does are often carrying young. In those cases, the only humane thing to do with the joeys that can’t survive outside of the pouch is to kill them on the spot, quickly and decisively. It was an emotional challenge for me. Craig had accepted this part of the job decades ago.
The best methods to dispatch joeys include beheading or boot stomping. You can also grab the bigger ones by the back legs and smack them against a nearby rock or one of the wheels of the truck. Once we had killed five or six ’roos, Craig would stop to gut them, pulling the babies out to dispatch them en masse. After one such performance, Craig peered at me through the swirling dust and sighed, “Mate, I’ve been doin’ this for fifty years, and this part always makes me feel like such a cunt.”
Let the record show that I did not participate. The only inadvertent time I did, I’d made a horrible mistake. I was dragging a doe up to the ute and could see something wriggling in the pouch. All of a sudden two legs stuck out. I grabbed them, pulling the joey free. I meant to hold it up and shout to Craig, “Hey, what should I do with this one?” but it leaped out of my hand and hopped into the distance with a chirping scream.
“You stupid fuckin’ fuckwit, that joey’s not big enough to survive on its own out here! He’s gonna go off and get eaten or starve to death all alone, all because you think you’re such a fuckin’ animal lover! Now chop that cunt’s paws off double time and help me get these fuckers up on the ute!”
As you can imagine, a raging debate exists in Australia over the ethics of kangaroo shooting. A dozen Australian environmental groups have joined forces to mount a legal challenge to the hunting. This bloc has also found a powerful ally in the British animal-rights group Viva! (Vegetarians’ International Voice for Animals). Viva!’s “Save the Kangaroo” campaign has attracted sympathizers outside of Australia, including famous vegetarians like Paul McCartney. Accusing Australia of conducting “the biggest wildlife massacre the world has every seen,” Viva! has scared major UK supermarket chains into removing kangaroo meat from their shelves and targeted soccer stars like David Beckham for wearing Adidas kangaroo-hide soccer boots.
Viva!’s most successful tool has been a video that shows an “experienced, unlicensed but commercial killer” brutalizing kangaroos in the outback at night and claims the cruelty is standard industry practice. The Kangaroo Industry Association of Australia (KIAA) vehemently refutes every single claim made by Viva!—chiefly that, due to underreported kill rates, kangaroos are being driven to extinction—and reserves an exceptional level of rancour for the video in question. KIAA counters that non-commercial and illegal kills are a very minor problem and that the shooter in the video “was actually entrapped into performing his misdeeds by the film crew telling him they were from an American game-shooters magazine.”
As for the Australian RSPCA, it neither categorically rejects nor condones kangaroo shooting, but takes every opportunity to clarify that certain parts of the country are overpopulated by kangaroos and culling or selective shooting of the population “is essential for a humane management of the population.” The official RSPCA line is to prevent cruelty and seek the humane treatment of kangaroos. “If kangaroos are to be killed,” the society argues, “then every effort should be made to ensure it is done humanely.”
Kangaroo shooting is, in truth, not unlike working in a free-range slaughterhouse. Most people don’t want to see films of their sausages being made any more than they want to see kangaroos being shot responsibly, much less brutalized by someone who may or may not have been paid to prove a lobby group’s point. Interestingly enough, while I lived in Australia, unless I raised the issue I never heard anything about it there. People talked about the surf, the weather, the war in Iraq, sheep and shearing, mining, all sorts of other things. A number of my male friends had some passing knowledge of it, having grown up in rural areas before moving to Perth. They’d either done a bit of it themselves in a responsible fashion or gone on the piss with a bunch of their yobbish friends. But they had quickly outgrown the practice. Kangaroo shooting may not be pretty, but it’s necessary; most ordinary Australians don’t give it much thought past that.
Craig and I hunted from sundown to sun-up. We trawled the flat, red flood plains, bumping over dead fences and long-dried washouts, constantly combing the land with our massive, high-powered cones of light. I would zone out and get lost in the wonder of the Australian night sky. The stark light cast on the gnarled trees and brush made it feel like we were a deep-sea craft trawling the bottom of the ocean—the trees, giant anemones; black, invisible water all around us. Occasionally the lights would sweep across a bizarre, neglected sight, like the disembodied legs of an emu wound in razor wire. I would not have been surprised in the least if we had trundled past the exposed skeleton of a massive prehistoric whale.
I started taking my thoughts away, just to cope. I would remember the way that Natasha looked in the ocean as she swam up to me, clutching my torso to bob together through waves. Or how I would touch her back as she slept, escaping my own gore-spattered body with that single caress. These reveries would invariably be shattered by the sound of Craig’s barks from the cab. “Move that fuckin’ light, cunt, you’re off with the fuckin’ fairies up there, I can tell!”
The nights were really shocking and appalling to an American city kid—every time I drifted into mind-insulating escapism, we’d stop with a jerk and have to kill some more. We slowly marinated for hours in our sweat and the ’roos’ blood, dust settling into the mix to form a nearly visible, sludgy paste. Craig would take his shirt off early in the evening, exposing a torso that looked like a model of Mars built across a whale’s belly—broad expanses of craggy, handbag-quality skin marred with amateur scars from knife slips over the decades and a professional kidney removal. I was, at those moments, making a mental note: This, Jeff…This is what happens to people who think sunscreen is for pussies.
“What the fuck are you starin’ at, mate? If you’re a fuckin’ poof, I don’t care, just keep it to your fuckin’ self, aye?”
Once we got back to camp, the task at hand was as simple as the night was nasty: get all twenty-five to thirty-five kangaroos off the truck, sever the legs, slip the government-issue tag through the animal’s rump and hang it in the massive diesel-powered meat locker. One living kangaroo smells wild and pungent. Over a tonne of dead ones slowly oozing the rest of their blood is a seizure-inducing olfactory overload. After several days, the smell would worm its way into our water supply, making the water taste like it had been poured over a kangaroo’s chilled, blood-clotted hide.
We generally finished the night around five in the morning and I would collapse onto my sweat-stained foam mattress at last. After about three minutes, I couldn’t even hear the diesel generator roaring outside my door.
I literally sweated myself awake by ten. The temperature could get up to 46 degrees Celsius by day. Given that our quarters were made of corrugated steel and located in the middle of a shadeless desert, sleep was really just a series of naps punctuated by trips to the rainwater tank for a few glasses of water. Every time I relieved myself on the sand, a swarm of ants and flies would break their little insect necks just to slurp thirstily at my urine before it disappeared into the parched red dirt. By the time I got back to bed, the sweat, which had woken me up, had completely evaporated.
If we both happened to be awake, Craig and I would chat sometimes in between siestas. I learned that his wife had left him when his now-grown children were still small, after she had gambled away much of their savings and slept with a neighbour. “I’ll tell you, mate, times were tough in early days, but I kept our family together as best I could. We used to go out shootin’ as a family, the girls spottin’ ’roos like you’re doin’ now and the boys helpin’ to gut ’em. I don’t have much saved in the bank, but them kids had all the books and clothes the other kids at school did. Life was hard enough for them with no mum, without other kids takin’ the piss out of us for lookin’ shabby.” This had happened thirty years ago and Craig’s eyes still smarted from the pain.
Sometime around four in the afternoon, we’d start gearing up for another night’s shooting. I’d pull on my unspeakably foul-smelling T-shirt and the jeans that had become a giant, wearable scab, and we’d bump out into the cooling afternoon to get the feel of the land. That part of the day was the most enjoyable—four-wheeling across massive red stretches of scrub and sand, seeing feral camels and families of hulking yet nimble wild goats.
Then the night’s shooting would start, and it would go as I have described. The first ’roo of the night would always more or less fuck me up, and then I was just in it until the night was over. Craig would explode at me and call me a hopeless bloody cunt a couple of dozen times a night, balling his fists up and spitting with rage, then turn right around and ask about Natasha with genuine empathy. I’d get kicked and clawed by headless, convulsing kangaroos. Their severed heads would look serenely at me as Craig and I did unspeakable, efficient things to their bodies, and I would invariably get the creeps.
The closest parallel to Australian ’roo-shooting is perhaps the us$600 million a year hunting industry that has thrived on deer overpopulation in the United States. Drastic reductions in the numbers of wolves and coyotes have created an ideal, predator-free environment for deer that has allowed their numbers to skyrocket. Herds ride roughshod over gardens, parks and roadways; in rural areas, they drastically heighten the dangers of driving at night.
However, deer in the US or Canada do not pose quite the same threat as Australia’s kangaroos. It’s this threat and the great numbers driving it that make killing kangaroos so commercially viable. While hunters may eat the deer they shoot, there’s no supply and demand influencing the hunting activity that allows them to make a living. Generally speaking, deer hunters will take two or three deer in a season and then call it quits. Craig and I pulled in a four-and-a-half-tonne haul on an eight-day trip.
On our last night, we got absolutely legless on VB (Victoria Bitter, Australia’s answer to Budweiser) cracking kangaroo legs and heaving the carcasses into the freezer as we told dirty jokes. I can remember slipping and falling face first into a four-foot-deep pile of cold kangaroo corpses, screaming with laughter. “I don’t know whether to help you up or just hand you another beer, you drunken fuckwit,” Craig chortled.
He asked me what I was going to do when I got home, and I was about tell him I was never going back to sleepy Richmond again when he interrupted me, grinning widely. “Don’t tell me what you’re gonna do when you get home, mate. You’re a young buck with a pretty lady that loves you…You’ll have a root first chance you get. I’m an old fucka, so me and the missus are gonna sit down and watch bloody Law and Order.”
We talked about loves we’d lost and the loves we had and shared a sincere and honest belief in a divine power. To say we bonded is an understatement. I was on a million acres of desert with a foul-tempered man who was extremely good at killing large mammals; I had never felt safer in all of my life.
The next evening, after we’d spent two hours wrestling kangaroo carcasses into his trailer and tying the stack down with a tarp to keep the flies off, Craig turned to me and said the three little words that would have made anybody’s heart melt: “Let’s go home.”