The Palate Politics of Eating Kangaroo
This essay on kangatarianism is the first piece in the Unpure Imagination series, which seeks to engage with and challenge themes of toxicity, purity, pollution, and restoration in an always compromised world. Series editors: Ben Iuliano, Kuhelika Ghosh, and Richelle Wilson.
What does it mean to eat well in an epoch when industrial processes are undermining conditions of life on a planetary scale? What ethical, environmental, and economic factors shape the palate politics of food and diet in an increasingly unpure yet always more-than-human world? And if eating sometimes involves killing, then can there be such a thing as a “pure” diet for humans, or a “good death” for the animals we consume?
These are the kinds of questions I’m asking myself as I embark on a research project investigating the fraught relations of humans to kangaroos as wildlife, pests, and food in Australia. Kangaroos occupy a unique position in Australian social and ecological imaginaries. Long before the arrival of settlers, they held central cultural and spiritual significance in Aboriginal cultures and constituted an important source of protein in their diets. From the early days of colonization, the unusual biological and behavioral attributes of kangaroos, alongside other Antipodean species, attracted the curiosity of European naturalists, archaeologists, and historians. Since then, kangaroos have become a dominant symbol in Australian political and popular culture—from their inclusion on the coat of arms and prevalence within literature, television, and film to their symbolic mobilization as sport mascots, commercial logos, military iconography, and more.
Yet the warming aura of kangaroos is complicated by their status as pests. Soon after colonization, European settlers recast the abundance of kangaroo mobs as a threat to the resources required for introduced livestock to thrive and farmers to survive. This shift marked the beginnings of kangaroos’ entrenched association with impurity, overabundance, and threat. The damaging impacts of kangaroo populations are amplified in Australian media, which routinely describe kangaroos through pathologizing and militaristic idioms—for instance, kangaroos spreading in plague or epidemic proportions, and kangaroos as a scourge on the livelihoods of farmers and the well-being of livestock. With the success of alternative population control methods such as contraception and relocation undetermined, kangaroos remain the target of systematic, state-regulated culling—a practice that is often subsumed in government discourse under the label of “controlled native species management.”
The culling of kangaroos operates alongside their commercialization. Since 1959, kangaroo meat has been sold throughout Australia and exported to 70 countries as a source of food for both humans and pets. These products are primarily obtained from red, eastern grey, and western grey kangaroos, who represent the three most populous species and account for roughly 95 percent of the total quota for the legal culling of macropods (the marsupial family that includes kangaroos) across Australia. While the association of kangaroos with pesthood continues to undermine their popularity, and the $175-million kangaroo meat industry remains dwarfed by the $6-billion beef industry, a small but growing food movement known as “kangatarianism” has begun to take root. Exemplifying a broader trend in feral meat consumption in Australian urban and peri-urban areas, adherents of kangatarianism embrace an alternative form of palate politics by rejecting industrially produced meats in exclusive favor of kangaroo meat harvested from the wild.
In invoking the concept of “palate politics,” I seek to foreground the culturally and historically situated ways in which consumers conceptualize and evaluate the relative purity or impurity of the foods that they choose to eat. Politics speaks to the differential power dynamics and contestations surrounding food choices and decisions. Palate speaks to the sensorial, gustatory dimensions of eating, and the way these are inflected by the ethical, economic, and environmental aspects of foods alternately eschewed or embraced. Conjoining these terms serves to highlight the multiple factors that shape food and diet’s moral and material dimensions.
Purity in multiple forms animates the imaginaries, practices, and discourses surrounding kangatarianism. As I discovered in my interviews with Sydney-based kangatarian practitioners in 2022 and in related survey-based scholarship, this sense of purity is intrinsically connected to kangaroos’ wildness. Sourced from the bush and rangelands, kangaroo meat is free of contaminants found in industrially reared poultry and livestock, who are pumped with antibiotics, growth hormones, and chemicals. Kangaroo is also a nutritionally better choice in that it is low in fat (2 percent or under) and high in protein, iron, polyunsaturated fatty acids, conjugated linoleic acid, and B vitamins when compared to other meats. For some, eating kangaroo meat conjures images and memories of the bush itself as a space of wilderness—one that often lies beyond the reach of their everyday urban lives. For others, the hunting of kangaroos signals a return to a more “natural” or “traditional” way of sourcing food—one that does not involve intentionally breeding animals but rather making use of “what is already there.”
“Good Life” and “Good Death” in Kangatarianism
If the wildness of kangaroos is understood to benefit the health of humans who consume them, it is also deemed central to the “good life” of kangaroos themselves. Kangaroos may be hunted, killed, and eaten, but at the very least, they have had the chance to live out their lives autonomously and freely, and with limited human interference or control. This quality of life stands in stark contrast to the captivity and containment of industrially bred animals in factory farms who, unlike kangaroos, are made to exist only to be eaten and who often suffer from systematic cruelty, neglect, and violence from birth to death.
For some of my interviewees, the notion of wildness as enabling kangaroos to experience a “good life” also conjures ideals of a “good death.” This ideal stems from the principle of “humane harvesting” instituted in instruments such as the National Code of Practice for the Humane Shooting of Kangaroos and Wallabies for Commercial Purposes that aim to minimize kangaroos’ suffering by affording them a “humane death” that is “sudden” and “rapid.” Harvesting methods outlined in the Code of Practice and official harvester handbooks to achieve this end include aiming for a shot to the brain or heart, using only specified firearms and ammunition, searching female kangaroos for pouch young, and euthanizing joeys with a single forceful blow to the head or a shot in the brain or heart.
The most widely invoked rationale for kangaroo consumption lies in its benefits for the Australian environment and, somewhat paradoxically, for the well-being of the livestock and farmers who depend upon it. This rationale is underscored in the discourses of the kangaroo meat industry and government and scientific bodies encouraging kangaroo consumption as a way of controlling kangaroo populations that, at almost 50 million, outnumber Australians by a ratio of two to one. Similarly, many kangatarians whom I spoke to understand their choice to “eat pests” as a way of contributing to the prevention of kangaroo overabundance, mitigating their competition with livestock over land, grass, pasture, and water resources, and limiting the adverse effects of this competition on the economies of rural agriculturalists.
At the same time, kangatarians often justify their choice in opposition to the livestock industry’s ecological impacts. They note, for instance, that kangaroo meat has a smaller environmental footprint than beef, lamb, or pork. Kangaroos require less water and no land cleared to grow feed for them. Their paws cause minimal erosion and compaction of soil compared to livestock hooves. They also consume less fodder and produce lower emissions of methane compared to grazing animals, who contribute 11 percent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions and occupy over 54 percent of Australia’s total landmass.
And yet, the story of kangatarianism cannot be reduced purely to the promise of environmental, nutritional, and ethical beneficence. Evidence is mounting that government codes of conduct are not being put into practice. A 2002 report from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), for instance, noted that 100,000 kangaroos had not been killed humanely in the commercial industry and that at least 120,000 kangaroos had suffered nonfatal body shots. Where not euthanized, young kangaroos and joeys are often left to die from starvation, dehydration, exposure, or predation, with anticipated negative effects on the social stability and evolutionary potential of individual organisms and collectives.
Following an official inquiry in the state of New South Wales into the health and well-being of kangaroos and other members of the macropod family in 2021, the committee acknowledged a “lack of monitoring and regulation” at the point-of-kill during both the commercial and noncommercial killing of kangaroos, and a “lack of transparency” in the methodologies used to estimate macropod populations and consequent cull quotas and zones. The committee further noted troubling evidence of inhumane, disrespectful practice in kangaroo shooting and their “profound impact” on the mental health of some Aboriginal people, kangaroo carers, and rescuers. However, assessing and regulating welfare practices in the commercial kangaroo hunting sector remains notoriously difficult due to the size and remote nature of the industry, and the fact that most kangaroo harvesting takes place under the cover of dark.
The “overabundance” of kangaroos that legitimates their culling and commodification is itself hotly contested within the scientific community. While some note that the population estimate of 50 million represents a conservative figure, others emphasize the dramatic decline of kangaroo populations since settlement days, when they are estimated to have numbered 100 to 200 million. The methodologies deployed in counting kangaroos have also been criticized for focusing on areas where kangaroos abound and then extrapolating figures to places where few kangaroos are found, resulting in inflated estimates that then place kangaroos at risk of overexploitation, with some species in danger of extinction. Concerns over the potential local or national extinction of kangaroos were voiced as early as 1937 in a letter in the Colonial Times. While still subject to debate, this possibility accrues ominous potency in light of Australia’s status as the country with the second-highest rates of plant and animal extinctions worldwide—a phenomenon attributable primarily to ongoing habitat loss from agroindustrial land clearing and the mandated killing of native marsupials in the colonial era.
Complicating Kangatarian Ethics
Further muddying the purported ethics of kangaroo consumption are the concerns raised by Aboriginal communities surrounding their exclusion from decision-making processes related to kangaroo management, the lack of transparent benefit-sharing mechanisms for Indigenous peoples in the kangaroo meat industry, and the neglect of Indigenous peoples’ diverse perspectives, philosophies, and protocols regarding the proper treatment of native wildlife and country. These exclusions, in turn, are embedded within and perpetuate the extractive and occupying violence of settler colonialism in Australia, where Indigenous peoples live under conditions of entrenched discrimination, dispossession, and disempowerment. They also elide the fact that Australia’s wildlife, including its kangaroo populations, have historically thrived as a result of Aboriginal Australians’ sustainable land management practices such as firestick farming, wherein patches of land were selectively burned in order to provide graze for kangaroos. Against this backdrop, for some Indigenous persons, the kangaroo meat industry can only be meaningful and just if it is understood and implemented as an economic pathway for Indigenous self-determination.
Perhaps most ambiguous among the arguments put forth in favor of kangaroo meat consumption are those related to climate change. In the context of extreme weather events such as droughts and wildfires that are becoming increasingly frequent, intense, and protracted across the continent, kangaroo meat consumption is also now being promoted as a way of sparing kangaroos the fate of a violent and tortuous death from starvation, dehydration, and incineration. Here, eating kangaroo is reframed as an ethical and humane act stemming from sentiments of compassion, empathy, and even a kind of sacrificial love. When kangaroo numbers rise during the periods of heavy rainfall that tend to follow fires and droughts, the same exhortation to “eat roo” is made—only this time in the name of preventing a population boom. Here, killing and consuming kangaroos revert to the rationale of population control and containment. No matter what logic applies, kangaroos invariably seem to end up in the position of the killable. Meanwhile, the anthropogenic causes of fires, drought, and other extreme weather events—urban development, land clearing, agriculture, and mining—are either met with strong institutional resistance or left largely unquestioned.
The environmental historian Nancy Cushing describes kangatarianism as an “Anthropocenic bargain” that enables people to continue consuming red meat while reducing their environmental footprint. Approaching food choices through the lens of bargain invites attention to the ambivalent forms of violence and compromise that lie at the heart of sustainable food movements but that are sometimes obscured by conjured imaginaries of “purity.” The rise of kangatarianism, for instance, speaks to growing aspirations of ethical and environmental beneficence—but it also relies on the continuation of what has been described as “the largest commercial slaughter of terrestrial wildlife anywhere in the world.”
Unpalatable truths about kangaroo life and deathworlds trouble what it means to eat well (or at least, better) in unevenly shared more-than-human worlds. As Alexis Shotwell has argued, staying with the trouble of such unpalatable truths brings into question the possibility—and desirability—of strictly defining and distinguishing purity and impurity in the first place. Rather, it complicates straightforward distinctions and decisions surrounding what counts as “pure” and “impure” eating in an epoch of planetary unmaking—and by the same token, what counts as a “good life” or “good death” for the beings we consume, and who gets to decide.
In settler-colonized regions such as Australia, grappling with (im)pure imaginaries of wildlife consumption demands critical attention to, and reckoning with, longer-standing histories of socio-ecological violence that have and continue to undermine the conditions of life for native people, flora, and fauna alike. Reckoning with these histories of injustice becomes all the more complex and vital when increasingly volatile weather conditions are being instrumentalized to encourage the taking of animal life as a compassionate and utilitarian act—one that elides the “bigger picture” of climate change and its roots in colonial capitalism. In the process, decisions to replace, reduce, or outright reject meat consumption reveal themselves to be never entirely innocent or pure. Rather, each is tethered in one way or another to certain impure conundrums, enfleshed in the bodies of nonhuman beings as they travel from paddock to pantry and from plate to palate.
Featured image: Eastern grey kangaroo standing among tall green grass. Photo by pen_ash, 2021.
Sophie Chao is Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) Fellow and Lecturer in Anthropology at the University of Sydney. Her research investigates the intersections of ecology, capitalism, health, and justice in the Pacific. Sophie is author of In the Shadow of the Palms: More-Than-Human Becomings in West Papua (Duke University Press, 2022). Her current research, supported by the Australian Research Council, investigates the conflicting perceptions, knowledges, and practices surrounding kangaroo-human relations. Website. Twitter. Contact.