Washington: The Australian embassy in Washington is pushing back against a bipartisan effort by American legislators and animal rights groups to ban the importation of all kangaroo products into the United States.
A Democratic congressman from California, Salud Carbajal, and his Republican counterpart Brian Fitzpatrick from Pennsylvania last month introduced a bill into the US House of Representatives that would impose steep penalties on anyone importing kangaroo leather or meat into the US.
The coalition of animal rights groups behind the bill is running a sophisticated campaign called "kangaroos are not shoes" that features graphic images of dead kangaroos and joeys.
The group's website, which encourages Americans to contact their local representatives about the issue, describes Australia's kangaroo cull as the "largest land-based commercial wildlife slaughter in the world, ten times larger and far bloodier than the notorious seal slaughter in Canada".
Due to a range of factors, including traditional farming practices, provision of man-made water sources, and land disturbance, kangaroo populations can reach very high densities in many areas of Australia.
The website asks why two million kangaroos are being killed each year in Australia when other countries protect native icons such as the North American bald eagle, the New Zealand kiwi bird, and the Chinese panda.
If passed into law, the legislation would be a massive blow to the Australian kangaroo industry given exports to the US are worth an estimated $80 million a year, making it the industry's second-biggest export market after the European Union.
The primary aim of the Kangaroo Protection Act is to stop major brands such as Nike, Adidas, and Puma from using kangaroo leather in their soccer shoes and bicycle cleats.
The bill has forced Australian officials in Washington to counter commonly-held views, including that kangaroo harvesters are targeting a "cute and cuddly" endangered species.
"When we heard this bill had been introduced we moved quickly because we wanted to make sure that lawmakers understood the basis on which the commercial kangaroo industry operates in Australia," US ambassador Arthur Sinodinos said.
"It's about providing context and information to dispel some misconceptions that are out there."
Wayne Pacelle, the president of Animal Wellness Action, one of the groups lobbying for the bill, said he decided to launch the campaign after the death of thousands of kangaroos and other marsupials during the Australian bushfires of late 2019 and early 2020.
"People outside Australia consider kangaroos to be one of the primary icons and symbols of that continent so there's an instinctive reaction when they hear that two million kangaroos are killed for their parts," he said. "They are stunned."
Pacelle said: "I believe we stand a very good chance of getting this passed.
"The animal welfare lobby in the US has passed a lot of major legislation, and there's no domestic constituency for this enterprise. It's an easy vote for Democrats certainly, and also for Republicans to show they are animal-welfare friendly."
Selling kangaroo products conflicts with the long-standing US norm that only farmed animals - rather than those killed in the wild - should be exploited for commercial gain, Pacelle said.
Politicians as divergent as Jamie Raskin, who served as the Democrats' lead impeachment manager during Donald Trump's second impeachment trial, and Republican Matt Gaetz, one of the most pro-Trump members of Congress, have signed on as sponsors of the bill.
Australian officials and the kangaroo industry are hopeful that the bill, like most pieces of legislation introduced into Congress, does not become law. But it could still have an impact if it spurs corporations to cut kangaroo products out of their supply chains to avoid a backlash.
Kangaroo Industries Association of Australia executive officer Dennis King said: "The bill is misguided, it's not grounded in the facts. No threatened species are commercially harvested in Australia, nor are any kangaroos harvested for their hides. It's all part of a government-regulated, humanely managed wildlife management program that has operated for 30 years."
The industry argues that kangaroos, far from being a threatened species like the panda, are so abundant that their population needs to be controlled. The Australian government estimates that there are 43 million kangaroos in NSW, Queensland, South Australia, and Western Australia, up from 27 million a decade earlier.
"Even if there were no commercial industry, conservation culling would occur anyway to avoid overpopulation and mass starvation during droughts," King said.
"Kangaroos may look cute and cuddly but they can do immense amounts of damage to farmers' properties," he added.