The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.
After the number surpassed 20, I quit counting.
Counting the dead bodies of kangaroos, that is, lying dead alongside a rural highway in Queensland where I was driving to visit in-laws in Australia some years ago.
I was horrified at the carnage, but my Aussie relatives in the car were nonplussed. They merely shrugged and said, “Yeah, mate, a lotta ’roos get killed on this road every spring.”
That reaction wasn’t because they didn’t care about the deaths of their country’s most unique and prolific marsupial, but rather a recognition, grim as it was, that the numbers of kangaroos are so plentiful that there’s no way dozens can avoid getting run over as they cross busy highways in search of what is often-scare forage in Australia’s semi-arid interior.
Down Under, kangaroos are like the deer in our Midwestern areas: Without any predators of note, and coupled with widespread agricultural and commercial developments that provide unprecedented access to vegetation, the numbers of both kangaroos there and deer over here have exploded.
In fact, should you someday decide to visit Australia and you want to see the country’s most iconic animals in action, here’s a tip: Go to any rural town outside of the big cities, and find the nearest golf course. Hang out during the late afternoon as the sun’s going down, and you’ll be rewarded with the sight of dozens of kangaroos ambling onto the fairways to nibble on all that fresh, green irrigated grass.
The populations of kangaroos in many areas of Australia are such that either hunters have to reduce the herds to sustainable levels, or motorists end up inadvertently accomplishing a similar reduction, albeit in a far more brutish manner.
This week, kangaroos are on the radar — and on the menu of a school district in Nebraska. At least they were, until Mike Williams, the superintendent of the Potter-Dix School District in the state’s southwest corner, fired a high school cook there who added kangaroo meat to the chili served for lunch on Oct. 10, according to USA Today.
The newspaper reported that Kevin Frei, the now-ex junior/senior high school head cook, told Williams he decided to add kangaroo meat mixed to the ground beef because of its lean nutritional profile.
Williams noted in a statement that he doesn’t believe the meat was dangerous and that it was subject to proper government standards. However, the decision to serve “exotic meat” should be made by families, not schools, he said, adding that foods containing any unusual ingredients ought to be clearly labeled.
Good points all, although the controversy that resulted in Frei’s firing isn’t about labeling; it’s about the “horror” too many people experience when they think about butchering cute little Skippy.
That revulsion is shared by many Australians, by the way, even though kangaroo meat is readily available in many supermarkets and custom butcher shops there.
But as is true with so much of animal agriculture, the environmental impact of the food we eat should be a big enough priority to balance, if not override, our post-modern sensitivities about the demise of a cute, furry animal.
According to a recent report by the BBC, kangaroos produce “far less of the greenhouse gas methane than cattle,” which were first imported to Australia by European settlers in the 19th century. Moreover, kangaroos’ “jumping feet” don’t damage the dry, often fragile Australian topsoil the way the hooves of cows and sheep tend to do.
In other words, kangaroos are better adapted to their native climate and topography, and thus produce less eco-impact on their habitat.
In Australia, kangaroos are a protected species; however, their numbers are so great that they’re widely regarded as pests and are regularly hunted by professional shooters according to a quota system.
As the foodservice sector, propelled by dozens of outspoken celebrity chefs, moves in lockstep toward sourcing ingredients that are wild, seasonal and local, kangaroo meat ought to be viewed as part of the solution to food sustainability, rather than a protein source we should avoid
But when your only culinary celebrity is the notoriety of getting fired for preparing a hot meal of eco-friendly food, that larger trend is no doubt of cold comfort to Mr. Frei.