Aussies Are Hopping Mad About 'Roos

An Australian national symbol - the kangaroo - is being turned into a new national cuisine

IT can't be easy to eat your national symbol. But Australians are overcoming their qualms about it. Soon, they'll all be throwing "Skippy" on the barby, instead of prawns.

New South Wales became the fourth state to legalize the selling of kangaroo meat in supermarkets on July 22. It took three attempts in six years to get legislation through state parliament.

Australians generally regard the native high-hopping marsupial with affection (although they tend to roll their eyes at foreign coverage of the country that seems to center exclusively on reef, rock, `roo, and koala). Skippy was the kangaroo star of a popular TV show in the 1960s and has the same standing in Australian culture that Bambi has in the United States. A `roo graces the tail of every Qantas jet and shares the Commonwealth emblem with an emu.

But the kangaroo wasn't always put on a pedestal. `Roo was an accepted part of the Australian diet in the 1800s, says Warren Fahey, a folklorist and bush cook. But when surpluses of beef and sheep grew, marketing campaigns appeared in women's magazines to promote their use. Kangaroo meat, on the other hand, was relegated to pet food.

The perception that it was full of worms also kept people away. "Totally false," says Mr. Fahey. "It was cleaner than beef."

Public opinion has shifted from "only feeding it to the dogs to realizing it's the red meat you can eat," says Dave Freudenberger, an ecologist with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization. At a recent forum promoting kangaroos as a national export, advertisers distributed glossy brochures showing kangaroo steaks and roasts. They were promoting it as free of cholesterol, lean, grass-fed, and humanely killed.

The other shift in public opinion has come from the increased numbers of kangaroos, not only in the country and the outback, but increasingly in suburbia. Kangaroo carcasses litter the highways, and people avoid driving at dusk and dawn to keep from hitting the critters. And in suburban areas of Canberra, the country's capital, people have to shoo them away from their cars in parking lots.

Farmers, particularly, have regarded kangaroos as pests. During these last few years of drought, kangaroos have competed with cattle and sheep for dwindling food. They have been blamed for destroying fences, damaging crops, and fouling waterholes.

The kangaroo population grew from 13.5 million to nearly 18 million from 1981-1990, according to the Australian Nature Conservation Agency.

The government sanctions controlled culling by professional, licensed hunters, and since 1981, the annual "harvest quota" has grown from 3 million to 4 million.

The image of the kangaroo is evolving again, from pet to pest to a renewable resource, like trees. "That's been [a] major shift in thinking at Commonwealth and state levels," says Mr. Freudenberger. "They're a renewable resource and need to be managed within the limitations of their national productivity."

With many of Australia's natural products, like wool, finding difficult footing in world markets in the recession, some are seeing great export potential in kangaroo meat and hide. Cliff Dee, president of the Kangaroo Industry, says the kangaroo industry is worth about $50 million a year, but estimates it could grow to about $250 million.

This kind of talk alarms animal-rights activists and conservation groups. The Australian Conservation Fund's stance is that "wildlife populations have [a] right ... to exist and flourish independently of human needs. Kangaroos ... should not be regarded merely as a human resource, and commercial exploitation should never be contemplated." The Australian Information Service says that it receives 30,000 to 40,000 letters a year from overseas protesting the killing.

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