from Paul Sheehan, SMH, October 2009
Eight nights ago Channel Nine's 60 Minutes ran a blood-curdling story about the herding and slaughter of dolphins near the Japanese fishing town of Taiji, describing what it called the ''Dante's inferno'' for dolphins. It was harrowing. It was also a classic case of Australians in glass houses.
The reporter Liam Bartlett confronted a hapless official in the local council offices and said: ''Are all your officials too busy washing dolphin blood off their hands?'' In Japan, where the codes of public honour are incomparably more ingrained and important than in Australia, this on-camera affront was more than grossly insulting. So when another Japanese official, Yoshito Umezaki, blasted Bartlett as a grandstanding hypocrite and worse, it was fair comment.
Bartlett: ''Can you understand why many Australians would consider what you're doing to be barbaric?''
Umezaki (speaking Japanese): ''Yes, I can. I do understand the feeling, but I'd like to say that, for Japanese people, killing kangaroos is sad and unbearable. Don't you think it's the same?''
Bartlett: ''Are you saying we are hypocritical?''
Umezaki: ''Yes, I can.''
Then he added: ''I think there is racism towards people of colour.''
Bartlett, incredulous: ''So, when we ask fishermen in Taiji to stop killing dolphins, we are racist?''
Umezaki: ''Yes, that's how we understand it. We never tell you in Australia to stop killing kangaroo or wild camels.''
He's right. Australians (including me) express outrage about the whales and the dolphins, but when it comes to hypocrisy about animal cruelty, we are world class. We hunt, slaughter and brutalise our national symbol while lauding, exploiting and symbolising it at the same time. Similarly, we don't expend much curiosity about the abject conditions in the factory farms that produce our pork and poultry.
Consider the most revolting of all the annual government-sanctioned, mass animal slaughters: the butchering of the baby harp seals in Canada. This year a kill quota of 280,000 was set. Most will be young seals clubbed to death on ice floes.
Then consider this: at least 150,000 joeys, and possibly twice that many, will be shot, bashed, crushed or starved to death in Australia this year.
The perfect example of Australia's cultural amnesia about the kangaroo was evident this month when about 140 eastern grey kangaroos were shot on Mount Panorama, the site of the Bathurst 1000, ''to ensure the safety of drivers and visitors''.
It was a metaphor for a country that turns its national symbol into dog food, a country in which about 3 million kangaroos, on average, have been culled each year over the past decade. Animal rights groups put the slaughter of joeys on the same scale and cruelty as the slaughter of seal cubs in Canada. This is disputed by the kangaroo industry, and by many scientists.
The head of the Kangaroo Industries Association of Australia, John Kelly, told me: ''There is no reliable estimate of the numbers of joeys killed as a result of the commercial harvest [but] the commercial take is about 25 per cent female and … only about 20 per cent of females are likely to have a joey at foot.''
Joeys are shot according to the Federal Government's Animal Welfare Code of Practice.
The balance of scientific opinion holds that the juvenile mortality rate is higher in unharvested kangaroo populations than in harvested populations.
''The simple reason for this,'' Kelly says, ''is that the harvest controls the population and reduces the boom-bust cycle, which leads to extremely high juvenile mortality during the 'bust' cycles.''
Unlike the whale and dolphin harvesting by the Japanese, which are compromising the long-term viability of some species and in whaling are hidden behind the absurd mask of ''scientific research'', the dominant view among scientists in this country is that the kangaroo cull does not threaten the viability of species and is not veiled in double-speak.
Both points are contested by animal rights groups and scientists such as David Croft of the University of NSW. ''Compliance with the code of practice is never assessed at the point of killing but only through random checks at chillers after the killing has been undertaken,'' he told me.
''The code is silent about the fate of dependent young-at-foot which have left their mother's pouch. They are abandoned to die of starvation or predation. The scale of the industry is such that of the 30 million kangaroos killed between 1994-2003, about 12 million were females, leaving about 3 million young to a cruel death."
His figures, in turn, are contested. The point here is not to dismiss either side. Young kangaroos have always died in large numbers, long before Europeans turned up. The point here is about hypocrisy. While eastern greys were being shot on Mount Panorama this month to make way for a car race, my thoughts turned to the one eastern grey I got to know. She was named Myrtle. I wrote about her last Australia Day.
An orphan, she was adopted by David Macfarlane. ''In the morning she'd stand at the breakfast table and expect a bowl of cereal like the rest of us. She didn't like being left out.'' Myrtle identified David as the dominant male in her world, and rarely drifted far from him. She would go into a jealous rage when young women came to visit. When he took us out in his boat, she would swim after it.
You don't want to think too much about what happens to thousands of potential Myrtles every year. As the Japanese official Umezaki said, it is ''sad and unbearable''.
But we bear it. In fact, most Australians don't appear to think about it much. It's easier to condemn the Japanese.