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Living with animals

By Edgar Crook - posted Wednesday, 20 February 2008

When the first European explorers came across Australia, they quickly left it again considering that it was not worth settling. Its conditions were too harsh and its animals were regarded as uneatable.

When the British finally settled here in 1788 they came prepared, bringing along their own plants and animals. Some of the introduced cattle later wandered off and so the first large ferals were off and away, and multiplying. These were later followed by cats, dogs, foxes and a myriad other animals.

One of the introduced animals - the sheep - of course soon became the pre-eminent colonist of Australia, bringing wealth and influence to generations of pastoralists - an influence that still persists today.


While the non-native animals were being introduced the local Australian fauna was not considered to be of much interest, except as scientific specimens or as things to be avoided. Native animals were frequently represented pictorially and hence became iconic, but, as they had no economic use or initial cost, the actual fate of these animals was essentially ignored.

These animals, however, soon had to be considered and, as always, it was to their detriment. Kangaroos and wallabies were killed as soon as the first pastoralist settled his land for sheep grazing - grasses now being restricted to only those animals of economic benefit. The killing of native wildlife, if it impacted even in the slightest on graziers or farmers or any other economic activity, had begun and the numbers of dead would only grow.

With the rise in Australian nationalism in the late 18th century Australian native animals gained a higher status especially with the urban populace. The rise of nationalism automatically engendered a diminishment in fondness for things and animals of European heritage. With the further realisation that imported animals, such as mice and rabbits, were taking on plague proportions, this preference was confirmed.

Once an animal became identified as un-Australian it lost all its charms and protections. If it was labelled as a pest or feral any animal could henceforth be legally trapped, shot, poisoned, hunted by dogs or just hacked at by all and sundry - and often for bounty. The rabbit was the first to be systematically destroyed in vast numbers; first by individual acts of human cruelty and later by eliciting germ warfare, we hated them so much.

Since then we have declared war on many other animals. Imported animals which are legally killed in numerous ways include horses, pigs, cats, dogs, rabbits, buffalo, camels and toads. The chance that this slaughter will ever stop is minimal as the Australian population continues to believe it is necessary and that without it we would be overrun by these animals.

Parts of the scientific community concur with this view. The “scientific” reasons for the continued killing, which have become flimsier over time, have now reached the level of the argument, as used recently by the ACT Government, which stated that culling kangaroos was necessary to prevent them dying of starvation - thus shooting kangaroos to prevent them from dying of natural causes. There appears to be very little understanding or consideration given to the natural ebb and flow of population according to conditions (such as food availability, climate, other species and so on), which has elsewhere constrained numbers.


Any animal which encroaches on human interests is fair game. Want to swim? Then net the beaches and let marine animals get caught up and die in the nets. Problems with bats eating your fruit? Then slaughter our native bats.

In enormous divergence to every other developed country, Australians kill vast numbers of wild animals due to the slightest inconvenience. Australia can claim the largest terrestrial slaughter of wildlife in the world. In 2007 the quota for the killing of kangaroos was set at 3.6 million. That 3.6 million is the basic figure, but of course the figure doesn’t include those joeys at foot that will die when their parents are shot. Nor does it include those also killed by amateur rather than professional killers.

Only Canada with its seal culls can come anywhere near this level of barbarity. However the slaughter there is carried out for a short period on ice flows a long way from habitation. In Australia the slaughter happens nightly just outside country towns. If Canadians had to witness their killings in this way it would not continue for long.

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About the Author

Edgar Crook is a Senior Librarian at the National Library of Australia and the author of the following: Vegetarianism in Australia : 1788-1948 and Vegetarianism and veganism in Australia : an annotated bibliography.

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