Killing for Kicks

Nike’s kangaroo-leather soccer shoes drive massive wildlife kill in Australia’s Outback

By a long shot, the public-private scheme to kill kangaroos in Australia is the biggest commercial slaughter of native wildlife in the world. Despite all the pretense and rationalizations hitched to it by proponents of this open-air slaughter, it’s motivated by profit and the trade in their body parts.

U.S. Representatives Salud Carbajal, D-Calif., and Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Penn., this week introduced the Kangaroo Protection Act to ban the sale of products made from kangaroos in the United States. The bill aims to curb the killing of two million kangaroos a year in the Australian Outback, mainly for the skins used by Nike, adidas, Puma, and other companies for manufacturing soccer shoes (“cleats”). Sold throughout the world and known as “football boots,” the U.S. is the second-largest market, behind only the European Union.

The bill introduction comes just days after the Center for a Humane Economy and the Animal Wellness groups released a short film, by Hollywood filmmakers Gavin Polone and Derek Ambrosi, to expose one of the least-known assaults on native wildlife in the world.  Using reverse sequencing, the film starts with a soccer player kicking a goal and ends with a kangaroo about to be killed in the wild, tracing the distinct, connecting steps in between.

Animal Wellness Action and the Center for a Humane Economy conceived our Kangaroos Are Not Shoes campaign after the 2019-2020 fires swallowed up or dislocated, according to Australian scientists, as many as three billion animals. Fire is a needed element of forest and grassland health, but fueled by human actions that warmed the continent, the blazes morphed into a runaway inferno. Kangaroos, the iconic mascots for the continent and a captivating draw for visitors from afar, constituted a considerable part of the body count.

While we cannot quickly turn around the effects that a warming planet has in magnifying bush fires, we can do something right away about the international trade in kangaroo parts. And that’s the game plan: to secure commitments from athletic shoe companies to rid their supply chains of kangaroo skins.

The Australian government’s unenforceable “National Code of Practice for the Humane Shooting of Kangaroos and Wallabies for Commercial Purposes” encourages shooters to kill kangaroos with a single lethal shot to the brain. A few problems make that at best an aspiration, given that these are fright-and-flight animals bathed in darkness and perhaps as far away as 200 yards from the paid sniper. The shooters are instructed to bludgeon any joeys found near or in the pouches of their slain mothers. That toll alone is 400,000 joeys – larger still than the entire baby seal hunt in Canada. (More on that in a moment).

Adult kangaroo skin, stripped at the processing plant, is sold to a skin dealer, salted, or pickled, and shipped out for tanning, most often going to Asia or Italy. After tanning, the kangaroo leather is shipped to manufacturing plants to be made principally into soccer cleats, where it is most frequently renamed “k-leather.”

The Center issued a first-of-its-kind list of 72 models of kangaroo skin soccer shoes from adidas, Lotto, Mizuno, New Balance, Nike, Pantofolo d’Oro, Puma, and Umbro. Diadora, the fourth-largest soccer-brand in the U.S., stopped using kangaroo skin last year.

The PR assault precedes the actual assault

The kangaroo shooting industry, and their allies in government, trot out the notion that kangaroos are “overpopulated,” posing a threat to rangeland and fencing and vexing ranchers and farmers.

It’s the oldest trick in the playbook of the people who want to harm wildlife — demonize the victims and label them as marauders.

For decades, this has been done on Alaska with wolves. Alaska is the U.S. largest state by area, but with well fewer than a million people and enormous holdings of public lands.

There are also virtually no livestock to speak of in the state. With the usual trope unavailable that wolves are preying on lambs and calves, the trophy hunting community says the wolves are eating all the wildlife.

The late Alaska Governor Walter Hickel, in touting aerial gunning of wolves, famously said “You can’t just let nature run wild.” In 1994, Alaska legislators passed the Intensive Management Act, declaring that “the highest and best us of most big game populations is to provide for high levels of harvest for human use.”

That means they want to turn Alaska into a game farm in which wolves and bears are viewed as competitors for moose and caribou.

That has nothing to do with science or too many wolves or too many conflicts.  For some people, one wolf is one too many. Yet their demonizing of wolves wins the day with far too many politicians in the state.

Or take the example of seals in Canada. Politicians cited the presence of several million seals off Canada’s eastern seaboard as evidence that these creatures are out of control. Commercial fishing interests joined in, claiming the cod-eating seals destroyed that fishery. Seal shaming is certainly easier than examining the effect of industrial-style fishing fleets on the cod fishery. Harp and hooded seals do eat cod, but the species makes up just 1 to 3 percent of the seal’s diets.

Two decades ago, John Efford, then the minister of fisheries and aquaculture for Newfoundland Labrador, told the provincial legislature: “Mr. Speaker, I would like to see the six million seals, or whatever number is out there, killed and sold, or destroyed and burned. I do not care what happens to them…the more they kill the better. I will love it.”

Claptrap about kangaroos

The killing of kangaroos occurs on a continent nearly the size of the U.S., but with less than one- tenth the population. There are vast areas with a sparse human presence where kangaroos and other distinctive wildlife can flourish. Yes, on this immense continent, there are millions of kangaroos, but they are native species that have thrived on the land for millennia. They are no more out of balance now than they were 100,000 years ago. It’s people who have changed the narrative, coming in with the notion that the grass is there for domesticated cattle, fences are there to keep out wildlife, foreign markets are there to enable economic gain, and firearms are there to have the final say.

Yet it is the athletic shoe companies, chiefly Nike and adidas, that drive the commercial killing. “This [soccer shoe] industry is vital to the kangaroo industry,” said a spokesman for the Kangaroo Industry Association of Australia. “Without it underpinning kangaroo skin prices, the entire industry would be at risk.”

If soccer players stop buying these products, Nike would not buy the skins and the government would not set quotas to enable the killing millions of kangaroos each year.

While kangaroo skin was cutting-edge when introduced by Puma in the 1960’s, today it’s a relic, a legacy product for a niche category. According to James Agar, the Bootwizard, one of the leading soccer cleat authorities on the internet, most top-tier cleats today are synthetic, with break-through materials fashioned into mesh and knit or even fake kangaroo skin, like Nike’s Kanga-Lite or adidas’ HybridTouch. The polyester in many of the shoes comes from recycled plastic including water bottles and reclaimed ocean plastic. The industry’s excitement is with new compounds coming from the labs, not the Outback.

“California had the foresight to ban trade in kangaroo parts several years ago,” said Dr. Gary K. Michelson, founder and co-chair of the Michelson Center for Public Policy. “Now is the time for the rest of the country to follow suit and end this barbaric activity that is only in the service of enhanced corporate profits.”

Nike and adidas have embraced the mantra of sustainability. But they can breathe more life into those claims by reimagining their companies’ relationship with kangaroos. Their connection to this grisly trade puts a low ceiling on any of their claims about being a good corporate citizen.

Sourcing wild animal parts for a global commodity is a strategy better suited to the 19th century than the 21st.

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