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Speaking up for the defenceless: Why should we care about this kangaroo killing experiment?

Once again it is time to talk about the wanton destruction of Australia’s national icon, the kangaroo, in the nation’s capital in nature reserves, supposed refuges.

Every night in July some of the targeted 1600 adult and juvenile animals will be shot and the babies bashed to death in eight reserves. This is happening for supposedly scientific reasons of saving endangered species, a justification without evidence that even the government ecologist called merely ‘public relations’ in 2013.

In 2014 the science is no better, the accountability and evaluations just as absent, and the whole expensive program continues to wilt under scrutiny.

And yet the ACT parks manager can make newspaper statements urging that this barbaric program should continue as a ‘normal’ and annual ritual in the nation’s capital.

He might contend that only a small group of emotional activists care, but more than 10,000 signatures across half a dozen petitions to the ACT government and the Greens Minister in charge indicate otherwise. The petitioners from here and abroad show that Australia’s image is getting a hiding and that people well understand the bigger picture of Australia’s commercial persecution of kangaroos.

In June the ACT program was once again under the spotlight at the ACT Administrative and Appeals Tribunal (ACAT) in a challenge brought by the Animal Defenders Office on behalf of ACT Animal Liberation.

The structure of a tribunal hearing puts the onus on the challenger to ‘prove’ that government decision-making has been bad, rather than, as would be more appropriate when it’s about life and death, that the government needs to prove that its program stops harm or provides any benefit warranting lethal management. The easiest way to uphold the status quo is to summarily reject the challenging testimony and evidence (see below).

The ACT apparently has to do no more than present a narrative of ‘trust us, we’re scientists and managers; take our word, don’t ask us to produce data of benefit, you’ve employed us so we must be right; it’s a legal program, they shoot a lot more on farmland anyway, why care about a few individuals’ and so forth.

Observers, including myself at times for the Bulletin, heard no evidence-based case (as distinct from opinions) for the necessity of culling in 2014, anymore than in the previous five years. Regardless, the three men presiding – one a lawyer, one an academic from the University of Canberra program where the ACT chief ecologist gained a PhD, and the third possibly a community member – ruled for the government, that incidentally also employs them.

After four days of hearings, the panel delivered a value-laden judgement, simply dismissing the witnesses and evidence against the validity of the culling program.

Even the barrister for the government may have been surprised. Several people overheard him say to the Animal Defenders Office barrister after the government’s chief ecologist was questioned words to the effect,”you’ve done the damage [to our witness] and there is no recovery”. Fortunately for them, the tribunal did not agree.

The ACT’s winning narrative remains that there are “too many” kangaroos, and somehow they do unspecified damage. What is the right number? Is it one or half an animal per hectare? The chief ecologist has admitted it is guesswork. The science, such as it is, consists of measuring grass height, not a valid measure of healthy biodiversity.

The tribunal was told, but apparently did not care, that prior research indicates 2–4 kangaroos per hectare is normal for this landscape and ecology. And weather plays a far greater role in the height of grass cover than do kangaroos.

Following are reasons the tribunal gave for dismissing the challengers’ main witnesses, which bears a look in the light of day. Can one call this justice?

Survivor suffering, ethics, peer review critique –out    

Welfare evidence regarding young survivors and trauma stress in wildlife presented by Professor Steve Garlick and Dr Rosemary Austen was dismissed. The panel decided that: “It is possible that his (Garlick’s) views may be sound, however, interpreting observed animal behaviour as being due to some underlying process equating to human emotion [loss, fear, hunger, anxiety?] does not seem to be an accepted point of view.”

(Garlick and Austen are Palerang residents and have a wildlife rehabilitation property. Garlick holds research positions in applied ethics with Newcastle and UTS Sydney universities and Austen is a GP with much practical wildlife experience.

Garlick told the Bulletin: “The tribunal claimed they recognised the importance of considering animal welfare, but opted to not accept internationally peer reviewed research showing the cruel by-product of hunting and culling.”

“The tribunal saw no animal welfare concern that 250 at-heel dependent joeys would die a horrific death from hypothermia, renal failure and predation when their mothers were slaughtered.

“It also saw no animal welfare concern that conscious in-pouch infant joeys would be bashed to death or have their heads cut off. The single shot to the head humane death propaganda trotted out by the Greens and Labor in the ACT government is deceitful.”

 No bio-ethics thanks

The tribunal dismissed with prejudicial language and unverified claims the evidence from NSW wildlife field ecologist Ray Mjadwesch who brought his experience with Australian grassland and woodland ecosystems to co-author a critical analysis of the ACT program assumptions and methods, submitted to the tribunal.

The panelists decided: “The Tribunal took the view that Mr Mjadwesch was giving evidence not as an expert witness, but as an advocate for a bioethical position which opposed kangaroo culling.”

Apart from the glaring dismissal of bio-ethics as legitimate when it comes to killing, they could not have arrived at this view based on what went on in the hearing room (observed by the Bulletin). Mjadwesch provided much evidence from published mainstream research and did not address bio-ethics except for answering one question.

 Peer review, what?

The tribunal also dismissed the third main witness for the challenger. The panel seemingly misunderstood entirely testimony analysing a peer review commissioned by the ACT on its culling program. That review was produced by two researchers specialising in feral pest management.

The Canberra Times in a front page story had no trouble following the evidence of former CSIRO senior biologist Dr William Taylor on that day – pointing out the flaws of both the peer review and the ACT approach outlined in that review (made to government).

But the panel dismissed Taylor saying, “That review was not intended for publication in an academic paper [therefore] Dr Taylor’s evidence about peer review is not directly relevant to the decision at issue.”

What can one say?

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