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We don't want kangaroo shoes

September 12, 2007|Michael Markarian | Michael Markarian is executive vice president of the Humane Society of the United States. (humanesociety.org)

When David Beckham arrived in the United States this summer to play for the Los Angeles Galaxy, he was the subject of a media frenzy. One detail that did not escape reporters was that the international soccer superstar chose to have his cleats -- Adidas Predators -- crafted from synthetic materials rather than the company's traditional kangaroo leather.

In progressive, animal-friendly California, Beckham's gesture resonated. Since 1970, the state has prohibited the sale of kangaroo-skin products, a bold precedent. But now Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will be at the center of the debate as he decides whether to sign or veto a bill that would roll back the kangaroo protection law.

Soft, pliable kangaroo leather is used not only to make soccer shoes but handbags, golf gloves, baseball mitts and other leather items. The 'roo-skin sporting goods and accessories are often labeled "K leather" or "RKT" (rubberized kangaroo technology) to obfuscate their origin as the pelts of the iconic Australian marsupial.

About 7 million kangaroos are brutally killed each year in Australia for pet food and leather, and 3 million of their hides are exported to supply the global commercial trade.

The killing itself is callous and inhumane. Many kangaroos are spotlighted from trucks and shot at night in the outback, where there is scant scrutiny or regulation. When female kangaroos with joeys are killed, the youngsters are pulled from their mothers' pouches and stomped on, clubbed, decapitated or left for the scavengers.

Although some kangaroo species are plentiful, others are threatened with extinction. The commercial hunting of kangaroos often leads to the killing of the rare "look-alike" cousins -- heightened by the nighttime slaughter and the financial incentive to "harvest" as many of the animals as possible.

In 1970, then-Gov. Ronald Reagan signed the law to stem the tide of kangaroo imports in California -- and to add the state's voice to the protection of an imperiled species abroad.

There are plenty of examples of governments implementing domestic policies that protect animals outside their own borders -- even when the animals are not threatened or endangered. For example, the United States doesn't allow the sale of pelts from dogs or cats from China or seals from Canada, even though they are plentiful and are killed by the millions to supply the fur trade.

The state Supreme Court in July unanimously upheld the law barring kangaroo leather. Adidas had argued that only the federal government could decide to protect the kangaroo -- such as by listing it under the federal Endangered Species Act. But the court saw it differently, stating that the law "addresses an area typically regulated by, and historically within the traditional police powers of, the states -- wildlife management." The court further noted: "Notwithstanding Adidas' contrary argument, the scope of this power has long been recognized as extending even to regulation of foreign species."

It's an important judgment not just for California but for all state fish and wildlife agencies across the country. As the Bush administration hastens to remove federal protections for wildlife, including grizzly bears and gray wolves, states will be left to decide whether these species should be protected or commercially hunted.

But it may be a pyrrhic victory at best for kangaroos. At the request of Adidas and other retailers, California lawmakers passed SB 880, written by Sen. Ron Calderon (D-Montebello), to repeal the 1970 ban. The bill is opposed by the California Department of Fish and Game and animal welfare groups. It awaits action from the governor.

Just as Reagan saw fit to protect the kangaroo, Schwarzenegger should veto the Calderon bill and retain those protections. The Golden State prides itself on setting nationwide trends for the humane treatment of animals. If it rolls back protections for one of the most charismatic creatures in the world, what chance do the rest of our animal friends have?

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