Kangaroos - The 100 Days Project: Day 69 
Photo © Evan Switzer
On January 13th, 2016, the Fraser Coast Chronicle published, with a sequence of four very striking photographs, a short piece entitled ‘Photographer captures kangaroo family’s grief’. The photos ‘went viral’, as the saying goes, and were viewed, and shared, by countless people around the world.
One image in particular stood out. In it a kangaroo buck cradles the head of a dying doe, lifting it so that she can look more directly at a joey who is standing before her. Her arms reach out to the joey, as if to catch his forepaws one last time. It is hard not to think of this as a family unit. It seems – contrary to what we are led to believe of mob cultural structure – as if this buck is the doe’s partner, and (this said far more confidently) the joey is their child. Grief and bewilderment – the pain of loss – well from the picture. I can only think that the photograph was shared so widely because of what people recognised in it, an emotion that, very clearly, crossed the species barrier.
The photographer was Evan Switzer, and the photographs were taken at a bush property at River Heads, Queensland, a small coastal settlement approximately 260 kilometres north of Brisbane. It is impossible to tell why the doe is dying. Switzer says he could see no signs of injury, but River Heads is a popular departure-point for Fraser Island and there are cars about. One strong possibility – the photographs convey the sense that this death has been sudden – is that she has been hit by a car and sustained fatal internal injuries.
See the photographs here.
We might leave it there – a powerful image (set of images) offering us a glimpse into the (human-like) emotional life of kangaroos; something that, as such epiphanies do, brings us somehow closer to them, and them to us, shows us a kind of common ground. But I’m not sure that we can leave it there. I think, as with so many things, we might have to attempt a closer reading, if only out of respect for, and in the attempt to preserve, this common ground.
It’s unclear whether the Chronicle took these photographs to an ‘expert’, or whether the ‘expert’ approached the Chronicle, or whether the Chronicle was simply reporting on this person’s blog post, and perhaps it doesn’t matter, but hot on the heels of the publication of this piece came (on the 14th), another, entitled ‘The ugly truth about that “grieving roo” photograph’, conveying the information of a ‘Dr E’ which you’ll find a few paragraphs below (be patient), emphatically dismissing the initial interpretation of the photographs.
By this the Chronicle’s first piece had been picked up internationally. Both the Daily Mail and the Guardian, for example, carried versions the next day (January 14th), as did the Washington Post and many others.
It appears that one or another of the syndicating papers – perhaps the Guardian but these things can be hard to track – had then approached an expert of their own, from a reputable Australian university. The Guardian, in any case, published their own follow-up piece, presenting the report of this expert. ‘Dr [S],’ this piece begins, ‘a senior lecturer in veterinary pathology, says it is “gross misunderstanding” to think kangaroo was cradling dying mate’. ‘He said the photographs showed the male kangaroo “mate guarding” – holding other males at bay’:
“Competition between males to mate with females can be fierce and can end in serious fighting,” he said. “It can also cause severe harassment and even physical abuse of the target female, particularly when she is unresponsive or tries to get away from amorous male.
“Pursuit of these females by males can be persistent and very aggressive to the point where they can kill the female. That is not their intention but that unfortunately can be the result, so interpreting the male’s actions as being based on care for the welfare of the female or the joey is a gross misunderstanding, so much so that the male might have actually caused the death of the female.”
[Dr S] added that, though he thought the term was often misunderstood and misused, the reporting of the viral photographs had been “naive anthropomorphism”.
Bingo. ‘Naïve anthropomorphism’, and I would urge any reader of this current post who has not yet done so to go back, if they would be so kind, to my post for day 63  (February 6th), for an account of the manner in which the accusation of ‘anthropomorphism’ (in truth an aspect of all human thought) is used to hose down any sparks of empathy and identification with non-human animals before the species barrier begins to smoulder.
‘The kangaroo’s “sinister” intentions’, the Guardian piece continues, reverting to the ‘expert’ quoted in the second, retractive piece in the Chronicle,
were first flagged in an explosive blog post by Dr [E] … of the Australian Museum. He praised Switzer’s “great photos of the kangaroos”, but said they had been “fundamentally misinterpreted”.
“This is a male trying to get a female to stand up so he can mate with her,” he said.
He pointed to the “highly stressed and agitated” state of the male kangaroo, which had been licking its forearms to cool down. Eldridge also pointed to “evidence … sticking out from behind the scrotum” of the kangaroo’s sexual arousal.
From a grieving partner, the male kangaroo has become, with the wave of an expert’s wand, a ‘sinister’ killer (the Washington Post actually uses the term necrophilia). We have been hoodwinked – tricked by our own eyes – if we think this apparently tender and traumatised kangaroo is anything other than (‘the “ugly” truth’) a sexually over-charged male frustrated at having (Rene Descartes here, and the non-human animal as machine) busted his toy before he could have his way with it. All of it, as is so much human thought, focussed about an erect penis.
Tempting as it is, in a time of widespread, and indisputably rightful, condemnation of abuse by over-sexed males (child abuse in the Catholic Church very much a live issue at this time; the Weinstein, sexual harassment business yet to come), to turn the accusation of anthropomorphism back on the scientists and suggest that even their own supposed objectivity might be encroaching upon and unwittingly exploiting some very human preoccupations, I think we need to do some further careful thinking here. Dr E, in particular, has ‘read’ a part of the image that we might not have caught. Is he right, and should we now pack away, embarrassedly, our felt connection with this (as we thought it was) family group, or is there more to this issue? Do we have the ‘truth’ here, or are we still a fair way off?
Look out for the same photograph, in a later post.