Kangaroos – The 100 Days Project: Day 94 
Photo: Ray Drew
Although in this day and age we seem to know them largely by their absence, we all have a fair idea of what ‘ethics’ is supposed to mean, though maybe not ‘ethology’ which has the same root. ‘Ethology’, in this day and age, is used to describe the study of animal behaviour. The common root of these words tends to suggest that ethics are species specific, based on the specific behaviour of our species. One species’ ethics are not necessarily the same as another’s. To take our human ethics and insist they hold for other species may be as inappropriate, ultimately, as to take (say, if you were a kangaroo) kangaroo ethics and insist they hold for human animals. Hold that in mind. I’ll come back to it.
Male kangaroos may seem to have received a disproportionate focus in this 100 Days project. I’m not sure that that’s true but I can understand the perception. Certainly I can think of numerous reasons why such a bias might assert itself. In part, for example, it may be because male kangaroos are encultured to stand and guard when there is a sign of possible danger (and while others head for safety), and are therefore, when it comes to the ‘stick monsters’, the most likely to be shot by the collectors of specimens (Cook, Baudin, etc.) or, especially given the current ‘males only’ policies, shooters for the contemporary kangaroo-flesh industry. In part it may be because male kangaroos stand taller, are larger in the first place, have that charming habit of boxing. In part, as I’ve suggested before (taxonomy: the branch of science concerned with the classification of organisms), it may be a bias built into taxonomy itself.
But there is a far more pervasive force in kangaroo society. Every kangaroo, male or female, has a mother. Although the father does not disappear from the joey’s life, the joey’s focus, his/her centre point, is his/her mother. His/her principal teacher; his/her principal, first-response guardian. Any reader who has followed this long sequence of posts will have seen photograph after photograph powerfully attesting to this mother-joey bond. It’s known that females tend, when they become adults, to stay in close social/emotional proximity to their mothers. If the kangaroo mob has any chance of surviving the massive cultural/social damage caused (say) by professional shooters determined to take any males they can, then it is likely to be this matrilineal adhesion. If one story has it that it’s the boss buck who keeps the mob in line, another has it he wouldn’t have a group to belong to without the mother-bond.
It’s paradoxical, then – and something I feel I have to say something about before these 100 days are over – that in the kangaroo lore of humans, one of the persistent shibboleths, along (say) with the myth of perpetual pregnancy, or that of kangaroos disembowelling humans with one powerful kick, is the one that kangaroo mothers tend to abandon – jettison – their joey when pursued by a predator, sacrifice him or her to ensure their own survival. Were it true it would stand out in stark and perplexing opposition to the powerful bond we’ve been observing. Far more likely, wouldn’t you think? that the truth of the matter is closer to what we read in this very fine passage from Uli Krahn’s Peppermint and Fencepost (I love the wind ‘tearing up the scent trails’):
It was a blustery evening, grey, but with no smell or rain. It was hard to feel safe with the wind tearing up the scent trails, and the swishing of the leaves and the crashing of the branches in the trees. Peppermint was in the pouch, so he wasn’t all that worried. Looking out, he could see all the other joeys were in the pouch, too, and some of the smaller does were nervous and froze at every crackle. This went on for a while, so Peppermint stopped paying attention, he was feeling sleepy now. Suddenly, he heard the bark of wild dog – not one, several! He rolled up, expecting his mum to bound away. But she reached into the pouch and dragged him out! He was in the wind-whipped grass, under a bush, not moving of course, and heard his mum and the other does hop away full speed, each in a different direction. The dogs didn’t know who to follow and split up. One was definitely pursuing Wattle, she hopped funny, like she was injured on the left leg. Peppermint got so scared he could hardly breathe. Another dog pounded past him, closing in on his mum. Just as the dog nearly got her, she bounded out of sight. Peppermint could hear she was hopping normally again. Quickly she and the dogs disappeared from sight and hearing. Peppermint pressed himself deeper into the dry grass.
For a long time, nothing happened. Then he heard his mum returning with a very quiet, calm hop. He was so grateful when he could climb into her pouch again.
‘What about your leg?’ he asked.
‘That was a trick to pull the dog away from you. I couldn’t have run fast enough with you in the pouch.’
I read a piece recently in which a pastoralist, to illustrate the severity of a drought, spoke of does – mothers – taking the young out of their pouches and leaving them to fend for themselves. The prospect troubled me greatly – still does. Had he seen a mass abandonment? Certainly he spoke as if he had, though my sense, as an old exaggerator, suggested he’d probably seen just one or two, or perhaps a joey alone and jumped to a conclusion. At the same time he spoke of adult roos lying dying, in great agony, of hunger. It’s just occurred to me that this ‘abandonment’, if that is what it was, might have had more to it. If a mother doe knows she is dying, then she knows for a certainty that her pouch joey will die with her. If he/she is to have the faintest ghost of a chance, it’ll be in her forcing him/her away. And she’d best do that while she still has the strength: the drought/hunger the wild dog at her heels. That’s one scenario. There are others. And how would we know? We’d have to watch, long and carefully. Observe. Think. Be prepared to find that there are some things we find it very difficult to understand. Follow them, rather than leap to judgement and get nowhere. Ethology. Leading us to understand an ethic that may not chime with our own.
But enough. This post is for the mothers, with deep admiration.
Photo: Ray Drew