Kangaroo Attacks in Australia Spotlight Growing Turf War

Stephanie Peatling in Sydney
for National Geographic News
May 6, 2005
"Roo mauling!" the headlines screamed after a 13-year-old boy was
attacked by a kangaroo as the boy looked for a lost golf ball on a green
in Grafton, Australia.

Urban myth? Not this time.

The boy suffered facial wounds and cuts to his abdomen, back, and legs. The 5-foot-tall (1.5-meter-tall) kangaroo grabbed the boy as he was searching bushes on a New South Wales golf course in 1996.

Australia's Supreme Court eventually ordered the Grafton District Golf Club to compensate the boy not only for his injuries but also for the emotional damage he suffered when schoolmates taunted him with the nickname "Skippy" (a play on the hopping gait of kangaroos) after the incident.

The court found that the club was negligent, because it had known its kangaroo population was aggressive but had not done enough to warn visitors.

The case did much to make Australians think about how they approach wildlife, says Guy Ballard, a doctoral candidate at the University of New England in Armidale, New South Wales.

"In many communities the line is blurred between people's territory and kangaroo areas," Ballard said.

"The people live on the edge of rural land, and the kangaroos want to take advantage of natural resources like green grass and water …," he said. "[P]eople need to give animals their space. But that's hard if you come around the corner of your house and there's one right in front of you."

Animal Bites

Three years ago Ballard began researching how people react to wild horses, fruit bats, and, of course, kangaroos.

In some of the northern New South Wales towns he surveyed, Ballard found that 100 percent of people saw kangaroos every day. Of those surveyed, three-fourths had kangaroos in their backyards. Ballard documented 15 reports of contact where kangaroos had either growled at people or chased them away.

"In some cases it was people coming between a mother and her children, and so she reacted aggressively," Ballard said.

"One man was jogging along a bush track, and a kangaroo jumped out. Another woman was picking lemons, and [a lemon] fell down and hit a kangaroo underneath it—and so the kangaroo interacted with her," he said. "We have also had reports of dogs being attacked and killed."

Australia's cities are expanding. At the same time, urbanites are also leaving cities for smaller regional towns. Ballard believes this migration will likely cause confrontation between humans and animals to increase.

In his work on fruit bats, which are called flying foxes in Australia, Ballard found that "there was a trend for people who had higher levels of contact with flying foxes to be less positive about them."

"You give people a lot of contact with wildlife and there's a theory they will grow to love them. But with flying foxes it's not that simple."

Ballard notes that people dislike the bats feeding on the homeowners' fruit trees, not to mention the noise, mess, and odor the mammals make.

Please Don't Feed the Animals

Ballard is currently collating his research. But he says his preliminary findings match work done by Darryl Jones, a senior lecturer in ecology at the Australian School of Environmental Studies at Griffith University in Brisbane.

Jones has focused much of his research on why people persist in feeding wildlife despite the best efforts of the Australian federal and state governments to convince the public that, for example, spicy french fries are not good for pelicans.

"There is a huge proportion of people who feed wildlife," Jones said.

"Even though it's frowned on, everyone has done it. When we asked people why they did it, the majority of people said they enjoyed it," he said. "An enormous number of people said they feed wildlife because they're really conscious that humans have done enormous damage to nature, and they're trying to give something back."

What makes Jones's work even more interesting is his definition of feeding. It does not mean the tourist who flicks a bit of bread to a seagull but people who spend money with the specific purpose of feeding wild birds and animals. Neither does his definition include giving food scraps to wildlife instead of putting scraps in the rubbish bin or on the compost heap.

Jones's surveys indicated that between 40 and 60 percent of people are feeding wildlife.

"It's totally unpoliceable. [People] are concerned about nutrition or the animals becoming dependent. … People are convinced there are whole ecosystems dependent on them."

As cities and towns eat up more undeveloped land in Australia, previously wild species are finding themselves living in urban environments. Birds such as currawongs are increasing in number and competing with smaller birds for food and habitat, while ibis are growing bolder in their dealings with people.

At the same time, some Australians are complaining about animal disruptions, such as the pungent smell of fruit bats or the loud noise made by rainbow lorikeets.

"A big philosophical problem is getting the community to see it's their problem," Jones said. "The animals are the easy bit, because they are doing things pretty much the same way all the time."

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