Today, one year and three months into our time in Australia, I saw up close for the first time a kangaroo being hit by a car. I’m sure many people in Canberra would be surprised it took this long – it’s not unusual to hear stories from foreigners living here that their first sight of Australia’s national animal was as a furry imprint on the front windscreen. But luckily for me, if I can call it luck, my daily encounters with kangaroos so far have been as injured carcasses in various stages of decay on the side of the highway or as sunbathing tourist fodder in local parks, and I’ve only experienced near misses second hand via the husband who tells chilling tales of swerving around the bounding beasts on the way home from the High Commission at dusk, when kangaroos seem most keen to attempt crossing multi-lane roads.
What was particularly unnerving about today was that it happened not on a highway surrounded by bushland or in the countryside, but right in a suburb, on a two-lane road lined with houses, planted trees and bus stops with kids on their winter holidays. I slowed down to let a white minivan turn into the road in front of me, then as we hit 60kmph, I saw a giant kangaroo hop across from the right hand side ahead of the minivan. Just as I held my breath, remembering that kangaroos often move in packs, a second one followed behind, and the minivan hit it without braking. The poor thing flew into the air, landed behind the minivan in front of me, immediately got up, looked disoriented then with somewhat reduced energy made its way across to the other side. The first kangaroo had jumped over the low fence with ease and disappeared among the trees, but its unlucky mate didn’t seem quite up to the leap and dithered by the fence. A while down the road, the minivan stopped by the roadside and as I passed I could see its front fender was smashed in.
Being of a nervous disposition, particularly behind the wheel, I immediately started freaking out about what would have happened if I hadn’t let that minivan in ahead of me and I had been the one facing down the marsupials this cold and sunny Tuesday morning. Would I have braked suddenly and started a pile up? Would I have panicked and swerved, and hit a child at the bus stop? If I’d hit the kangaroo, there’s no doubt that my little red Yaris would have fared worse than the minivan, and consequently the effects on the safety of my two-year old passenger doesn’t bear thinking about. And that’s without going into the horror I would feel at causing injury and trauma to an innocent animal.
There’s sod all I can do about all this, of course, except to be extra diligent, even when it’s not dusk, even on an eight-minute drive to a local playground and even when I’m half-comatosed after the toddler wakes me up at 5.30. But like foxes in England, kangaroos in Australia are just one of the many aspects of nature that we humans fetishise in children’s books and victimise in real life. In the supermarket I see kangaroo steaks and burgers, and on information boards in nature reserves I read about certain species being culled and others actively bred. The kangaroo may be the beloved national icon, adorning coins and representing rugby teams, but its chances of a peaceful life are rather slim.