Interview with former Congressman Robert Mrazek

Robert Mrazek is a former five-term Democratic Congressman from Long Island. During his distinguished House career (1983-1993), Bob was a leader on animal welfare and environmental protection issues. He authored legislation to protect three million acres of the Tongass National Forest and helped shape the fight to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Bob was also the author of the Kangaroo Protection Act (which did not pass) to ban imports of kangaroo parts into the U.S.

A graduate of Cornell University who subsequently attended the London Film School, Bob is the author of 10 works of fiction and non-fiction, earning awards for military fiction and American history. His next book, The Indomitable Florence Finch, is slated for a July release. I caught up with Bob recently and asked to join our campaign to persuade Nike and other shoe companies to stop using kangaroo skin. He enthusiastically agreed to enlist in the effort and share his perspective as a veteran of the kangaroo wars.

Wayne Pacelle: What prompted you to introduce the Kangaroo Protection Act 35 years ago?

Robert Mrazek: I first became aware of the enormity of the challenge to protect the kangaroo population in Australia, particularly the endangered species, while riding the airline shuttle back to New York from Washington. The passenger sitting next to me was Japanese and he had an odd-looking purse with a leather strap. I asked him about it and he happily confided that it was made from a kangaroo’s scrotum sack, and that they were very popular in Japan as a lucky charm in the sexual department.

This encounter led me to ask a member of my Congressional staff to look into the issue, and it led to becoming aware for the first time of the magnitude of the slaughter of these creatures, mostly for pet food or leather products. I met with a representative of the Australian government who assured me that they were the equivalent of animal predators in the US that preyed on crops and were eating the scarce resources in the Outback.

After further research, I introduced legislation banning the import of all kangaroo products into the United States.

WP: Your bill was not enacted, and did you attribute that outcome more to the lobbying and arguments of the Australian government or to the U.S.-based industries that had kangaroos in their supply chain?

RM: After introducing the Kangaroo Protection Act, I sent out Dear Colleague letters that outlined the magnitude of the slaughter and asked for support in generating congressional hearings and I realized that most of my colleagues were not particularly sympathetic or focused on other priorities. The number of members who co-sponsored the legislation was relatively small, even among my Democratic colleagues.

There was a strong effort by the Australian government to marginalize the legislation as a “do gooder” bill introduced by someone who was ignorant about the true parameters of the kangaroo population and unaware of the damage they caused to the Australian agricultural sector. I don’t recall that the U.S. companies engaged in the purchase of kangaroo products were seriously engaged in opposing the bill, probably because their lobbyists saw little chance of the bill’s passage at that time.

WP: Two things may change the equation today: 1) the intense fires that burned so much of Australia and killed so many animals, and 2) innovation in the industry that puts shoes into the marketplace that are light and durable and high performance without harming animals. Might those factors enable new legislation to gain traction?

RM: There is no question in my mind that the Congressional landscape is far more welcoming to a kangaroo protection bill than it was nearly forty years ago when I introduced my legislation banning the import of kangaroo products to the U.S. Back then, the House of Representatives was dominated by mostly old men whose attitudes had been shaped by the depression and World War II. They were largely uninterested in animal protection issues.

Today, the House members, particularly those in the majority, are younger, more progressive, and more diverse. They are far more aware of the interlinking dynamics of all creatures on this planet that are trying to survive in the face of global warming and other dangers, most of them man made.

Their awareness of the enormity of the death-dealing fires in Australia provides a solid foundation for building support in Congress for the new kangaroo protection legislation.

WP: I think you’re right about that. And it’s also clear to me that many movements are born out of crisis, and I think that’s the case for kangaroo protection given how climate change is reshaping the animals’ living space.

RM: It’s my hope that global catastrophes like the massive fires in Australia that destroyed millions of wild creatures and the renewed spotlight on how wild and exotic animals are slaughtered for food consumption in China will lead to morally alert societies not just in the United States but all over the world. The fight to protect kangaroos from mass slaughter has gone on for many decades and will finally be won when moral societies ban the use of kangaroo products for shoes, pet food, and good luck charms. That day is coming in the United States.

Robert Mrazek’s letter to Nike CEO

Wayne Pacelle, himself a best-selling author, is president of the Center for a Humane Economy.