Fifty years ago, on September 20, 1970, California lawmakers passed a ban to safeguard an ark of imperiled species — from elephants to dolphins to snakes. That law was the forerunner and inspiration a few years later for the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973, establishing protections for threatened and endangered species and preserving their critical habitats.
The key mechanism of the California law was a ban on commercial trade of wildlife parts, closing off what was then an enormous commercial market. Today, with 40 million people, California’s economy is bigger than all but five nations in the world. And this law remains a powerful tool against cruelty and species extinction.
Lawmakers established protections for 21 families or species. “It is unlawful to import into this state for commercial purposes, to possess with intent to sell, or to sell within the state, the dead body, or a part or product thereof, of a polar bear, leopard, ocelot, tiger, cheetah, jaguar, sable antelope, wolf (Canis lupus), zebra, whale, cobra, python, sea turtle, colobus monkey, kangaroo, vicuna, sea otter, free-roaming feral horse, dolphin or porpoise (Delphinidae), Spanish lynx, or elephant,” according to the terms of California Penal Code §653o(a).
The law has survived legal challenges and even lobbying by foreign nations trying to cleave species from the protected list.
The wave of federal animal protection laws enacted during this period — the ESA, the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, the Airborne Hunting Act of 1971, and Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 — marked a remarkable surge in legal protections for animals and a turn toward human beings as custodians rather than commercial slayers of animals.
No more selling or buying of sea turtle shell bowls, jaguar fur coats, python boots, polar bear rugs, ashtrays made from elephant feet.
Yet as with so many other animal protection laws, enforcement has been uneven. In some cases, it’s been grossly deficient or non-existent. This is especially the case for kangaroos. The Australian government and kangaroo-killing industry sent emissaries to Sacramento time and time again to lobby for the temporary removal of kangaroos from the list of protected species. Their occasional successes enabled kangaroo shooters for nearly a decade to do their handiwork in the outback and sell kangaroo skin for soccer cleats, handbags, and other outer wear with impunity in California.
In 2016, the latest attempt by the kangaroo industry to extend the kangaroo-carveout failed. That means the ban on selling kangaroo parts has been in effect for four years. But a report by the Center for a Humane Economy revealed widespread and robust trade in kangaroo skin soccer shoes within California by Nike, Dick’s Sporting Goods and dozens of other shoe retailers and manufacturers.
Since we released the news of this lawbreaking, Dick’s Sporting Goods and several other high-profile retailers have told us they will strengthen controls to forbid sale of kangaroo parts in the state. And the California Department of Fish and Wildlife has written to all the soccer stores on our list and told them that the law imposes criminal penalties for their conduct. “You should be aware that the Penal Code section may be enforced by any law enforcement agency, and not just the California Department of Wildlife,” they wrote.
Earlier this month three California Congressmembers — U.S. Reps. Salud Carbajal, Tony Cardenas, and Ted Lieu — wrote California Attorney General Xavier Becerra and urged him to enforce the law. “Our citizens do not want kangaroos killed by the million for athletic shoes and other products, especially given the availability of alternative fabrics already widely in use and of equivalent or superior functionality,” wrote the lawmakers, all devoted advocates of animal protection.
With campaign partner SPCA International, we have launched a petition urging Nike, America’s largest buyer of kangaroo skins, to stop paying suppliers to kill wild kangaroos. And five American Olympic gold and silver medalists wrote Nike to stop driving a trade that results in the slaughter of two million kangaroos a year in their native habitats — the largest mammalian slaughter in the world.
The good news: shoe manufacturer Diadora has pledged to stop using kangaroo skin by the end of 2020, and because of our report, has removed all kangaroo skin shoes from its website (with an assist from one of our European partners, the Italy-based animal protection organization LAV).
Now the other major sellers must not only stop selling into California, but stop selling any products made from kangaroos altogether. After the cataclysmic fires that scorched Australia nearly a year ago, the continent saw the death or displacement of three billion animals, according to one estimate.
Kangaroos and other creatures, as California lawmakers made plain 50 years ago, cannot sustain more human-caused killing and disruption of their habitats. It’s time for us to be their defenders and goalkeepers.