California soccer shops accused of selling kangaroo leather

It’s a battle that has raged in California since former Gov. Ronald Reagan first signed legislation banning the sale of kangaroo meat and leather in 1970, after years of unregulated killing.

Today, the population of Australian kangaroos has rebounded, but the controversy shows little chance of cooling as animal welfare advocates accuse California retailers of ignoring the ban and continuing to sell soccer shoes made from Kangaroo skin.

So-called K-leather — which is prized for its strength, light weight and suppleness — is the product of a brutal and inhumane system of harvesting that slaughters up to 2 million kangaroos a year, animal advocates say.

Recently, two national animal welfare groups filed suit against Riverside County-based Soccer Wearhouse Inc., using the same legal strategy animal rights groups used against the sale of foie gras.

According to the lawsuit, the plaintiffs have “suffered economic injury” because the retailers alleged “unfair business practices” have diverted resources from their core mission: “advocating for improved animal welfare, a more humane economy, and better protection laws — for kangaroos specifically, and for other animals.”

“K-leather soccer cleats are openly sold throughout California by various retail stores,” states the lawsuit filed by Animal Wellness Action and the Center for a Humane Economy. “These stores make no attempt to hide the fact that these products contain kangaroo parts; in fact, many store employees are forthright and honest about which shoe models are made of kangaroo leather and openly acknowledge that the sale of such products is illegal in the state.”

The plaintiffs are demanding that the court order the retailer to stop selling kangaroo leather shoes and to reimburse the animal welfare groups for their legal fees.

The lawsuit was “just the first in several we intend to bring if retailers in the state don’t heed our warning and continue to break the law,” said Natasha Dolezal, deputy director of campaigns for the Center for a Humane Economy.

Dariush Adli, an attorney representing Soccer Wearhouse, said the company’s owners “say they were not aware of these items being illegal in California until a few months ago. They do not sell them anymore.”

California — the nation’s largest market for soccer equipment — is the only state to ban the importation and sale of kangaroo parts. The prohibition remains one of the state’s most divisive environmental issues.

As envisioned when it was enacted in 1970, the ban was intended to reduce the annual slaughter of millions of Australia’s giant marsupials. The law was also aimed at protecting other species that the Legislature found were imperiled abroad: the polar bear, leopard, tiger, cheetah, jaguar, zebra and elephant.

In 2007, the California Supreme Court unanimously decided the ban was not preempted by federal wildlife law. But at the urging of the Australian government, the Legislature twice lifted the ban: in 2007 for three years, and again in 2010 for five years.

At the behest of the Australian government, Assemblyman Mike Gipson (D-Carson) in 2015 took a bill he’d steered through the Assembly to regulate card club employees, stripped it and replaced its contents with language permanently allowing kangaroo parts to be imported and sold here.

That so-called “cut and amend” maneuver didn’t come to a vote because of broad bipartisan opposition.

In 2020, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s law enforcement division sent written notifications to 66 soccer gear businesses throughout the state to inform them about the ban and warn them that violations are punished as misdemeanors.

Soccer Wearhouse was among the businesses notified, state wildlife authorities said, as was Niky’s Sports, California’s largest soccer retailer, which announced in 2021 that it stopped selling products made of kangaroo leather.

A year ago, U.S. Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-Santa Barbara) introduced the Kangaroo Protection Act, federal legislation that would ban the importation and sale of kangaroo body parts in the United States.

When it comes to wildlife trafficking in California, the kangaroo skin trade is only part of the problem.

The monumental workload of the state’s six-man Wildlife Trafficking Unit includes targeting restricted species that can carry pathogens that infect humans, as well as violations involving species facing extinction, such as the illegal trade of elephant ivory and rhinoceros horn, said Capt. Patrick Foy, a spokesman for the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

As of this year, the unit has seized roughly $5.2 million worth of illegal ivory and filed 38 related cases to city and county prosecutors, Foy said.

But thus far, there’s been little action to enforce the ban on kangaroo products, said Kate Schultz, senior attorney for the Center for a Humane Economy. “So we’re taking the alleged violators to court ourselves.”

The nonprofit animal welfare groups have their work cut out for them in California, home to an estimated 124 independent soccer retail stores.

Beyond bricks-and-mortar stores, Center for a Humane Economy investigators found that some manufacturers of soccer cleats sell their kangaroo models to Californians directly from their websites.

In the meantime, Wayne Pacelle, president of Animal Wellness Action, has been touting the benefits of soccer cleats made from alternative fabrics.

Of the total 123 goals scored at the 2020 European Football Championships, he said, “115, or 93.5%, came from players wearing synthetic, non-leather shoes.”

“So at a time when kangaroos in Australia are being decimated by cruel harvests, bushfires, pollution and development,” he said, “the least we can do is protect these fascinating animals from mass slaughter that turns them into soccer cleats.”

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