Leader of the pack ... one of the stars of the Kangaroo Mob documentary, Black Spot. Photo: Supplied
One of the enduring overseas jokes about Australia is that our towns and cities have kangaroos hopping down the streets. In Canberra, at least, it's not a joke. This city is a true ''bush capital'' and that means wildlife - including kangaroos - and people must co-exist. It's not always easy: the sight of dead kangaroos by the sides of busy roads is a common one.
Hundreds are killed or injured by motor vehicles every year and a lot of vehicle damage is caused. Kangaroos seeking feed in dry seasons or trying to move from place to place have had to negotiate streets with cars, houses, people and dogs and have not always survived the experience.
The situation draws mixed responses on how to deal with it. Should kangaroos be culled or moved to manage their numbers and location? Just how well are they adapting to the increasing presence of humans?
Killer capital ... the Animal Army protesting against the persecution of the eastern grey kangaroo in the capital. Photo: Kate Leith
The documentary Kangaroo Mob explores some of these issues. It focuses particularly on the work of a team of ecologists, including Don Fletcher and Claire Wimpenny, who during a 12-month study used GPS collars and satellite technology to track 25 of the eastern grey kangaroos' movements and monitor their behaviour. And it seems they are learning to live with people.
Fletcher has worked for the ACT government since 1999 as an ecologist, part of 35 years of service (''mostly in reserve management''). He says the research with GPS collars began in 2007 with captive kangaroos so the design could be adjusted in order not to rub off their fur. In January 2009 the collars were first fitted on kangaroos on reserves to monitor their movements. At a ''guesstimate'' he says there are about 10,000 kangaroos around Canberra.
Fletcher points out the kangaroo is only one example of the fauna of the region and other insects, reptiles and birds are even more threatened by ''a whole suite of factors'', including urban development, cars and conservation issues.
Two icons of Australia ... a kangaroo grazing on the lawns of Old Parliament House. Photo: Gary Schafer
Asked his personal view of kangaroos, he says he finds them ''fascinating'' and ''terribly important'' and is disappointed there aren't more studies, particularly of the eastern grey. ''Kangaroos play a really important part in the ecosystem regarding plants and animals,'' he says. ''We need the right amount of kangaroos - not too few, not too many.''
Given particular attention in Kangaroo Mob are four kangaroos: a mob leader dubbed Black Spot, a mother, Madge, and her joeys, older Sonny and pouch-bound Alice.
Director Steve Westh ''grew up in the country'' and says his association with kangaroos ''was not always complimentary. They were somewhat akin to large rats and treated as vermin.''
When he moved from Victoria's Shepparton to Melbourne, he didn't think as much about the marsupials. But directing Kangaroo Mob helped change his mind about them.
''In spending any kind of time with a kangaroo mob you become completely charmed by them,'' he says.
Not that making the film was easy.
Westh came to the project after producer Sally Ingleton and another director, Simon Target, had done some preliminary work and filming. His earlier films included the historical documentaries The Making of Modern Australia and Gallipoli Submarine.
''[Kangaroo Mob] was my first foray into natural history and it comes with its own difficulties. Kangaroos don't read scripts and you can't predict what they're going to do,'' he says. ''You need extraordinary patience and diligence to capture real kangaroo behaviour.''
Kangaroos are nervous and cautious by nature and it took a long time for them to become comfortable with the presence of humans and their cameras and equipment during both day and night. The crew members - including director of photography Peter Coleman - would often have to get up at 4am to try to find the kangaroos at first light. And they had to use long lenses because they couldn't get closer than about 25 metres to the animals.
''They'd be well aware of you before you got to them,'' Westh says. ''They'd look at you, hold your gaze, hold it, hold it - not exactly riveting television.''
And any noise could set them jumping away.
But, Westh says, ''the more we came back, the easier it got''.
Ingleton, a Melbourne-based filmmaker thinks kangaroos are ''wonderful animals, incredibly charismatic''. She says she was interested in the phenomenon of kangaroos ''encroaching'' on human spaces, and vice versa.
''Who is encroaching on whom?'' she says. ''I thought, 'There really is a story here; it's worth investigating'.''
Canberra seemed like an ideal place as a 15-year drought led the kangaroos to leave the depleted surrounding habitat and brave the urban environment in search of food - which the suburban parks, lawns and gardens provide.
Something Westh was particularly keen to explore was the portrayal, sometimes, in the media of ''kangaroos as some kind of urban invaders. After I while I realised it was a bit of a beat-up.''
Kangaroos come into city streets to get feed, he says, and stories about a kangaroo ''attacking'' people - including one example of a kangaroo jumping into a Canberra house that gained international attention - turn out to be cases of a terrified animal finding itself in the wrong place and trying to escape.
Filming took place on and off for the better part of a year. ''It became obvious,'' Westh says, ''this was a film about seasonal change.''
The drought and subsequent kangaroo movement led to Canberra becoming, in Westh's words, ''the national roadkill capital'' with rangers picking up 1000 dead kangaroos from roadsides in the past year. And these are just the ones that are reported. Westh estimates the true total could be double or triple that number.
On the emotive issue of culling, Westh says: ''Personally, I don't like the idea of killing anything. My sympathies lie with the kangaroos.
''Australia must be one of the few countries in the world where the national icon is on the coat of arms and on the menu.''
The filmmakers were not permitted to film the culling that took place during the shoot but used previously-filmed footage of an earlier cull and filmed protesters. Westh acknowledges there is a kangaroo problem but thinks the ACT government needs to explore new ways of controlling kangaroos, such as relocation, although he acknowledges that is labour-intensive and expensive.
''It depends where your priorities lie,'' he says. ''I defy anybody to spend time with kangaroos and not feel compelled to do their utmost to keep them alive.''
And some people do just that: a couple of people who devote a lot of time and effort to caring for orphaned and injured kangaroos on their own properties are shown.
''People in Canberra realise there is a problem, most would say the kangaroo population does need management,'' Westh says.
Currently culling is the main approach but he hopes this will change.
Despite his personal views, Westh says his interest was to present both sides of the debate and to show the work of people like Fletcher.
''Don's work is really valuable in establishing the fact that kangaroos are adapting and may be able to adapt to an urban environment,'' he says.
The GPS collars enabled the filmmakers to go out with antennas and find the kangaroos, although the animals could move quickly and unpredictably.
Westh thinks increased use of protective barriers to prevent movement into particular areas and road underpasses to allow safe passage across busy roads will enable the ACT to accommodate kangaroos with more effectiveness and safety in the urban environment.
Ingleton says the film has already screened on PBS in the United States to ''great response'' and she hopes it will encourage people to learn more about the marsupial mammals. Similarly, Westh says he hopes the film goes some way towards addressing people's level of understanding of kangaroos and realising that they are not stupid and their presence in Canberra needs to be dealt with effectively.
''People who have seen it have felt it was an even-handed presentation of the problem and ways of managing the problem.''
Fletcher found the experience of having microphones and cameras on him every day a ''challenging'' one he never really got used to and says if he'd made the film he would have put in more ecology and conservation. But, he says, ''the end product is a very credible and creditable effort.
''It's there to entertain people and I hope it does that, and I hope it tells people the ACT government is doing at least its fair share and probably a lot more of finding out how environmental management decisions can be based. The movement study is an example. It's still going on; it's in its least glamorous stage, the data analysis stage. We took the very last collar off in September last year.''
There should be some results later in 2012.
Westh's next documentary project may be about another controversial creature, the possum. He's also sympathetic towards it. But he can think of at least one animal that doesn't engage such positive feelings.
''I think it would take a bit of doing to get me interested in snakes.''
■ Kangaroo Mob is on ABC1 tonight at 8.30pm.