Coercing children to kill possums oversteps international bounds
WELLINGTON, New Zealand––If New Zealand conservation minister Maggie Barry held the portfolios for attracting tourism and economic development instead, she might be less notoriously dismissive of increasing international humane concern about the outcomes of the scheme she announced in 2015 to rid the nation of “invasive” predators by 2050, by any means possible––including arming and encouraging children to kill brush possums for sadistic amusement.
“Barbaric” & “murder”
Fury over dog-eating practiced in a relatively small portion of China by an equally small minority of the population has been building for decades, amplified not only by dog advocates but also by virulent racists, who hate anything and everything deemed “Chinese” or even “Asian.”
Thus it is no surprise that an ANIMALS 24-7 keyword search found 12.1 million online allegations in 2017 alone that Chinese treatment of dogs is “barbaric,” though China in truth has hundreds of times more well-kept household pet dogs than are eaten, more than inhabit either the U.S. and Canada combined or the whole of Europe.
By contrast, only 35,400 people have alleged that New Zealanders’ treatment of brush possums, a cute but little known species, is “barbaric.”
So far in 2017, 2.2 million online postings have alleged that “the Chinese” commit “murder” against dogs. Only 165,000 postings have alleged that New Zealanders “murder” brush possums.
New Zealand more likely to be boycotted successfully than China
But when the search terms are linked to specific incidents, outrage at New Zealand is catching up fast: 79,000 postings want to boycott China over the Yulin dog-eating festival, held in June 2017, while 73,000 believe New Zealand should be boycotted over school possum-and-other-“invasive”-species-killing festivals reported by global media two weeks later.
Bear in mind that China, with a human population of 1.3 billion, is 277 times the size of New Zealand, whose human population is only 4.7 million.
On a per capita basis, New Zealanders are viewed as “barbaric” by the rest of the world with about 75% of the intensity directed at Chinese people, but are now considered “murderous” with about four times more intensity, and are therefore about 200 times more likely to be boycotted effectively.
3.2 million visitors to become disgusted
About 3.2 million people per year visit New Zealand, accounting for 21% of the nation’s total earnings from foreign sources.
Tourism to New Zealand has increased in the present century at a rate of about 6% per year. Organized tourism boycotts have had little history of success in stopping any atrocity, anywhere, but few if any atrocities rationalized in the name of culture contribute as little to any national economy as brush possum extermination, whose net value can be measured––literally––on the level of elementary school carnivals and bake sales.
With or without any organized boycott, which ANIMALS 24-7 would consider ill-advised, if even 5% of the estimated 80 million people per year who consider visiting or investing in New Zealand change their minds because of what the brush possum killing and killing methods tell them about the national character, New Zealand as a whole will feel the impact.
“Family fun day”
Meanwhile, wrote Christina Persico for Stuff, “Hundreds attended the 2017 family fun day,” for the village school in Uruti, “that included all the usual events – the [dead] possum carrying obstacle course, the heaviest [dead] magpie or rabbit competition, best dressed [dead] possum, heaviest goat head and, of course, the gumboot throw. Principal Pauline Sutton said it was a great way for the school to engage with their rural community.”
“These are country children,” Sutton told Persico. “They love animals. We’re in a rural district and that’s what we do out here.”
The Uruti festival followed another held at the village school in Drury, about three and a half hours south by car.
Drowned possum joeys
Reported the Sunday Herald, “Young possum joeys were taken from their mother’s pouch and drowned in a bucket of water. The drownings came after several days of possum hunting, with hunters bringing the dead adult marsupials in for weighing, before they are sold to a fur buyer.
“Any joeys found dead or alive were removed from the carcass as the fur buyer doesn’t take any joeys. They were then put down in a manner that was believed to be lawful,” school board member Emiel Logan told the Sunday Herald.
Though drowning possum joeys in buckets grabbed global attention, this public display of cruelty constituted only a small part of the associated mayhem.
“For over 60 years, under the guise of ‘conservation,’ the New Zealand Department of Conservation and other agencies have been using helicopters to aerially drop a deadly toxin known as Compound 1080 (sodium monofluoroacetate) across vast areas of wilderness, waterways and even agricultural regions,” wrote Island Watch Conservation Science founder Maggie Sergio in an April 2017 guest column for the Huffington Post. “Other rodenticides are also used,” with net effects including vastly more harm to rare native birds than to the populations of introduced mammalian predators, who tend to relatively rapidly rebound.”
Developed in Nazi Germany in 1942 and used to kill prisoners, Compound 1080 has been made in the U.S. since 1956 by Tull Chemical of Oxford, Alabama. Then-U.S. president Richard Nixon banned domestic use of Compound 1080 in 1972, but did not ban manufacturing Compound 1080 for export to nations including Australia, Israel, Mexico, New Zealand, and South Korea. The Nixon ban on Compound 1080 was eased by U.S. president Ronald Reagan in 1985 to allow some use of sodium monofluoroacetate to kill coyotes.
“Whole ecosystem poisoning”
Wondered Sergio, “International tourism contributes an estimated $11.8 billion to New Zealand’s economy, and employs over 188,000 people. Would this pivotal industry be jeopardized if tourists knew about New Zealand’s bizarre program of whole ecosystem poisoning to eradicate animal species deemed pests?”
Especially since many of the pesticides used, including Compound 1080, are known to be dangerous, even deadly, to humans who come into contact with the pesticide residues? Apart from the Nazi victims, at least 13 people are known to have been killed by accidental and/or criminal exposure to Compound 1080.
Explained Scottish journalist and anti-Compound 1080 campaigner Bill Benfield (1947-2016), in one of his last articles, “It all started early last century, when a plant collector and gardener, with no formal qualification in botany, gained national credence with near hysterical campaigns against introduced animals.
“Leonard Cockayne (1855-1934) claimed deer browse would strip the forest from the mountains, causing massive erosion that would destroy towns and farms on the plains, ignoring all evidence that the forests had been intensively browsed without harm prior to human arrival,” Benfield summarized.
“The nation bought into this false crisis. Since 1930 New Zealand has waged a war against nature as a major and lucrative conservation industry. It is a war against demonized wildlife that has escalated into the poisoning of whole ecosystems. Cockayne was influential in [founding] New Zealand’s conservation group, Forest and Bird, who still use his ‘conservation crisis’ rhetoric as a powerful marketing tool for their own fundraising.”
Cockayne’s enduring influence, despite his egregious errors of observation, could be compared to that of ornithologist Edward Howe Forbush (1858-1929) in the U.S., who fueled generations of cat hatred by misattributing to cats the effects of insecticides, deforestation by farmers, and predation by birds against birds.
But New Zealand public still backs the killing
“A clear majority of the New Zealand population seem to back the Predator Free 2050 program, which vilifies possums, rats and stoats,” observes Jasmijn de Boo, chief executive of the animal advocacy organization SAFE For Animals, based in Wellington, New Zealand.
“Most New Zealanders believe that killing these ‘pests’ is a ‘necessary evil’ to save native birds,” even though the scientific evidence in support of that position is weak.
“If we consider the bigger picture,” de Boo continued in a prepared statement, “the most important threat to our natural flora and fauna is not possums but animal agriculture, which is responsible for most deforestation in New Zealand and, therefore, loss of biodiversity. Not to mention the impact of dairy on our waterways, the substantial amount of greenhouse gas emissions caused by livestock farming and dairy, and inefficient land use. We need a holistic discussion about conservation,” de Boo said, “not a tunnel-vision dead set on destroying sentient introduced species such as possums, rats and stoats.”
“New Zealand needs a scapegoat”
Affirmed Colorado-based ethologist and ecologist Marc Bekoff, with New Zealand colleague Lynley Tulloch in Bekoff’s regular blog for Psychology Today,
“The intensive transformation of New Zealand’s wide array of ecosystems into monocultural farmland is the single most significant factor in New Zealand’s biodiversity loss. Yet this is often ignored.
“New Zealand needs a scapegoat and this is where the possum enters the picture,” Bekoff and Tulloch wrote. “The brush tail possum was introduced to New Zealand from Australia in 1837 for the purpose of establishing a fur trade. In the early 2000s there were an estimated 50-70 million possums in New Zealand. Each and every one of them is blamed for destroying forests, infecting cattle with tuberculosis, and threatening the dairy industry.
“Unpatriotic to question claims”
“The ‘possum as pest’ doctrine has become so entrenched in the New Zealand psyche,” Bekoff and Tulloch continued, “that it is almost considered unpatriotic to question the validity of these claims.”
Possums therefore “can be bludgeoned, trapped, shot, poisoned, run over, and turned into fur gloves. Tourists are advised not to slow down or try to avoid possums, but instead aim for them and run them over. The message is clear: the possum is an object of derision and hate. Yet possums are only doing what any species does when introduced to a new environment— adapt or perish.”
Bekoff has been speaking out against the New Zealand wildlife massacres in his Psychology Today blog since November 2015, when Barry initiated the Predator-Free 2050 program.
“The kids loved it”
Bekoff was alarmed then by a report that 80 mice, 31 rats and 112 possums had been killed in a pilot program run at three schools by Forest Bridge Trust education project coordinator Liz Maire.
Said Forest Bridge School principal Hayden Kennedy, “The kids loved it because we were getting daily hits. They’re country kids, so they loved dealing with dead possums!”
Bekoff from his first notice of the possum killing has expressed concern about the effect that indoctrinating children in killing would have on the New Zealand national psyche.
Bekoff was joined on July 6, 2017 by British zoologist Jules Howard.
Wrote Howard in a guest opinion column for The Guardian, “One can understand New Zealand’s apparent frustration with invasive Australian brushtail possums. One can conjure up genuine sadness for the damage the possums cause through their unwavering appetite for birds’ eggs, and one can feel real concern for the plight of the native species being edged out.
“Like all monsters, brush possums need to be caught and their babies given a damn good drowning in a bucket of water in front of children at a school fundraiser.”
But Howard, unlike Barry in her anti-possum pronouncements, was being sarcastic.
Mob vigilante action
“Possum hunts aren’t new to New Zealand,” Howard acknowledged, and, in fact, a few countries encourage such ‘mob vigilante’ action against invasive species.”
Howard mentioned specifically the Australian persecution of cane toads, the python-killing contests encouraged by Florida wildlife authorities, and his own “childhood naturalist mentor,” who “once shocked me by telling me that he regularly drowned the [grey] squirrels he trapped in his garden in a bucket,” to keep them from competing with native red squirrels for habitat.
“He was proud, I think, to be tackling the problem of invasive species on the frontline,” Howard wrote. “He was doing his bit for the nation, he argued. He seemed to quite like my shock.
“How do we get like this?” Howard asked. “The press probably play a significant part in upgrading the horror. Invasive species such as Asian hornets and Spanish slugs and demon shrimp are often referred to as ‘armies’ or ‘hordes’ or ‘invaders.’
“Outdated, outmoded, & downright questionable”
“To give invasive species purpose and character like this is folly,” Howard concluded. “Invasive species have no purpose other than, like every else, to make more of themselves. The problem is simply that they are managing this better than the creatures with whom they cohabit. Making monsters of animals and desensitizing ourselves to their suffering is outdated, outmoded and outright questionable. There is only one animal that has mastered the waves and the sky. There is only one animal who deemed species interchangeable and released them on the islands they thought best. There is only one animal that has forged metal into buckets. And guess what … it isn’t the possum.”
The only good news for brush possums in New Zealand, if there is any, is that the cruelty directed their way has encouraged the formation of “an underground network of possum rescuers,” reported Robert Kitchen of Stuff on July 28, 2017.
Profiling one rescuer who claimed to have rehabilitated about 150 brush possum joeys, with about 10 in care, Kitchin wrote that most “come from hunters who have killed the mother only to find a baby in her pouch, or from people who stop to check the pouches of possums killed on the roads. Sick and orphaned possums are then transported around the country by the network of rescuers,” many of whom advocate keeping possums as ‘loving and loyal’ pets, who can be sterilized and released into safe habitat much like feral cats.
“The law on keeping possums is confusing,” Kitchin acknowledged. “The Department of Conservation says they cannot be kept without a permit. But the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) says they can, as long as the regional council allows it. According to Greater Wellington Regional Council, possums can be kept as pets, but cannot be released, bred or sold.
Pet possums “not a big concern”
“A Federated Farmers pest management spokesman said pet possums were not a big concern.”
If enough New Zealanders fall in love with brush possums, though, the nation might eventually come to stop demonizing a species which has now co-existed with native wildlife for 190 years much more successfully than human settlers.
Indeed, New Zealand might even come to rethink the whole national attitude toward introduced species, which became established parallel to more than 150 years of implementing and reinforcing policies against non-white immigration.
In June 2017 the New Zealand Human Rights Commission initiated a national anti-racism campaign. A comparable national campaign against bio-xenophobia may yet come to pass.