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Scapegoating Possums: Science, Psychology, and Words of War

New Zealand's "war on wildlife" is based on iffy science and misleading hype.

The recent news coverage of baby possums being drowned at Drury School as part of a fundraiser has sparked national and international condemnation on the grounds of animal cruelty (for more discussion on this please see "Long-Term Effects of Violence Toward Animals by Youngsters, "Youngsters Encouraged to Kill Possum Joeys in New Zealand," "Saving wildlife without drowning possums," and links therein).It has also brought issues associated with the treatment of possums in New Zealand into public debate along with discussions of the use of the horrific poison 1080 and the iffy science behind "killing in the name of conservation." The messy innards of these issues have been split open and spilled out for the world to see. To gain a more "local" perspective on what's happening in New Zealand, I am most fortunate to have been able to collaborate with New Zealander, Lynley Tulloch, on this essay.1

Scapegoating possums: Iffy science, demonizing psychology, and fiery words of war

New Zealand schools need all the help they can get in fostering humane education, rather than inhumane education that favors the killing of possums and other animals in their well-publicized war on wildlife, the goal of which is to rid New Zealand of predators and so-called "invasives" by 2050. This is fertile ground for conservation psychologists and anthrozoologists, because fostering kindness and compassion, rather than hate and killing by youngsters, is sorely needed to produce future generations who will respect and value wildlife. New Zealand's wildlife is worth conserving. It has some of the most exceptional biodiversity in the world. Existing for 80 million years in total isolation from the rest of the world, New Zealand was the very last archipelago to be inhabited by humans.

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. And instead of focusing on this issue, dairy farming is becoming more intensified. Yet, this is often ignored in favor of blaming introduced mammalian species.

New Zealand needs a scapegoat and this is where the possum enters the picture. The brush tail possum was introduced to New Zealand from Australia in 1837 for the purpose of establishing a fur trade. The possum is cited in the Encyclopedia of New Zealand (Te Ara) as the "country's most damaging pest."

In the early 2000's there were an estimated 50-70 million possums in New Zealand. Each and every one of them is being blamed for destroying forests, infecting cattle with TB, and threatening the dairy industry.

The "possum as pest" doctrine has become so entrenched in the New Zealand psyche that it is almost considered unpatriotic to question the validity of these claims.

In fact, possums in New Zealand have been demonized to such an extent that their treatment in life and death is considered largely inconsequential. No one much cares what happens to the "greedy pest" — she can be bludgeoned, trapped, shot, poisoned, run over, and turned into fur gloves. Her dead body can be dressed up at school fundraisers to poke fun at her. 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. One would think that the possum is deliberately waging war on New Zealand's endemic biodiversity. Yet possums are only doing what any species does when introduced to a new environment — adapt or perish.

The reckless use of 1080: What the public needs to know about the lack of knowledge about the wide-ranging effects of this horrific poison

The joey drownings have sparked useful dialogue and much needed discussion on possums and other animals who are being targeted across New Zealand. It's worthwhile to write about the use of the poison 1080 because many people have no idea how horrific it is for humans, nonhumans, and New Zealand's lovely landscapes. Many weighing in on the joey debacle have suggested 1080 is even crueler than the drownings, and it likely is. Basically, the joey slowly starves to death in the mother’s pouch. A paper written by Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) in 2012 admitted "consideration of the welfare impact on dependent young is not often considered."

Accounts of death from 1080 are horrific. It is well known to cause nausea, lethargy, pain, and sickness, which are followed by breathlessness, dizziness, and anxiety. There is a prolonged period of suffering before animals die, in some species up to 90 hours. New Zealand's SAFE for Animals has published the gory facts about the use of 1080, and it is not easy reading for anyone with a heart. A list of "quick facts" can be seen here.

Why do many New Zealanders accept the use of such a cruel poison? We believe the answer to this is that the parameters of public discussion on the use of 1080 in New Zealand have been largely shaped with the intent of convincing us that "there is no alternative." A 2011 Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment report on the use of 1080 demonstrated this by asserting that,” [t]he only option for controlling possums, rats and stoats on almost all of the conservation estate is to drop poison from aircraft.” Case closed.

We should never close the doors on our options. There is always an alternative, especially when serious ethical questions remain silenced or inadequately addressed. A recent 2017 report by the New Zealand Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment shows little has changed in six years. And, one of the main scientific references used is on research by zoologists Graeme Elliot and Josh Kemp. Kemp is from the Department of Conservation (DoC) and so there could be a conflict of interest by using his research in this way.

Regardless of the serious ethical concerns about the use of 1080, the call for its use has been recently ramped up. In July 2016 New Zealand's former Prime Minister John Key set the goal of a predator free New Zealand by 2050. And what better way of killing them then dropping 1080 on their devious heads. That’ll teach them. Sorry possums but the show must go on.

It's important to note that New Zealand uses around 90 percent of the world's supply of 1080. It has been banned in the United States because of its effect on non-target animals, including native species, and there is no viable medical antidote.

There is quite simply insufficient research done on toxicological risk assessments of 1080 to justify dumping it by the ton. The DoC minimizes the toxicity of 1080 by declaring that they use "biodegradable 1080 to protect native species from introduced pests like possums, rats and stoats."

Dr. Sean Weaver agrees that we simply do not know much about the wide-ranging effects of using 1080. Dr. Weaver, who has a Ph.D. in forest conservation and has made it his mission to save the world’s rainforests. Weaver suggests that there are gaps in the research on 1080. In particular, he calls for research into unwanted side effects due to the chronic toxicity of 1080. In a very important essay called "Chronic Toxicity of 1080 and its Implications for Conservation Management: A New Zealand Case Study," Dr. Weaver claims "there is evidence that 1080 may have endocrine disrupting capabilities (with potential relevance for non-target wildlife) but that this still needs more detailed investigation." This can occur due to long-term sub-lethal contact with the substance.

The effectiveness of 1080 also needs to be questioned. Retired scientists Pat and Quinn Whiting-O'Keefe have claimed that there is no evidence of a net ecosystem benefit in the use of 1080. In an essay by Clyde Graf titled "New Zealand's long-term use of 1080 is poisoning forest ecosystems and could drive birds and insect populations to extinction" they write:

First, there is not a single scientifically credible study showing that aerial 1080 when used on the mainland is of net benefit to any species of New Zealand’s native fauna. Thus the upside for native species is entirely unproven, despite 15 years of increasingly desperate attempts by DoC to show one.

Second, there is overwhelming evidence from DoC’s own research that aerial 1080 is killing large numbers of native animals, including birds, insects and other invertebrates. Moreover most native species remain entirely unstudied. Thus there is plenty of proven downside for native species.

Third, there is not a single ecosystem level study. That is, we don’t have the slightest idea of unintended consequences and secondary negative effects of which ecological science assures us there are many.

Fourth, while it is probable that possums, if unchecked, would in time cause some shift of tree species in our forests, the degree of that shift is not great and fear of canopy collapse is wholly unwarranted.

To the contrary, DoC’s aerial operations are causing harm by killing large numbers of native species of birds, invertebrates and bats.

All in all, there is a distinct lack of transparency in the selection of research shaping public policy on 1080. New Zealanders deserve better. And, scientists and those who study human-animal relationships need to get into the discussions about the egregious downsides to a nationwide war on wildlife that is grounded in violence to sentient beings.

New Zealand's all out "war on wildlife": Humans as "moral predators" and the language of war

In his Ph.D. research, Jamie Steer found that within New Zealand there was a "positioning of humans as 'moral predators' against a foreign invasion of introduced species." He argued that forging a new direction in our approach to conservation in New Zealand is severely constrained by the dominance of war rhetoric promoted by government agencies. The alliance of national identity with native species and the xenophobic attitude toward introduced animals is pervasive.

The language of war permeates all discussion on possum control. For example, Predator Free NZ states on its website: “Our Chairman, Sir Rob Fenwick, has declared a call to arms to protect our country — in a national battle against invasive predators." DoC uses the emotive “Battle for our Birds” slogan. The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment talks about "Our forests under attack."

All of this war talk is enough to make a possum scuttle to the top of the tallest kahikatea tree and wave his white flag in defeat. Unless of course his foot is trapped in a gin trap while he waits to be bludgeoned to death.

In his essay called "A war on pests and weeds is 'malicious' and 'incompetent' and will ultimately fail," Dr. Steer has called New Zealand our on its infantile war-mongering attitude toward introduced species. He argues that extermination and massacre are the correct words for what some want to do to introduced species. Calling it a "war" is a way of establishing allegiances. It is "us versus them" posturing, positioning people on one side and possums on the other. As Dr. Steer points out, possums have no concept of the battle in which they are supposedly engaged.

He goes on to say that these "pathetic phone wars are malicious, incompetent, and uneducated, and they need to stop."

The importance of discussing what's happening to possums: It's time for a revolution of heart

All of this brings us back to the possum massacres. When children are taught these same infantile and uninformed attitudes toward animals we are engaging in miseducation and the dissemination of propaganda about which most of the youngsters are ignorant. The children are being indoctrinated, and public schools should not serve these purposes and need to be called out on it. Inhumane education such as this can have long-lasting effects (for more discussion please see "Long-Term Effects of Violence Toward Animals by Youngsters" and links therein).

We value New Zealand’s biodiversity immensely, and we know that the issue of introduced species needs to be addressed. And, while New Zealand has granted rights to forests and bodies of water, sentient animals are being targeted in the most brutal and unscientific ways. All this in spite of the fact that New Zealand recognizes animals as being sentient beings!

It is extremely devious to shape public opinion through demonizing an innocent animal and sanctioning what amounts to mass animal cruelty. It’s surely not a good look for New Zealand's tourist image.

New Zealanders who believe the hype and misinformation put out by those favoring an all out war on wildlife deserve better. So, too, do the possums and all other animals who are being wantonly and brutally killed "in the name of conservation."

As we wrote above, the killing of possums and other animals is fertile ground for conservation psychologists and anthrozoologists, because fostering kindness and compassion, rather than hate, is sorely needed to produce future generations who will respect and value wildlife. Researchers and others also need to change the verbiage and encourage people to stop using words of war.

All in all, possums have become the hapless scapegoats of New Zealand's eradication programs that are supported by schools promoting inhumane education. The killing needs to stop and the killing fields closed down once and for all. Killing "in the name of conservation" remains incredibly inhumane and brutal and is based on iffy science and language that incites people into performing inexcusable acts of violence toward other animals.

All in all, the science, psychology, and hype behind New Zealand's war on wildlife are highly questionable. The best lesson that educators and other adults can teach youngsters, and one for which they could and should serve as exemplary models, is that the life of every single individual matters.

We need to reawaken our hearts. It's high time for a change in heart — a revolution of heart — and new courses of interaction that will result in peaceful coexistence between humans and other animals based on this compassionate and empathic guiding principle.

1Dr. Lynley Tulloch is an independent writer whose expertise spans topics as diverse as the environment, education, social justice, and animal rights. Dr. Tulloch also runs an organization called Starfish Bobby Calf Project in New Zealand.

More information about possum hunting and killing

Compassion and respect, following Dr Jane Goodall’s lead

Letter to New Zealand's Minister of education

Petition to end possum killing (put forth by Lynley Tulloch)

Facts about the use of 1080 poison from SAFE New Zealand

Saving wildlife without drowning possums

Marc Bekoff’s latest books are Jasper’s Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson); Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation; Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation; Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence; The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson); and The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age (with Jessica Pierce). Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do will be published in early 2018. Learn more at

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