New Zealand's "Possum Stomp" vs. Compassionate Conservation, Individual Well-Being, and Ethics

It's time to call out New Zealand's war on wildlife firmly, but nicely. "Killing with kindness" is an oxymoron, the language of hate appalling, and where have welfare and conservation groups gone?

“Conservation is based on emotion. It comes from the heart and one should never forget that.” (George Schaller, Note 1)
"The brushtail possum is not treated like other animals in Aotearoa-New Zealand. Publically decried, officially poisoned, frequently shot at and intentionally steered towards, the possum is a despised animal. Indeed, as prior writers on the subject have noted, in order to be a New Zealander, it is almost compulsory to hate the possum." (Nicholas Holm, "Consider the Possum: Foes, Anti-Animals, and Colonists in Paradise," page 32)

It’s a well-known fact that New Zealand is at war with much of its wildlife. Of course, not all New Zealanders agree with this onslaught, the goal of which is to remove all non-native species by 2050. However, many do — I’m told as much as 98% of the population — and along the way, youngsters are being encouraged to kill nonhumans who were first brought there by humans and now face being slaughtered by humans who have decided that they’re animals non grata.

I've been deeply involved in calling attention to many of the flaws and false reasoning in New Zealand's onslaught (Note 2), and was going to take a break until I learned about a very important essay by Massey University's Nicholas Holm called "Consider the Possum: Foes, Anti-Animals, and Colonists in Paradise." This piece, along with a few emails, prompted me to write this essay and to call for the end of the war on wildlife firmly, but nicely. There are alternatives that are far more humane, compassionate, and kind. 

It's important to present some of what Holm writes. I'm quoting directly from his essay because it's not available online and it's important to see precisely what possums and others animals are facing in this all out war on their very lives and those of their families, friends, and other sentient beings.

In Dr. Holm's essay I learned about "the ‘Great Father’s Day Possum Cull’ held at a rural school in 2013 (Rodney News) and a government-sponsored mobile game called ‘Possum Stomp’ where ‘the player helps the Stompy the Kiwi [sic] to run around and stomp on the zombie possums before they steal his eggs. The zombie possums represent all invasive pests and the kiwi represents New Zealand’s indigenous biodiversity’ (Landcare)." (page 37) 

Unfortunately, the game of "possum stomp" isn't only a game. Possum stomping and killing has been a real and shameful occurrence, and continues on today.

Dr. Holm goes on to write,

"A 2014 road safety advertisement nonchalantly asserts that ‘it’s us or the possum’ (NZTA), thereby indirectly evoking the ‘game,’ no doubt familiar to most New Zealand motorists, of ‘possum or cat,’ whereby motorists attempt (in a responsible manner and in accordance with relevant road rules) to determine whether road-kill is worth grieving or not, while, in an uncanny echo of America’s ‘War on Terror,’ possums have even become the subject of drone surveillance as part of what is frequently referred to as the ‘War on Possums’ (Graham). Such examples begin to suggest the diversity and depth of anti-possum sentiment in a range of popular media and fora." (page 37)

"Killing with kindness" is a misleading and troublesome oxymoron

Some people who favor slaughtering possums and other animals claim they're doing the dirty deed with kindness, compassion, and empathy. Of course, the animals themselves don't really care what the humans are thinking, and good intentions are not good enough as far as they're concerned. 

"Killing with kindness" is a misleading and troublesome oxymoron that covers up the hate and violence with which possums and other animals are vilified as "the enemy" and the language of war, hate, violence, and bullying are appalling. There is nothing humane, compassionate, or kind when nonhuman animals (animals) are killed by ingesting with 1080, or trapped or shot. It's also important to ask, "Where have many animal welfare and conservation groups gone?" Many have abandoned highly sentient beings who will deeply suffer and die in New Zealand's war "in the name of conservation." 

Of course, not everyone hates possums and other so-called "pests," and I've received many supporting emails expressing incredulity and concern about the language that anti-possum people use. 

Compassionate conservation and conservation psychology to the rescue

"Sentience, and the ethical demands that arise from this quality, do not change when an organism is moved to a new locale."

Compassionate conservation is a rapidly developing international discipline involving people with many different interests. It's founded on four guiding principles: First, Do No Harm; Individuals Matter; Valuing All Wildlife; and Peaceful Coexistence

First, Do No Harm, adopted from the core precept of medical bioethics, cautions that "given an existing problem, it may be better not to do something, or even to do nothing, than to risk causing more harm than good." Individuals Matter calls attention to the intrinsic values and interests of individuals in conservation research and practice. Valuing All Wildlife is a commitment to respect the intrinsic value of all species and to act to protect wildlife, and Peaceful Coexistence is the ultimate aim guiding compassionate conservation practices.

All in all, compassionate can be viewed as a practical and evolved ethic for conservation.Incorporating a commitment to the protection of wildlife as individuals leads to more ethically defensible and also to better outcomes for populations.

As my colleague Arian Wallach notes in a paper we're coauthoring on compassionate conservation, "Incorporating a commitment to the interests of individuals tends to result in a broadening range of valued populations, species and ecosystems." And, concerning possums and other so-called invasive pests who were first brought to New Zealand by humans, sentience, and the ethical demands that arise from this quality, do not change when an organism is moved to a new locale. Members of introduced and native species should be regarded with equal care. While children can be taught ruthless distain for animals who are members of introduced species (Holm 2015), novel ecosystem appreciation fosters in children compassion for all life whether encountered in pristine national parks or in humble alleyways." (Marris 2013)

Holm also notes that a focus on possums is a distraction from the real causes of ecological destruction. He writes, "Commonly presented as an invasive and destructive entity, whose existence leads to the destruction of native wildlife, I argue that the possum works to distract from the environmental destruction directly wrought by p ākehā colonists in Aotearoa-New Zealand."

Conservation psychology, with its emphasis about learning about interrelationships between humans and other nature, including other animals, along with compassionate conservation, can also come to the rescue of mislead people and vilified wildlife. A focus on humane education involving youngsters is critical to creating a paradigm change in which nonhuman animals are respected for who they are, rather than killed as innocent victims of a war on wildlife. (For more discussion of the importance of properly educating youngsters, see "Kids and Animals: Hunting, Zoos, Climate Change, and Hope" and "World Animal Day: A Global Celebration For Hopeful Futures.") 

Where have animal welfare and conservation organizations gone when the animals really need them?

It's surprising that many animal welfare and conservation organizations haven't openly and forcefully spoken out about New Zealand's war on wildlife, calling for an end to the killing. There's no way that all, or even many, of the targeted individuals will die peacefully, despite the best intentions of the people who are trying to kill them. A similar situation is occurring in the United States and the war on wolves that is being waged by a number of states. Very few organizations have firmly and openly called for an end to the killing. (For more discussion, see "Who's Really Defending Wildlife As Wolves Are 'Removed'?", "Wolves and Cows: Individual and Organizational Conflicts," and "'How Come People Say They Love Animals and Kill Them?'")

Perhaps if people in these organizations and other individuals who support or are on the fence about killing other animals saw first hand what happens when they're poisoned, trapped, snared, or shot, they would change their views. Bearing witness and watching another animal slowly and painfully dying "up close and personal" is horrific and incredibly depressing. Their pain and suffering are inconvenient truths and people can remain comfortably and blissfully unaware unless they watch the pain, suffering, and death for which they're directly responsible. There really is no place to hide. 

Of course, killing with kindness is not the panacea nor is it an acceptable excuse for slaughtering other animals. And, using the poison 1080, for example, completely removes any iota of kindness and compassion from the equation. Being poisoned with 1080 is a horrific way to die, plain and simple. So, it's time to stop the feel good babble about “killing with kindness.” 

It's time to call out and stop New Zealand's war on wildlife firmly, but nicely

As I wrote above, "killing with kindness" is a misleading oxymoron and the language of hate, violence, bullying, and war is appalling. Other animals aren't the enemy and they shouldn't be vilified. The vacuous use of words such as "kindness," "humane," "compassion," and "empathy" needs to be questioned, because often when you see them, as Jessica Pierce and I point out in our book The Animals' Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age, you can bet that something is very wrong and something "bad" is being glossed or covered up. 

Humans are very much a part of nature, and indeed, we are a major part of many "problems" including those that stem from our having brought non-native animals into pristine ecosystems. However, many people act as if they live apart from nature, but have to interfere when something they don't like is happening. It's difficult to have it both ways, to play the middle from both ends, but we're pretty skilled at doing just that. And, when we do, other animals massively suffer. 

Dr. Holm also points out that thinking of possums as what he calls "anti-animals," makes it seems like they stand against nature rather than being part of it. Possums and other animals, including humans, are part of nature. How can it be any other way? As one of my colleagues points out, some animal welfare and conservation groups seem to believe that if you are concerned about and oppose the killing of "predators," you automatically don't care about the fate of native species. It's a false dichotomy. Indeed, we're all in the mix together, nonhuman and human alike, and we need to act on this reality and work for peaceful coexistence, kindness, and respect that cross species lines.

It's most unfortunate that some scientists and some organizations make it seem like it's an "either/or" situation, some also spewing hate for the so-called enemies. As a result, some people simply jump on their creaky bandwagon because "the science" says it's so and the researchers and those who work for pro-animal organizations must, of course, know what's right and what's best. 

As I end, let me once again quote the world renowned conservation biologist, George Schaller

Without emotion you have a dead study. How can you possibly sit for months and look at something you don’t particularly like, that you see simply as an object? You’re dealing with individual beings who have their own feelings, desires and fears. To understand them is very difficult and you cannot do it unless you try to have some emotional contact and intuition. Some scientists will say they are wholly objective, but I think that’s impossible. Laboratory scientists wasted years putting rats in mazes to show they were learning. They never got close enough to a rat to realise that they were not going by sight and learning, they were following the scent trails of previous rats. By overlooking this simple fact they wasted years of science.”

Silence is a killer: Rewilding, ecocentrism, and Earth Jurisprudence

There doesn’t have to be blood “in the name of conservation” and we must do all we can to stop the blood flow. In a human-dominated world in which human-other animal conflicts are and will be inevitable, wouldn’t this be a wonderful precedent for the future? If you're against this and other wars on wildlife, please get involved. Silence is a killer.

A focus on youngsters also is critical because they are ambassadors for the future, which we hope will be increasingly kind and compassionate. Perhaps employing the 12 P's of rewilding can help people to focus. The 12 P's stress the importance of being proactive, positive, persistent, patient, peaceful, practical, powerful, passionate, playful, present, principled, and proud. The list of P's continues to grow. All in all, we must clearly speak out about our deep and wild connection with nature and stop the killing.

By employing an ecocentric ethic progress can also be made. Ecocentrism recognizes that a nature-centered, rather than a human-centered, view of nature, means that many people will have to change their values if they favor humans over nature as a whole, including nonhuman animals and their homes.

Appealing to Earth Jurisprudence also can help us along, Earth Jurisprudence can be viewed "as a philosophy of law and human governance that is based on the idea that humans are only one part of a wider community of beings and that the welfare of each member of that community is dependent on the welfare of the Earth as a whole." Thus, societies of humans are part of a wider community that incorporates societies of other animals and where they choose to live or are forced to live. All community members are dependent on one another. No individual is an island and we all depend on one another to thrive and to survive (for more discussion please see "A Journey to Ecocentrism: Earth Jurisprudence and Rewilding").

The time to begin is right now, and New Zealanders can proudly carry the torches of coexistence and kindness into the future for the world to see and to emulate. What a wonderful example and a win-win it will be for all involved. And what great lessons for youngsters these would be.

Notes

1. Quoted by Samantha Weinberg  in essay called "Man's Best Friends" about a new book by Tim Flach titled Endangered.

References

Graham, Renee. ‘Researchers developing possum-targeting drones.’ One News. TVNZ. 13 Nov. 2013. Web Video. 25 Jan. 2015. 

Holm, N. 2015. Consider the Possum: Foes, Anti-Animals, and Colonists in Paradise. Animal Studies Journal, 4:32-56.

Landcare Research. ‘Fun new “App” to bring pest control into electronic world.” Scoop.co.nz. Scoop Media. 18 Dec. 2013. Web. 25 Jan. 2015.

Marris, E. 2013. Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World. Bloomsbury Publishing USA.

New Zealand Transport Authority (NZTA). ‘Voice of Wisdom.’ NZ Transport Authority. New Zealand Government. 2 Dec. 104. Web. 25 Jan 2015.

Rodney News. ‘Pop a Possum and Win Money and Prizes.’ Rodney Times – Auckland Times. Stuff.co.nz. 27 Aug. 2013. Web. 25 Jan. 2015.

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