Tuesday, 5 June 2018

The Invasion Biology Movement in Conservation


Common starling--a master invasive species. Photo
from New Zealand Birds Online
Invasion biology is the study of the introduction, infiltration, establishment, and control or elimination of non-native species in a given eco-system. It is a discipline that has come about primarily as a result of international trade and travel, which has increased the mixing of species worldwide. In many places, these biological “invaders” have raised concerns, particularly where agriculture and other industries find themselves threatened by the establishment of “alien” species, or where control of invasive species can, in and of itself, become an industry.

The science of invasion biology began in 1958 with the publication of Charles Sutherland Elton’s book The Ecology of Invasion by Animals and Plants. An animal ecologist and research fellow at Oxford University, Elton was given the task of finding ways to control the proliferation of rats and mice in stored grain during World War II. After the war, he continued his research into the connections between invasive/pest animals and human activity, and may also have been the first to suggest that invasive species might impact on native species and biodiversity in general, particularly when introduced into isolated habitats.

A “war” against invasive species was declared in the US in 1999 when an executive order “directed several federal agencies ‘to prevent the introduction of invasive species and provide for their control and to minimize the economic, ecological, and human health impacts that invasive species cause.’” (see here). 

Some invasive species are clearly destructive. One example is Dutch elm disease, caused by a fungus native to Asia where trees are naturally resistant to it. The disease, which is spread by bark beetles, first appeared in Europe in 1910, and over the next century spread to North America and New Zealand. By 1990, few mature elms were left in Europe or the UK, and vast swathes of North America’s elm forests had been destroyed. Today, disease-resistant elms are being bred, fungicides can be injected into infected trees, and a vaccine has been developed for injection into non-infected trees that seems to provide some protection against the fungus.

Other invasive species have been of benefit to nature and sometimes to man. Honey bees, for example, are native to Europe, but are “non-native invasives” in the Americas and in countries like Australia and New Zealand; much of our agricultural pollination and our honey industries depend upon them. Many “invasive” plants and non-native garden plants gone feral are enjoyed by native birds, providing valuable sources of food and shelter. The Japanese white eye, a small silver-eye-type bird, is an invasive bird species in Hawaii, but its introduction means several native plants are now being pollinated, something that became a problem after the indigenous birds that used to pollinate the flowers became extinct.

Some places have taken the invasion biology approach to conservation to heart. In New Zealand, much of the conservation movement is aimed at the removal of non-indigenous species in an attempt to recreate uninhabited areas that appear to present a more “nativist” landscape. Even in towns and cities, there is a strong drive to exterminate wild mammals (before Man arrived, New Zealand had no mammals other than bats), and many public parks and private gardens are planted predominately—sometimes exclusively—in native plants. The Department of Conservation has a long list of “weed” species under the [usually chemical] gun, and every Kiwi is deliberately  indoctrinated to believe that rats, stoats, possums, and feral cats are public enemy number one (two, three, four…). New Zealand has become a land of poisons and traps for unwary four-foots. It is a profitable industry. (For more on this, see my blog posts Predator Free New Zealand and How Belief About the Nature of Nature Impacts Conservation Decisions.)

One of the primary arguments presented by invasion biologist enthusiasts, especially in places like New Zealand, is that controlling or exterminating invasive species in an ecosystem helps improve biodiversity. See my previous post on biodiversity for a bit more on that issue.

Certainly, studying the effects invasive species have on an ecosystem and its inhabitants provides tremendous opportunities for understanding how ecosystems function. While much of the current movement is directed towards removing visible species identified as “pests,” I think much could be gained in simply observing what Nature does without human interference. It can be argued that Man, rather than Nature, is responsible for moving species out of their native habitats and into alien ecosystems, and therefore He has a responsibility to remedy those “mistakes”. Yet, once established in the new ecosystem, invasive species become a part of that system, and their removal results in yet more chaos for Nature to repair.

There is a lot we don’t know. We are just beginning to understand and appreciate the interconnections between individuals and species. In spite of Darwin’s theory that species thrive through competition and that only the fittest will survive, we are beginning to understand that many species have symbiotic relationships with other species, some species are surprisingly nurturing to others, and that when one thing is changed in a system, many things change.


Friday, 1 June 2018

Biodiversity


The term “biodiversity” gets used a lot in modern conservation, though there seems to be some confusion as to what it actually means. Invasive biology proponents—those who believe that the invasive infiltration of non-indigenous species into an ecosystem inhibits the thrivability of indigenous ones—often assume “biodiversity” refers to just endemic populations in situ, something to be protected at all costs. In New Zealand, this is a big issue, and one of the key assumptions that is used to justify the “Predator Free New Zealand by 2050” movement.

Awesome Poster by Pedro Teixeira 
The Oxford dictionary defines biodiversity as “the variety of plant and animal life in the world or in a particular habitat, a high level of which is usually considered to be important and desirable.” There is nothing in this definition about a species being endemic.  And here’s why this matters: If a species exists, and perhaps even thrives, outside of its native natural habitat (and therefore might be considered an invasive species in another habitat), but it no longer thrives--or perhaps even exists--in its native habitat, is that a loss of biodiversity? If a plant or animal exists in a controlled environment but not in the wild, is that a loss of biodiversity? For more on this line of thinking, see my post on endangered species.

And while we’re on the subject of definitions, words like endemic and native are often wrongly used interchangeably, so just to clarify...  Endemic refers to an indigenous species found naturally nowhere else on the planet. Native species, by contrast, are species that naturally occur in a place, and they also occur elsewhere. In New Zealand, for example, the kiwi and the tui (birds) are endemic, while fantails and pukekos (birds) are natives.

Some numbers:  According to Wikipedia (they have a pretty decent article on biodiversity I think), 99.9% of all animals that have lived on this planet are extinct. The estimated current number of different species on earth ranges between 10 million and 1 trillion, of which a little over a million have been identified. Which means scientist haven’t really got a clue about how much biodiversity there really is on this planet. (I suspect the trillion figure may include micro-organisms.) 

The earth has undergone five mass extinctions that we know about, and it is generally accepted that we are undergoing a sixth mass extinction now, a human-generated catastrophe caused primarily by habitat destruction. The World Wildlife Fund estimates the annual number of extinctions as between 200 and 100,000, while the UN Environment Program estimates 150-200 species become extinct daily. Such diverse numbers suggest nobody really has a clue. It is estimated between 5000 and 10,000 new species are discovered/identified every year.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, acclimatisation societies sought to increase biodiversity by introducing non-native species into newly-colonized lands. These societies were popular in the Americas, Australia, and New Zealand. Numerous birds and game species were introduced by settlers to make their new homes feel a bit more like their old homes, for farming purposes, and to provide wild meat and fish for the table and hunting and fishing pleasures.

Today there is a strong movement to reverse many of these deliberate introductions ostensibly because of a concern that introduced species puts the survivability of indigenous species at risk, though the actual risk from introduced species may be fairly small.

Ultimately, most scientists agree that the greatest threat to the planet’s biodiversity is humanity. We decimate wild ecosystems and habitats with our forest clearings, and our agriculture, our seas of plastics, and our toxic chemicals that contaminate our lands and our waterways, our seas and our skies. One recent study in Germany documents an astounding 75% decline in insects biomass in Germany over the past 30 years. We tend to walk carelessly across the surface of our planet with hobnail boots and are headless of our tread.
**
Some of my other posts on the conservation theme:


Sunday, 27 May 2018

A Brief History of the Conservation Movement


Early conservation writing:
1662 paper by John Evelyn,
cited by Wikipedia as a beginning
point of the conservation
movement
Historically, the conservation movement as most people know it comes from a sort of business model for forest management that was first promoted in 17th century England to encourage more sustainable timber harvests. This concept was refined in the 19th century and solidified around three core assumptions:

--Human activity damages the environment
--The natural environment needs to be maintained for future generations
--Scientific methods should be applied to conserve forests
  
19th century conservation in America probably has its philosophical roots going back to Henry David Thoreau and his writings about nature at Waldon Pond—an observational and reverential approach to the environment—and the naturalist John Muir, often called “the father of national parks”. The earliest political push for conservation in the US probably came from President Teddy Roosevelt and his desire to preserve what was left of North America’s big game species. He was an avid big game hunter, and he created the US Forest Service, established five national parks, and four national game preserves as well as other public forests and reserves.

Practically—after all, we live in a world driven by economics, and they did back then too—the stated American government conservation goal was to maximize natural resources for long-term economic benefit. Today the US Environmental Protection Agency is government-funded, and continues to serve that goal, at least more or less.

In the 1970s and 1980s, a number of non-government, non-business conservation organisations sprang up, started by concerned citizens who felt government guidelines and regulations didn’t match the true need for conservancy and environmental protection. These were groups such as Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund, and Friends of the Earth. The focus of these groups was moving away from an emphasis on forests to include the whole range of “natural” environments, and from conservation of economic reserves to conservation in its own right—a desire to save the natural environment and at-risk species, and to mitigate man's impact upon the planet (different organisations have somewhat different goals). To get the private donations they needed to do this, they learned to build campaigns around poster animals such as whales, tigers, elephants, and polar bears—wild at-risk animals that it is relatively easy to get people to care about.

In New Zealand, as in many pockets of the world, we have had a mix of government and non-profit organizations working towards “conservation”. And I put that word in quotes here because meanings are a little fuzzy sometimes. In almost all cases, economics remains a primary driver, nature is seen as a commodity, and results are measured using pseudo-scientific methods. Poster animals are used to capture public support for various campaigns: save the kakapo, kill the possum sort of things. Winning the hearts and minds of the public for various projects ensures funding.

Conservation today has become a sort of “farming” of the common land, done using all of the tools farmers use to shape their land and make a profit. Conservationists choose which plants and animals to nurture, or ignore, or cull; they manage wildlife and plants as class groups rather than individuals. Until it is down to the last few members of a species, individuals don’t really count. A stated goal is to protect biodiversity. But what, exactly, does that mean?

In an up-coming post, I’ll be looking at that biodiversity issue along with the conservation movement themes of ecological restoration and invasion biology.

Saturday, 13 January 2018

In Defence of Wilding Pines

Poisoned pines, from article here, similar to grove in news clip
The other day I caught a television news story about a house fire in Skipper’s Canyon in New Zealand. Part way into the news clip, they panned over the area around the house, and the journalist commented on how lucky they were the fire hadn’t spread to the dead pine trees.  Behind the house, a whole grove of dead pines—undoubtedly poisoned—looked, well, dead. “Those are not only seriously unsightly,” I thought to myself, “but also a huge fire risk. This is nuts!” (You can see the news clip in the video here; the trees and comment about them are at 58 seconds into the clip. 

New Zealand’s Department of Conservation (DOC) has been at war against “invasive” pine trees for some years now--see their website page on it here. In the category of “pine” trees—which they have defined as “weeds”--they include not only eight species of pine (lodgepole, mountain mugo pine, Corsican pine, maritime pine, Ponderosa pine, Scotch pine, bishop pine, and radiata pine) but also Douglas fir and European larch. Radiata pine and Douglas fir are also grown as commercial timber crops in New Zealand, which is fine, just so long as they stay in their neatly tended rows and don’t “jump the fence”.

Photo of wild pines by Neville Peat on DOC website page
Getting rid of invasive pines is challenging. Cutting and grubbing out “wilding” pines, or injecting poison into individual trunks requires intensive hands-on management, so increasingly vast tracts are simply aerial sprayed with herbicide, generally with a mix of glyphosate and metsulfuron. After the pines are killed, they are almost always left standing, in situ, grey skeletal hulks of no benefit to man nor beast and—to my mind at least—a huge eyesore and potential fire risk. It will be many years, maybe decades, before these dead trees eventually rot and fall. Ironically, the photo at the top of the DOC webpage on wilding conifers doesn’t show a hillside covered in dead trees, but one dotted with live ones.  I think it’s rather pretty.

Besides the aesthetic appeal of a green, living tree over a dead one, live trees provide shade and shelter and homes for birds and livestock and a variety of insects. They help stabilize the ground and prevent land slips (which is why many farm trees were planted in the first place). They offset global warming by absorbing CO2. When mature, in some areas they could be harvested for timber, firewood, or wood pump. 

NZ forest cover before man
One argument against these trees is simply that they are not native to New Zealand. Many of the areas they colonize, however, were forested before the first humans arrived here. Little attempt has been made, or is being made, to plant natives in these areas or to replace the unwanted pines with indigenous trees. I reckon the truth is, folks are so used to seeing bare hillsides of grass or tussock that the prospect of trees in historically grassed areas seems almost unnatural. It isn’t.

Another argument that DOC purports against wilding pines—and trees in general—is that trees reduce the amount of water in catchment areas because they pull it up from the ground and release it into the atmosphere—a big issue for farmers in dry areas. While trees do pull up water and release water vapour into the atmosphere, current scientific studies show that trees cool the air and create more rainfall—overall probably a win rather than a loss. Trees—not ocean evaporation--are responsible for an estimated 70% of earth’s atmospheric moisture.

A last argument that DOC uses on their webpage to support their campaign against wilding pines is that they “impact tourism”. I find it a stretch to imagine they think Asian tourists—who revere the pine as a symbol of peace, longevity, and virtue—want to come to New Zealand to see how we poison pines, or to see “wild” hillsides dotted with dead trees.


John McCrone wrote a good article last year titled SprayTactics: The $16m War on Wilding Coniferswhich also examines some of these issues, and more. It is worth reading.

Saturday, 30 December 2017

Endangered Species: Examining the Numbers

How many animals in New Zealand are actually endangered, and how much can poisoning our environment save them? A Facebook friend posted a comment on one of my Facebook posts today citing the sometimes-touted "fact" that 11% of the world's endangered species are endemic to New Zealand. I am skeptical--the world is a big place, and NZ is a small one--so I went looking for some numbers. Here's what I found:

Archie's Frog, an ancient species. Photo from DOC.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists 2464 endangered animals worldwide. Of the world's top 100 most endangered species, including plants, on the IUCN red list posted on Wikipedia, only Archie's Frog is endemic to New Zealand. (That would be 1%). But Archie's frog is an odd pick for the Top 100. After an 80% decline in the Archie's Frog population last century, possibly due to disease/fungus, Archie’s frog has now stabilized in three locations and they are also being successfully captive-bred—so is it really one of the world’s top 100 most endangered species? 

NZ's national heritage site lists 2788 endangered species in New Zealand including plants, insects, and fish. The top 10 most endangered animal species in NZ, according to a 2012 Herald article, are Maui's dolphin, the NZ fairy tern, the kakapo, the white heron (noted in the article as "common" in Australia), the black stilt, greater short-tailed bat, Bryde's whale, southern elephant seal, and the NZ sea lion (there are also populations in Australia).

Maui's dolphin, photo from Wikipedia
New Zealand's Endangered Species Foundation (ESF), in conjunction with the NZ Department of Conservation (DOC), compiled their own list of the 10 most threatened New Zealand species. These are the Maui’s dolphin, Canterbury knobbled weevil, Mokohinau stag beetle, quillwort (an aquatic fern), fairy tern, limestone cress, Chesterfield skink, coastal peppercress, eyelash seaweed, and the dune swale Daphne. The ESF claim there are 4000 New Zealand species “in danger of being lost”. Their website gives cost estimates for saving each of the top-10 species, and it's not trivial money; they’re a non-profit organisation raising money for “targeted intervention”.

When you really start looking at the actual lists of endangered species, they’re all over the place. A lot of animals and plants are cited as "possibly extinct", so the "most endangered" list becomes somewhat meaningless as these are rarely included on those lists. These are animals like the Haditha cave fish (only in Iraq--nobody's monitoring at the moment), and Bachman's warbler (US/Cuba).

Public profile matters a lot too. In New Zealand we hear a lot about kiwi being at risk (estimated count around 100,000) and wood pigeons (not threatened, no number available), but not so much about fairy terns (40 individuals) or the Chatham Islands oystercatcher (est. 300 birds) or grey ducks (“nationally critical” but no estimated headcount available and they're legal to hunt). Could the skew be due to a desire to emphasize forest birds over shore/sea birds promotionally because poisoning the forests--ostensibly to kill the feral mammals and “save the birds”--is a big industry in New Zealand? Could it be that easily-recognized, appealing species perceived as at risk are more likely to generate cash donations and government conservation money than weevils and quillwort?

Incidentally, and just as an ironic side note, the IUCN lists the southern bluefin tuna as "critically endangered" (on their "red list"). The NZ commercial annual catch quota of southern bluefin tuna is set at 1000 tonnes; Australia's quota is 5665 tonnes, similar to Japan’s. I guess a "critically endangered" label doesn't seem to count for much if there's money to be made. (Rhino poachers and conservationists in Africa would agree.)

Clearly, these lists and numbers are somewhat arbitrary. For most species, there is no clear idea how many individuals are remaining in the wild. Mostly lists don’t include probable extinctions, and some include plants and animals that are being successfully bred in captivity. Some endangered species, like the tuna and the grey duck, are actively hunted/harvested. Some New Zealand lists of endangered animals include species that are also endemic—and not so endangered--elsewhere, like the white heron and the New Zealand sea lion.

So…does New Zealand really have 11% of the world’s endangered species? I didn't find  11% mentioned anywhere, and I don’t believe that figure for a minute. Can we “save” our most vulnerable species by dropping 1080 or brodificoum poison in our forests? Given most of our endangered species are not forest dwellers, that seems unlikely, even supposing poisoning an animal's or plant's environment is helpful--and that's a pretty big supposition.

Saturday, 16 December 2017

When There's Something in the Water

The drinking water on the Kapiti Coast is fluoridated and chlorinated. This time of year (summer) it smells like a swimming pool. Numerous health studies question the benefits of these chemicals for human health, and many suggest these chemicals are actively harmful. Studies show drinking chlorinated drinking water, for example, significantly increases your cancer risk, and I’ve blogged about the problems with fluoride before, see here.

When I lived in the Hutt Valley, I brought home drinking water from the artesian aquifer taps in Petone and at the Dowse, even though the tap water in the Hutt valley tastes pretty good. Hutt Valley water is fluoridated, but you can’t taste that. Now that I’ve moved to the Kapiti Coast, the Hutt Valley community taps are too far away for routine pick-ups. I’ve resorted to buying bottled water for drinking.

There are, of course various problems with bottled water. Not only are you paying for it, but the amount of plastic generated from numerous bottles of water used over a week is seriously disconcerting. And studies suggest plastic isn't a healthy container choice for your food or water. There has to be a better way.

One option would be a home water filter system, not so much to catch the bad bacteria that can lurk in our municipal water, but to filter out the chemical additives that make it “safe”. I had heard about stainless steel Burkey water filters, made in Texas, that sit on your kitchen bench and filter a couple of gallons of water every couple of hours. I know several health gurus absolutely love them (see Chris Wark’s video here, as an example). So I spent some time researching the Berkey site, and reading the data and filter results, and customer comments. Burkey claims their filters screen out not only bad bugs, but over 95% of chlorine and, if you add a fluoride filter, over 95% of fluoride. Berkeys are gravity-fed so don’t depend on electricity to run. Two filters are good for cleaning about 6000 gallons of water. What’s not to like?

Never one to rest on company data and promotion, I flicked over to Amazon and several other sites to read user reviews. I learned that filters need to be primed well, leaks sometimes occur if washers and nuts don’t make a tight seal (you assemble it yourself), and one reader was unhappy that her product from Amazon arrived with a dent in it. There apparently has been a problem in the past with the glue used on the filters failing, which Berkey says they have rectified. Some users conducted their own tests of water purification, and all seemed pretty happy with results. Overall, lots of 5-star happy purchasers.

I love the idea, and would appreciate the convenience of just using my tap water and getting a safer (in my mind) product with fewer chemical contaminates, and no plastic bottles. So what’s the catch? I started by looking for a NZ supplier. A google search (“Berkey water filters NZ”) kicked up TruWater who want NZ$469 for a Big Berkey with 2 black filters plus 2 fluoride filters. Serious moolah here!

Having never heard of TruWater, I wondered where they are located. The website showed an Auckland phone number but no address. I google again, and discovered their office is in New South Wales. On product review for Tru Water, I found 118 people rated them as “terrible” and 12 people rated them as “excellent”—only 4 sort-of in-be-tweeners rated the company as “bad”. Do they have 12 company shills? Um. Uh, nah. Not going there.

Maybe—I thought—I could just get a Big Berkey from the US through Amazon. Price check: US$416 including shipping and import fees. With the current currency exchange, that’s NZ$595. That’s even more serious moolah. Gah!

It seems to me that there must be a massive market for units like this. So many people like me want clean, fresh water without chemical additives, and without adding more plastic bottles to the recyclers, or having to have easy access to an artesian well. The units could also be used for purifying rain water from the roof, or well or creek water. If some enterprising Kiwi—and aren’t we known for our #8 wire mentality?—went into the business of creating home water filter units based on the Berkey concept, I’m sure they could undercut Amazon and have a very ready market. 


Meanwhile, I’m still buying supermarket water in plastic bottles (sigh!), and when I have an excuse to go to the Hutt Valley, I fill up my big glass bottles. I will start looking at jugs next...Seychelle maybe? But they're not easily sourced in New Zealand either, and the filters (expensive) have a really short life (150 gallons) compared to Burkey filters. Sigh again. Bit of a mine field, really.

Saturday, 8 July 2017

School Possum Hunt Fundraiser and Drowned Joeys

The drowning of baby possums, allegedly by children/teenagers, as part of a school fundraiser, was reported in national news media this week in New Zealand. It has generated a good deal of discussion—some of it quite vitriolic—on Facebook and talk-back radio.

Possum joey in pouch, from this webpage
The fundraiser was a local wild possum hunt held by Drury primary school near Auckland. Over 1100 wild possums were shot over three nights, with the money from fur sales going back to the school. As possum joeys (babies) are of no commercial value, these were allegedly pulled out of possum pouches by teenage volunteers and drowned. This video shows the genial, convivial, almost carnival atmosphere around this clearly family event (no animals are seen actually being killed in the video, although there are plenty of dead ones), and the “Dueling Banjos” riff—not, I think, inappropriate—makes me chuckle, wryly. I've seen "Deliverance". 

When an animal rights activist Lynley Tulloch waded in and started a petition protesting school possum hunts in general (this wasn’t the first in New Zealand), the SPCA got involved and threw their focus specifically (and only) on the inhumanity of drowning the joeys.

The issues here are numerous, and on several levels.

Firstly, a little possum background. Brushtail possums were brought to New Zealand from Australia in 1837 to start a fur trade. They thrived here, better than in their native Australia, and in 1946 possums had become enough of a problem (mostly to farmers) that they were declared a “pest”. I wrote about possums in another post some years ago. Today they are active “pest” targets. Vast government poisoning campaigns using toxins such as 1080, brodifacoum, and cyanide to target possums (and rats) raise controversy over environmental ethics and animal rights. Traps are also popular control methods, and shooting. Possums that aren’t poisoned have high-value pelts and fur, and the meat could be used (and occasionally is) for pet food. Poisoned animals are of no value to anyone, and are left to rot (slowly, as animals and insects that feed on the carcasses are also often killed by secondary poisoning).

The SPCA issue of whether the baby possums were killed humanely by drowning them in a bucket of water is, to my mind, a bizarre side track. Ultimately, with the mother possums shot, providing a quick death for their babies—deemed of no “value”—seems the kindest thing. While death by drowning might not be nice—what sort of death IS nice?—it is far quicker and less distressing than death by poison (acceptable, apparently) or by trapping an animal—leg perhaps caught in a painful vice grip trap, perhaps for days, before the trapper dispatches the possum with a blow to the head. The SPCA says their preferred method of killing possums is shooting them, which presents a problem given a joey may be small enough to fit into the cup of your hand.

More disturbing to many is that such a cavalier attitude to killing animals is the backbone of a school fundraising event. Schools help our youngest generation learn adult values. Of course “adult values” are not uniform across our culture; they vary from one community to another. Clearly—just watch the video—the values in this community are family-oriented and education-supportive. As some commentators have pointed out, possum hunts like these are far “greener” ways to eliminate possums and better for the environment than poisoning with the likes of aerial-dropped 1080.

All of this, of course, pre-supposes that possums are a menace that needs to be dealt with in the first placed. While research shows possums to be almost exclusively vegetarian, anti-possum promoters often expound on their danger to native birds, often supported by this single staged photo. In actual fact, analysis of possum stomach contents reveals a varied plant diet with virtually no indication of bird or egg predation.

There have also been arguments raised that possums eat the foliage of native trees (true, what else would they eat?), that they carry TB, and—their most heinous crime of all—possums aren’t native to New Zealand. Thus, like rats and stoats, magpies and peacocks, they are relegated into the “pest” category. And what a powerful word that is. Pest. It conjures up images of cockroaches and wasps in the house, and weeds growing rampant in the garden. Originally, the word comes from pestilence, most specifically the Plague. And in our culture, a “pest” is something so totally unwanted, so awful, it can be demolished without feeling or consideration. Certainly it can be dispatched without respect. The world is--by definition--better off without.

I think this whole issue is far more a moral and ethical issue than it is about conservation or fundraising (I almost typed "funraising" there, a punnishly curious Freudian slip). Our country, like all countries, is made up of various communities which do not share a universal perspective on many issues, even seemingly fundamental ones. We teach our children as we are, to share our personal, parental values. Our personal values mostly come from our community, and these may reflect guidance from government, science, religious leaders, economics/finances, and heart instinct.  In this case, the New Zealand government and the conservation science it promotes actively encourage the removal (i.e., killing) of possums in the wild environment. In that context, a possum hunt (more humane and environmentally “safe” than 1080 poison forest bombardment at the very least) as a school fundraiser makes sense. Drowning the joeys of the dead mums makes sense.

For those with a heart instinct that feels this is fundamentally wrong, that the wonton killing and blatant disregard of the welfare of an animal for no purpose but to get rid of it, the idea of a school fundraiser based around possum killing is simply abhorrent.

Two extremes.

We all draw animal rights lines in the sand. For some, the misery visited upon dogs destined for the meat markets of Asia is beyond the pale, but a t-bone steak (cow) for dinner is absolutely fine. The thought of the anguish of newborn calves being removed from their mothers so we can drink the cows’ milk makes some folks so uncomfortable, they become vegan. For others, hunting wild game is not only an enjoyable recreational pastime but also a good way to stock the freezer, and many hunters do so with a sense of appreciation—even honour and respect—for the wild deer or pig they kill. Some people are so oblivious to the connection between the meat they eat and the animal that dies to provide it--meat just comes hermetically sealed in a plastic coffin at the supermarket, what's the issue?-- that these conflicts don’t even register. 

And some enjoy killing just for the sake/fun of killing. (And there’s research to suggest that those in the latter camp are often more callous towards other people too, and we all know New Zealand has a pretty abysmal record of family violence and abuse.  But that’s a whole ‘nother ball of wax that  I’m not actually going to get into.)

The truth is, most Kiwis probably haven’t even noticed this relatively minor news story about a possum-kill school fundraiser, and if they have, it has no more meaning or significance to them than news of a mumps outbreak in some town other than where they live. That's the "norm". 


Such is our society.