Thursday, 27 October 2011


Okay, okay, I know. If you’ve read my previous posts (Of Possums,  Villain or Victim, and Oh, Deer), you’re probably thinking, “This woman’s on a mission. I wonder if she ever thinks about anything else besides 1080 and dead animals?” Well, yes I do. But one more post on this theme, and then I’ll move on (for a while anyway).

Last night I watched the documentary “Poisoning Paradise: Ecocide New Zealand” put out by the Graf Boys a couple of years ago. I don’t think it’s been run on NZ television—although it should be. (Be warned: the start seems cheesy, like an old come-to-New Zealand tourist advert. Don't flick off and say "nah" before the film really starts. Also, the content is disturbing.) are some facts about 1080:

1080 is sodium monofluoroacetate, a highly toxic poison originally invented in 1896 in Belgium[i] and first patented in 1927 in the U.S. as an insecticide. It is so nasty that most countries have since banned its use (the US classifies it as a “terrorist weapon”[ii]), but New Zealand’s Animal Health Board and Department of Conservation (both government departments) continue to use around 85% of the world’s production of 1080, prepared into around 2,000,000 kgs of laced carrot and cereal/grain bait[iii] per year, much of it distributed via aerial drops over New Zealand’s forests and woodlands as part of an ongoing possum eradication programme. According to Wikipedia, the remaining 15% or so of world production is used by Australia, the U.S. (used only as an impregnated collar on livestock to protect them from coyote predation in some areas[iv], and it is banned in most states), Mexico, Japan and Israel. If you’re in America and reading this, keep in mind that the whole of New Zealand is about the same size as the state of Oregon.

1080 is particularly toxic for mammals and insects; the speed of death depends upon metabolism, but it is slow (up to a couple of days) and clearly an excruciating death by any standards. (See the above doco trailer for some indication, but the actual documentary just made me feel sick, watching animals writhe and spasm in agony.) Only the tiniest amount is deadly, just 0.06 mg/kg for a dog,  0.8 mg/kg for a possum, or 8 mg/kg for a weka[v]. There is no antidote.

There is a myth in New Zealand that the use of 1080 is good for the NZ native bird population, as they are not “targeted”. However, bird loss following aerial drops is significant with several key species including the kea, New Zealand’s cheeky mountain parrot. After one West Coast 1080 drop, 7 of 17 radio-tagged kea were found dead, a 40% kill rate of a protected species. Weka, brown opportunistic ground-dwellers about the size of a chicken, are often found feeding on the carcasses of 1080-poisoned animals and later succumbing to secondary poisoning. Basically, any bird that will be enticed by a cereal/grain bait or bit of carrot, or that feeds off carrion or insects, is susceptible.

Kill of non-targeted mammalian species is also significant. Farmers resident near forest blocks can lose stock if their cattle, sheep, goats or deer consume wayward 1080 pellets or drink runoff water that has been contaminated with 1080. Dogs are particularly susceptible to the poison, and a gnawed on 1080-kill possum equals death for any hapless farm dog or family pet inclined to have a chew.

Lastly, runoff from 1080-treated land can end up in our water supply with contamination not only from the baits but also from dead animals. 1080 poison promoters maintain the substance breaks down quickly in water to become harmless by-products. Anti-1080 activists report little breakdown in cold weather, however, so pellets from a winter drop may linger for months in stream areas if not consumed by animals. Carcass breakdown is also slow because the usual suspects (worms, insects, maggots) which feed on the carcass are also killed.

You can tell this stuff riles me up. I am not fond of killing animals in the first place—I’m the sort that catches spiders and puts them outside, and rescues mice from the cat—but I do accept that for various reasons we do kill animals and our society condones that, and I am a part of that society. However, the wanton broadcast of a toxic poison onto our landscape, a poison that causes indiscriminate and excruciatingly slow and painful death for all manner of living things, from the smallest mites to tomtits, dogs and deer in the name of “conservation” and “protection” makes me want to hiss and spit. We are all one, this is our planet and we share it with all of God’s creatures. We are all part of a single eco-system, and the debasement of that eco-system simply lays a self-inflicted curse upon ourselves and our world. How dumb is that?

Monday, 24 October 2011

Oh, deer!

There are deer in the forests around my house. We know people who regularly shoot deer around here for the freezer. Also considered a “pest” species in New Zealand (like the possum—see previous blog entries), red deer are open season year ‘round. Having grown up in North America where deer hunting is an autumn activity, I am deeply saddened when I hear gunshots in the spring, knowing a doe might be killed, leaving a fawn to die of starvation. A friend offered me a haunch spring-shot venison once; I declined on personal ethical grounds.

Earlier this year I saw a dead deer by the creek that flows past my house. At the time, I wondered if it had been wounded by a hunter and got away, to die by the creek. A friend half-seriously suggested I should scramble down the bank and carve a few chops off the carcass for the freezer. The bank is a steep one, and I didn’t go down to investigate, but it did seem odd that for days after that, the carcass lay there, a brownish hump in the streamside willows, seemingly without significant decay, not even bloating, in spite of warm weather.  But I’m no expert on the decomposition of dead bodies, and wasn’t curious enough at the time to go closer. Finally, several weeks later, after heavy rain raised the creek’s water level, the dead deer carcass was washed away downstream, out of sight and out of mind.

The memory of that deer carcass came back, though, when I was reading W F Benfield’s book “The Third Wave: Poisoning the Land”, and a more chilling possibility than hunter-wounded-deer occurred to me. The forested hills around my house have been aerial dropped with 1080 poison, and poison baits are laid for possums. In Benfield’s book, there are photographs of dead sheep, creekside, who have sought water in a vain attempt to ease the excruciating pain caused by ingesting 1080 poison. Elsewhere in the book he writes, “Remains of possum or deer may sometimes be found by creeks as they seek water to easy their agony.” Seven tasty cereal-based baits, he explains, are enough to kill the average hind, and LandCare estimates a red deer kill rate of up to 54% of the population (and up to 75% of fallow deer population) following a poison drop[i].

Now this bothers me on several levels. First of all, in spite of [highly questionable] claims that 1080 breaks down easily into harmless by-products, it is widely acknowledged that animals which feed on 1080-poisoned carcasses ingest toxic 1080—hence the ban on dogs (which are highly susceptible to the poison) in areas where 1080 has been dropped or laid. So, what is to say that the deer someone shoots in the hills around my home and sticks into the freezer for dinner hasn’t been sampling 1080 baits? Do I want to eat that? (According to Benfield, “Japan already bans the import of New Zealand wild harvest foods because of 1080.”[ii])

Secondly, 15% of the Wellington area water supply comes from the hills around here[iii]. Now they claim that 1080 breaks down quickly in water[iv], but the prospect of 1080-contaminated carcasses in my drinking water (or direct contamination from aerial drops) is not a comforting thought for me.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Villain or Victim? The NZ possum

Probably the most vilified animal in the New Zealand forest, the Australian brushtail possum was deliberately and regularly imported into New Zealand from Australia between 1837 and 1930 to establish a possum fur industry here. Populations established in many areas of New Zealand, and in 1947, all restrictions on the hunting and trapping of wild possums in New Zealand were lifted.  

Today these forest-browsing cat-sized marsupials are blamed for browse damage in New Zealand forests, cited as carriers of bovine tuberculosis, and vilified as raiders of native New Zealand bird nests. They are also the primary target of regular aerial 1080 poison drops in forested areas, along with trap lines and poison bait stations. In 2009, Landcare Research speculatively estimated the New Zealand possum population at around 30 million. 

Protected in Australia, brushtail and ringtail possums are slow-breeding nocturnal herbivores (plant eaters). A single joey is born to a mother after a 17-day gestation period. After crawling into her pouch, it attaches to a teat and lives there for about five months. Later, the young joey is often found riding on its mother’s back (as in the photo above, from Wikimedia Commons). Adult independence and breeding age is reached in about a year. 

Possums are solitary territorial animals commonly found in forests and woodlands, especially near suburban and farm areas where easy access to fresh fruit and vegetables proves irresistible. They are not prolific breeders (one joey per year), they are not voracious bird eaters, and although they can carry and transmit bovine TB, it seems likely that they catch it from infected cows rather than from each other.

In his book The Third Wave: Poisoning the Land[i], Martinborough vintner and conservationist W. F. Benfield suggests that the actual environmental impact of the possum in New Zealand is small.  Sharing an ecological niche as a forest browser with the New Zealand wood pigeon and the endangered kakapo (nocturnal parrot), studies[ii] analyzing the stomach contents of possums reveal a diet consisting of woody foliage (40-50%), seeds (35-40%), fruit (around 15%), and insects (less than 2%).  No evidence of bird or nest predation was found. Benfield goes so far as to suggest that sensationalist photographs of possums eating eggs or chicks are “contrived events for the camera” to encourage public acceptance of 1080 poison drops. He noted that in one research study, “it took 46 hours of starvation before a young male possum could be induced to consume bits of dead birds”. As for claims of damage to native forests, he cites Landcare scientist Graham Nugent who observed in a 1994 press conference that in general, possum browse is slight compared to natural foliage production and not of significant concern for forest conservation.

Possums can catch and spread bovine TB, which is understandably concerning for New Zealand, an agricultural country which depends heavily on the economic viability of its dairy herd. Bovine TB can also be carried by other mammals including deer, hedgehogs, rabbits, pigs, goats, rats, cats, and ferrets, animals which also often share the cattle habitat. Australia, which has possums and other wildlife, eliminated bovine TB in 1997 by rounding up and culling infected cattle. Although eliminated from much of Europe and North America, bovine TB remains a common scourge in many parts of Africa and Asia.

In an admittedly quick perusal of the net, I tried to find what percentage of the New Zealand dairy herd is infected with bovine TB. The Animal Health Board’s 2009 information (at simply says that their goal is to achieve the industry standard of less than 99.8% of dairy herds, stressing the importance of ongoing possum control programs to achieve that aim. On a British site, a small graph shows New Zealand pretty much sitting on 0% as of 2008.

And for me, all of this begs the question: Why, exactly, should the NZ Department of Conservation and the Animal Health Board make such an issue out of possum control and the importance of 1080 drops? I feel another post coming on...

[i] Benfield, W F. The Third Wave: Poisoning the Land. 2011. Wellington, NZ: Tross Publishing.
[ii] Sweetapple P. & Nugent G. “Ship rat demography an diet following possum control in a mixed podocarp-hardwood forest” Landcare Research, Dec 2007; and Sweetapple P, Fraiser K, andKnightbridge P. “Diet and impacts of bushtail possums across an invasion front in South Westland” New Zealand Journal of Ecology 28(1), 2004 pp 12-33.

Of possums and a serendipitous juxtaposition

 It seems more than slightly bizarre that I should begin blogging about something as inane as the possum. This comes about, as many things in life do, through a serendipitous juxtaposition of two things. Firstly, I heard a possum the other night, and it made its presence known over several subsequent nights, its banshee chitterings, growls and shrieks cracking the darkness from the newly-leafed spring trees outside my bedroom window. It’s the first time I’ve heard a possum in several years, although we are surrounded by forest and they are touted by conservation groups as a pest species supposedly present in plague proportions, out to decimate our forests.

I don’t share the seemingly universal Kiwi hatred of possums. I grinned and snuggled under the covers and thought, “Sing out, Little Man. It’s nice to know there are still a few of you left.” And I wished him well.

Secondly, about the same time, I picked up a book off the “new books” shelf in the local library called The Third Wave: Poisoning the Land by W F Benfield, a vintner and conservationist currently living in the Waiarapa. In it, the author explores the changing landscape, biodiversity, and disruption of ecosystems in New Zealand from pre-human occupation, through Maori settlement and European colonisation, to the present dream for the land, which seems to be to return New Zealand—the forest anyway—to a pre-European (but not pre-Maori) state. He challenges many of the paradigms promoted by current government bodies (especially the Department of Conservation and the Animal Health Board), and comes down very hard on the use of 1080, a particularly nasty poison that is routinely aerial dropped onto New Zealand forests, ostensibly to kill off possums. Toxic not only to possums but to all oxygen-breathing animals including mammals, birds, fish, worms and insects, 1080 causes a slow and extremely painful death when ingested as primary bait, or over time by secondary consumption of scavenged 1080-kill corpses. More on that, perhaps, in a subsequent post.

I find it sad that the possum, although protected in its native Australia, is the focus of so much venomous hatred in New Zealand that we are willing to poison a whole ecosystem in an attempt to control (ideally eradicate) it. It’s been a long time since I’ve heard a possum, and a long time since I’ve seen a possum as road kill, both of which were common twenty years ago. 

Out of sync with main-line thinking, I think of Maintrunk Country Roadsong by Kiwi poet and raconteur Sam Hunt:

Maintrunk Country Roadsong
Sam Hunt

Driving south and travelling
Not much over fifty,
I hit a possum ... “Little
Man,” I muttered chopping
Down to second gear,
“I never meant you any harm.”

My friend with me, he himself
A man who loves such nights,
Bright headlight nights, said
“Possums? Just a bloody pest,
They’re better dead!”
He’s right of course.

So settling back, foot down hard,
Ohakune, Tangiwai—
As often blinded by
The single headlight of
A passing goods train as by
Any passing car—

Let the Midnight Special shine
Its ever-loving light on me:
They run a prison farm
Somewhere round these parts;
The men always on the run.
These men know such searchlight nights:

Those wide shining
Eyes of that young possum
Full-beam back on mine,
Watching me run over him...
“Little Man,
I never meant you any harm.”
                                --Sam Hunt

Little man, I mean you no harm either.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Susan's Blog

Welcome to my blog. I am Susan Thrasher, a long-time New Zealand resident with North American roots living near the capital city of Wellington. I work from home as an nlp practitioner and life  coach. You can find out more about that at my website I am curious about the world and our role as human beings in it.  I believe in sustainable, integral living. I believe that all things are related. I believe in systems and eco-systems. I believe “there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” I believe that most of us operate with a map, and too often we forget that “the map is not the territory.”

This is my inaugural blog posting. I hope that over time I will build both a repertoire of short, regular writings on a variety of subjects, and gain some modicum of readership. You may find here postings on topics ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous, and from insightful and controversial to the banal. Sort of like life, really. I will enjoy sharing my thoughts, observations and realisations with you, my readers, and I hope you will respond in kind—feedback is most welcome!