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.