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January 2020 Issue
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The only good stoat is a dead stoat

Predator control is essential to saving native birds, but it’s how it’s done and talked about that matters.
Do New Zealanders need to rethink the way they talk about predator control? 

Hating possums seems to be as compulsory for New Zealanders as supporting the All Blacks. From Northland to Stewart Island, people are getting involved with ridding the country of stoats, possums and rats. For New Zealand’s native wildlife, it’s now or never.

Tomtits, takahē and tuatara have no defence against these opportunistic visitors. Left unmanaged, the decline of native species will continue. I think that’s morally objectionable and predator control is the single most necessary step to protect our taonga. Without concerted conservation efforts, the kiwi and kākā will be consigned to history or a few ecologically-isolated sanctuaries.

I’ve spent more than a decade working on community conservation projects across several countries. In New Zealand, I recently spent a season scraping stoat carcasses out of traps and chatting to people about the importance of predator control, working alongside some of the most passionate, professional and experienced conservationists I’ve ever met.

One thing, however, caught me off-guard; the public venom used to describe predators.

When possums are ‘pests’ and hedgehogs are ‘vermin’, people respond accordingly. Stoats, ‘evil, nasty little murderers’, are most hated of all.

Volunteers, members of the public and even leaflets and information boards tend towards a narrative that paints these animals as culpable villains.

Humans are emotional creatures, responding to stories, not dry facts and figures, and language is shown to have a measurable effect on people’s behaviour. To switch one word, can completely alter the way people respond. When it comes to something as important as wildlife conservation and animal welfare, is it necessary to tell a fairytale instead of communicating facts? The story of villain, victim and hero may have galvanised people to action, but has it changed the way we think about these animals and the actions taken against them?

In the time I’ve been working in New Zealand, I have heard some truly shocking stories from ordinary people. From chasing down possums with cars and stamping on ducklings to bludgeoning stoats with bricks and poisoning cats with paracetamol.

Demonising animals as ‘murderers’ legitimises acts of real cruelty. Untrained, vigilante ’conservationists’ are taking it into their own hands to proudly rid the country of invaders using methods that are neither ethical nor legal. New Zealand, a country with some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world, seems to have forgotten its compassion in the pursuit of ‘pests’; sentient animals, surviving successfully in an ecosystem they were never meant for.

By making a monster out of a mouse, we’ve also polarised the debate, alienating people who might otherwise support predator-free initiatives. Influential, animal-loving organisations such as the RSPCA and the Jane Goodall Institute have spoken out against predator-control initiatives.

Would this response be different if they were assured that predator control was demonstrably humane, effective and necessary? Would more overseas visitors be supportive if we communicated the ecological facts instead of demonising animals that are well-loved in their native countries?

Unfortunately, the complex and crucial business of saving wildlife often requires heavy-handed methods, including culling, but conservation is still a fundamentally compassionate science. Professionals work tirelessly because of their love of animals and passion for wild places.

Raising a new generation of environmentally aware and active people should include teaching children compassion for animals, then introducing them to the complexities of ecology and wildlife management age-appropriately. Teaching callous disdain for selective species in the form of school possum-hunts or rat-selfies on Instagram should make us all uncomfortable and doesn’t benefit conservation in the long run.

New Zealand is doing an admirable job of protecting its remnant native fauna, and I feel privileged to have played a small role. I admire the active involvement of the public, iwi, volunteer groups, and the highly skilled people at DOC.

But perhaps it’s time we changed the narrative? We are not blameless heroes protecting innocent victims from murderous villains. Instead, we could all be compassionate, humane, scientifically-informed environmentalists, working together for a future rich in native wildlife.

– Because this is an emotive issue with strong opinions on all sides, the author, who has a background in community conservation, requested this to remain anonymous.