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Uruti possum hunt and school violence

Uruti possum hunt and school violence

It’s the stuff of childhood nightmares and yet twice as scary because it is real. Children at many rural schools in New Zealand are encouraged to not only participate in killing animals, but also to dress them up in a range of creative and yet ghoulish postures.

The latest death fest took place at Uruti School, where it was recently reported that children were involved in a ‘heaviest goat head’ competition and carrying dead possums on an obstacle course.

News of these bizarre events have leaked to the international stage where there was condemnation of Uruti School's ‘best dressed possum competition’ in 2012. More recently in 2017 Drury school has come under global scrutiny for involving teenage girls in drowning joeys taken from the pouches of dead possums. This is considered an inhumane and illegal way of killing new-born animals.

These are not the only schools involved in such bizarre fundraising /school fair events. Among many others there is the notable recent ‘Easter Bunny Hunt’ at Bainesse, a town near Palmerston North. The goal was for families to join forces and kill as many bunnies as possible as a competition. The event also doubled as a fundraiser for a school bus.

I think I’d rather just take a bike. Or call on the Ministry of Education to provide support for rural schools so they don’t have to sanction the use of guns on innocent animals in order that children can get to the school gates by bell time.

Many schools and supporters of these school possum hunts use the ‘possums are pests’ mantra to garner support. New Zealand’s alleged ‘war’ on possums is a smokescreen that obscures some very real issues that are being overlooked.

Any educator worth her salt knows that schools should not be places of indoctrination where children are prepped for war - whether the violence is perpetrated on possums or people. It is plain wrong. If schools are truly concerned with environmental education (and they should be) then they can engage with compassionate conservation and teach our children to explore their values. Children already engage positively with animals and nature, and generally show compassion and respect to living beings, which should be nurtured, not rooted out.

The image we are portraying to the world of encouraging violence in our children is not one any decent country would be happy with.

But New Zealand is becoming less decent on several levels and it’s time we woke up to the fact and took it seriously. We have one of the worst rates of domestic violence in the OECD countries. Violence toward children is also of significant concern. Child Matters states that between 1 July 2015 – 30 June 2016 there were “16,394 substantiated findings of abuse (including emotional, physical, sexual abuse & neglect”).

That is sobering in a country that once prided itself as a great place to bring up kids. Despite the It’s Not OK campaign, led by the Ministry for Social Development things are just getting worse.

It’s time we took a broader view of violence and connect the various forms that are contributing to this dismal and inexcusable picture. Violence begets violence and teaching children to disrespect animals by using their dead bodies as a form of entertainment is “not ok”. It desensitizes them to the suffering of others and encourages them to objectify and hate.

Recently Emeritus Professor Marc Bekoff has written extensively on the subject of school possum hunts in New Zealand and the resultant psychological damage done to children. One of his recent essays suggested that some rural children may feel distressed at these competitions but may be afraid to speak out.

This culture of fear and bullying is one we are trying hard to address in New Zealand. Schools should be places where children feel safe and secure, and where they can grow up knowing that their developing values will not be so flagrantly contradicted and dismissed. Not all rural children like to kill animals and handle their dead bodies in competitions. And people who insist on killing animals for food or as 'pests' should at the very least give those animals some dignity in death by not making fun of their sad dead bodies.

The emotional safety of students (including prevention of bullying) is paramount in schools. It affects their achievement and future. We’re better than this aren’t we?

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