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Animal carcasses, psychopathy and school possum hunts

Lynley Tulloch

Highway to hell: animal carcasses, psychopathy and school possum hunts

It is school possum hunt season again in New Zealand. These events serve a dual purpose of fundraiser and ‘pest’ cull.

Those who justify such events rely on the rationale that they are teaching children about conservation and the need to remove unwanted pests from native bush areas.

I have steadfastly opposed school possum hunts for a number of years now, even filming and exposing the drowning of possum joeys at the Drury School Possum Hunt by children in 2017. It’s not that I don’t think introduced species constitute a conservation issue in New Zealand. Rather, I believe that killing and violence is not the answer to this problem. Especially when it involves young children.

A recent article on such a possum hunt event grabbed my attention. It was entitled Forgotten World Highway fun: animal carcasses, sausages and fox terrier races. Frankly, I don’t think that ‘fun’ and ‘animal carcasses’ belong in the same sentence together. But then, I am not a psychopath.

This article went on to relay how ‘every child that walked into the Whangamomona Domain on Saturday either had a dead animal slung over their shoulders or a pair of gumboots on.’

Called the biennial Whangamomona Kids’ Critter Hunt, children are asked to bring their ‘best and biggest’ kills in for weighing. The list of 165 dead animals was diverse and included goat’s heads, possums, turkeys, hares, rabbits, pigs and magpies.

Last year they even had a cat come through for weigh in.

It was quite literally a death fest of corpses. A grandmother, Ceri, is quoted as saying that her grandchildren “take a little while to get used to killing animals, but once they get into it they love it.”

I want to pause for a moment here. Why should we want our children to get used to killing animals? It’s quite bizarre, ‘pests’ or not.

These are our children, our national taonga (treasures), and our future. We want them to be competent. It’s embedded in our national curriculum, which has a vision of young children as “confident, connected, actively involved, lifelong learners.” The curriculum also states that certain values, such as ‘ecological sustainability’ and ‘integrity’ and ‘respect’ should drive children’s learning.

So in telling children to kill exotic species, are we teaching them to value ‘ecological sustainability”? I don’t believe so.

True environmental sustainability education is not about adult-directed events. Rather, it involves children in learning about ecological issues and developing the ability to take action toward solving them. Children need to be actively involved in making the decision for themselves.

Through this process they maintain their integrity as compassionate and caring human beings who are respectful of nature.

Teaching children to kill animals and display them in not the same thing as learning to become a steward of the Earth.

I think it shows a serious oversight on our schools and educators to be sanctioning such events.

The social-emotional development of young children is seriously compromised by teaching them to kill. Young children learn how to be empathetic toward humans and animals from their earliest years. It’s part of developing emotional competence, crucial for success in social relationships and even cognitive growth.

Empathy is particularly important in social-emotional development. It refers to the capacity to experience the emotional or psychological state of another person or animal. In healthy development, children learn that all animals (regardless of whether they are classified as pests or not) experience a range of emotions and can become psychologically distressed.

Children can readily identify with animals. It is why many children’s books and films involve animals. When given the right environment, most children will experience a kinship with animals that facilitates the development of empathy. They recognize themselves in the animals, and they understand that it is not OK to hurt animals or people.

As adults we can reinforce positive behaviors toward animals through modelling and dialogue, building rich conversations that foster mutually respectful relationship with them.

On the other hand, when we teach children to kill animals, to hurt them, to display their corpses for fun, to ridicule and objectify them, we are teaching them the traits of a psychopath. We all know that psychopaths began their dastardly careers testing on animals.

I am not saying that all children who hunt will grow up to be psychopaths. What I am saying, is that we are not doing our children any favors in teaching them that it is OK to love killing animals, and to gamify it through creating weigh-in competitions and best – dressed possum shows. It stunts their emotional development.

Let’s save weighing in for the rugby season. There are other ways to prove our ‘kiwiness’ rather than killing animals.

We want the best for our children, so let’s stop all this killing. Ecological sustainability is not about developing a posture of violence over other beings. It requires the ability to feel kinship with the Earth, to take only what we need, to develop an appreciation and sensitivity to the natural world.

True environmental stewardship requires a compassionate and intelligent stance toward nature and non-human animals. Now more than ever, we need compassionate education in our schools, and not possum hunts.


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