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Compassionate Conservation - We Need A New Framework For Our Relationship With 'Pest Animals'

If there has been one message that was repeatedly driven home during the various stages of lockdown it was this: be kind. However, it would seem that ‘kindness’ did not cross the species barrier like Covid -19 did.

The Covid-19 lockdown should give us all pause for thought on our treatment of animals, including those that are often considered 'pests'.

And yet, perhaps predictably, some people used lockdown as an opportunity to engage in killing animals as a 'civic duty'. A recent One News report by Alison Pugh details an Instagram post of a person showing how to drown a rat. Drowning rats, and any animal in fact, is illegal in New Zealand. But people are deadly slow in getting the message.

The SPCA commented on the rat drowning saying that they have seen a disturbing trend in an increase in drowning of animals during lockdown. Many of these animals, including wild cats, are regarded as ‘pests’ and thus not deserved of any compassion.

Animal rights group SAFE has also spoken out against what they regard as an alarming trend toward New Zealanders torturing animals who are considered ‘pests’ and considering this acceptable conduct.

On the Council for Outdoor Recreations Associations of NZ Inc (CORANZ) website journalist Michelle Terry calls the torturing of ‘pests’ callous. She writes, “ Torture and inhumane drownings where animals suffer is happening under the guise of helping nature. One perpetrator thought he was just ‘doing his bit’ for Predator Free NZ—finding inventive and entertaining ways to inflict misery and death on unwanted animals as a sort of ‘civic duty’”.

In my capacity as an animal rights activist I have also seen numerous disturbing instances of this unhealthy trend. I photographed the drowning of possum joeys at the Drury School Possum Hunt in July, 2017. The SPCA had to educate the school, who claimed that they did not know that drowning animals is illegal.

In many ways I regard this trend as a by-product of the DOC conservation efforts to rid New Zealand of so-called pests and ‘make New Zealand great again’. It is a Trump like mentality that is both sadistic and childlike.

Take, for example, a Facebook group called The Great NZ lock up mouse hunt. This group ballooned to over 30,000 members during lockdown. The group became a frenzy of sadistic posts in which mice, rats, stoats and cats were tortured and killed. Their bodies were then posed alongside props and with great mirth. It is akin to the pre-lockdown school fundraiser possum hunts, where dead animals are dressed up and used in throwing competitions.

What makes these people think that the killing and suffering of animals is something to turn into a joke? And what are they doing walking amongst us? Why are they teaching our children this message?

And did Covid-19 lockdown give us the opportunity to root out this sadistic trend, expose it and turn the tide toward a more compassionate future? I hope so, but believe we still have a long way to go.

The thing is, that many of the people involved in killing animals sadistically believe that they are doing a great thing for their country. They position the animal as ‘the other’, as an interloper, as something that should not be here. As an object that is to be ridiculed and made to suffer. As the enemy.

They lean on the ideology that restoring New Zealand’s native biodiversity is a war. And in any war we have a battle on our hands. Take, for example, the problematically named ‘Battle for our Birds’ introduced by the Department of Conservation (DOC). It covers 800,000 ha of conservation land which is laced with 1080 drops.

1080 is a notoriously cruel poison, taking hours and sometimes days to kill an animal. Animals who ingest the poison bleed slowly to death internally. If a possum has a joey, the infant animal will die of starvation.

So is it any wonder that people think it is OK to go into the battlefield and drown animals? And when you really think about it, is it even more humane than death by 1080? In which case, we have institutionalized cruelty on a grand scale, sanctioned by the government. The very same government that urges us to be kind. There is no consistency.

There is also a raft of philosophical ruminations on this subject that will keep you up for many nights. If we value our native species, do we justify the means to the end? Should we unleash the demons from hell onto all exotic species that compete for habitat and potentially kill our native species?

Arguments against the efficacy of 1080 aside, and its potential to kill our own native species, is it a justifiable method for killing animals?

In my opinion, it is problematic to have a law that tells people not to drown animals, while at the same time legally sanctioning the use of an even more cruel killing method. It simply reveals the hypocrisy of our legal system, and the inconsistencies that result on widespread and devastating animal cruelty.

All animals, whatever their species, should be treated with compassion and respect. An emerging field that holds some hope for human relationships with wild animals is that of compassionate conservation. Compassionate conservation is based on the four principles of first do no harm, individuals matter, inclusivity, and peaceful coexistence.

The reality is that humans have caused the ecological mess we are in. Globally we have made a complete hash of it. Human activity, especially in the last two hundred years, has caused massive biodiversity loss, soil desertification, ocean acidification, climate change, coral reef destruction and air and water pollution.

In New Zealand, we have the loss of habitat for our endemic and native species caused by the conversion of natural wetlands and forests to grassland for cows and sheep. We have deliberately introduced non-native species.

And now, somehow, we are waging war on those same species and treating them with cruelty and disrespect. It is quite mad.

So at this juncture in our lives between Covid-19 pandemic and post Covid-19 , let’s reassess our relationship with the nonhuman animal. Such relationships can be guided by compassionate principles and within the same framework of kindness we have been espousing in New Zealand recently.

Let’s extend kindness to all species.

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