On November 15th, 2021, an article titled ‘Blacks Rd Ripper’: Woman Held Hostage by Possum, was published by the Otago Daily Times (ODT)1. The brief article packs a punch and makes its bias towards possums crystal clear. As seen below, the language use and choice of accompanying photograph (which depicts a petrified possum in severe pain), strategically work together to reinforce the dominant conservation discourse in New Zealand that possums are villainous ‘pests’ that must be destroyed. It takes a lot of cognitive work to make a large-eyed, fluffy mammal who shies away from humans, like the possum, look terrifying.
The article described how an ‘aggressive’ possum, dubbed the ‘Blacks Rd Ripper’, allegedly held a woman ‘hostage’ at her home in Dunedin, a city in the south-eastern region of New Zealand’s South Island. The possum was described to repeatedly ‘charge’ at the woman, preventing her from reaching her car. The fiasco resulted in the woman calling police to seek help, where the possum, later revealed to be a juvenile, climbed up the officer’s leg. The possum was (very surprisingly) released into the bush without harm (side note – I would like to give those compassionate officers a hug please!). Instead of the original title, how about “Blacks Rd Possum: Woman Meets Hungry Joey“?
While I originally found this article humourous with how ridiculous it was, I soon realised how this perfectly exemplified the process of just how possums are demonised here in New Zealand. Demonisation like this plays a central role in the justification and celebration of violence towards possums2 (which have been discussed in previous blog posts featured here). It is easier to feel good about killing a living being, and have your children pose with their bodies, if they are perceived to be an enemy.
This process is assisted by anthropomorphism – a mouthful of a word that essentially refers to the attribution of human characteristics to animals3,4. For possums in New Zealand, this can be illustrated by their framing in popular culture as vindictive invaders who are intentionally destroying native species of flora and fauna within the archipelago5. Anthropomorphising baby joeys as ‘Rippers’ justifies this dominant framing of these animals as worthy recipients of deadly – and often cruel – consequences that would not normally be excused for other species of animals, such as live leg-hold traps.
In all likelihood, the alleged ‘Blacks Rd Ripper’ was a hungry joey who was raised to associate humans with food or attention – wild possums are typically scared of humans and keep a safe distance. Now, while it is possible the joey was wild and newly separated from its mum’s pouch, the possum’s behaviour suggests they were either a pet that escaped accidentally or was intentionally released to the wild (both of which are sad outcomes that do not likely bode well for the joey’s future – but that’s a conversation for another post). How a baby animal could be referred as a hostage-taking ‘Ripper’… I just don’t know.
Since I have always been interested in etymology (the origin of words), I researched whether the intentional reference of the possum as a ‘Ripper’ meant something other than the notorious Jack the Ripper murders that took place between 1888-1891 in the Whitechapel region of London, England6 Unfortunately, I could not find anything. Likening a joey to a ‘Ripper’ (which means a ‘murderer who mutilates victims’ bodies’7) is a distasteful trivialisation of the mutilation and murders of five women – a case which has yet to be solved. The way we use words is important as words have the power to (re)construct our realities.
As the ODT article gains more responses and comments on social media, I have been watching it with intrigue to see how this story unfolds. I may update this blog post as more information comes out about this mysterious possum and its origin, though I worry I may open my phone to a celebratory message that the joey in question has been killed. Many of us who know the true nature of possums can have a simple chuckle at this article, but the very fact this piece exists signals something concerning about New Zealand’s relationship with possums. It is one thing to want to protect biodiversity and encourage the growth of native species, but it is another to do so without recognising the importance of compassion and empathy – even for ‘pests’.
1 White, C. (2021, November 15). ‘Blacks Rd Ripper’: Woman Held Hostage by Possum. Otago Daily Times. Retrieved from https://www.odt.co.nz/news/dunedin/blacks-rd-ripper-woman-held-hostage-possum?fbclid=IwAR1UuPKxB23uWpGvRWp17UI4M_2VHCreyg8SNnpSgztVfHDULInl7sOf1Qk
2 Young, A. M., Linné, T., & Potts, A. (2015). Framing Possums: War, sport and patriotism in depictions of brushtail possums in New Zealand print media. Animal Studies Journal, 4(2), 29-54.
3 Morton, D. B., Burghardt, G. M., & Smith, J. A. (1990). Critical anthropomorphism, animal suffering, and the ecological context. The Hastings Center Report, 20(3), S13-S13.
4 Airenti, G. (2018). The development of anthropomorphism in interaction: Intersubjectivity, imagination, and theory of mind. Frontiers in psychology, 9, 2136.
5 Potts, A. (2009). Kiwis against possums: A critical analysis of anti-possum rhetoric in Aotearoa New Zealand. Society & Animals, 17(1), 1-20.
6 Begg, P. (2013). Jack the Ripper: The definitive history. Routledge.
7 Oxford Reference. (2021). Ripper. Oxford Reference. Retrieved from https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803100422279