The author of the ODT article, Courtney White, has since reached out to me to discuss their own experience in trying to publish this article. Certain liberties were taken, likely by the editorial staff, to frame White’s story in a very particular way. Though the previous version of this post critiqued White’s suggestive language and photograph choices, it turns out they are a fan of possums, too, and was unable to write on the more heart-warming aspects of the story within this piece (though she did in subsequent pieces10,11). This post has since been amended to include other news articles that also reported on the ‘Blacks Rd Ripper’. Thank you to White for reaching out and reinforcing how institutionalised this violence is towards possums is – even in journalism.
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 article encapsulates societal attitudes towards possums in a tangible way. 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 (see disclaimer at the top of the page).
The article described how an ‘aggressive’ possum, dubbed by police as 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 the editors change it to “Blacks Rd Possum: Woman Meets Hungry Joey“?
This article was not the only one to report on this event. Stuff journalist, Hamish McNeilly2, also wrote an article on the ‘Blacks Rd Ripper’, though his focus was more on the ‘victim’ who was held ‘hostage’. Radio New Zealand3 similarly reported on the “arresting tale” of the possums which “terrorised a resident”. Articles such as these perfectly exemplified the institutionalised 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 possums4 (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 means the attribution of human characteristics to animals5,6. 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 archipelago7. 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).
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, England8. Unfortunately, I could not find anything. For the police to liken a joey to a ‘Ripper’ (which means a ‘murderer who mutilates victims’ bodies’9) 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 articles gain more responses and comments on social media, I have been watching them 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 these articles exist 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 McNeilly, H. (2021, November 15). ‘I’m Being Held Hostage’: “Woman at centre of marsupial hostage drama speaks out. Stuff. https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/crime/126988788/im-being-held-hostage-woman-at-centre-of-marsupial-hostage-drama-speaks-out
3 Radio New Zealand. (2021, November 15). Arresting tale: Police respond after woman ‘held hostage’ by possum. RNZ. https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/national/455751/arresting-tale-police-respond-after-woman-held-hostage-by-possum
4 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.
5 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.
6 Airenti, G. (2018). The development of anthropomorphism in interaction: Intersubjectivity, imagination, and theory of mind. Frontiers in psychology, 9, 2136.
7 Potts, A. (2009). Kiwis against possums: A critical analysis of anti-possum rhetoric in Aotearoa New Zealand. Society & Animals, 17(1), 1-20.
8 Begg, P. (2013). Jack the Ripper: The definitive history. Routledge.
9 Oxford Reference. (2021). Ripper. Oxford Reference. Retrieved from https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803100422279
10 White, C. (2021, Novermber 16). Hoping to find released possum. Otago Daily Times. https://www.odt.co.nz/news/dunedin/hoping-find-released-possum
11 White, C. (2021, November 17). Pet possum Mrs Scoby Lunchbx exposed as the Blacks Rd Ripper. Otago Daily Times. https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/pet-possum-mrs-scoby-lunchbox-exposed-as-the-blacks-rd-ripper/CUWNWUFLYUVFJUCXQCUS4VBEIQ/