‘Possum Purge’: To Cleanse and Purify



‘purge’

from Latin purgare, to “cleanse, make clean; purify”

Etymological Dictionary


Every year, Paparoa School, an elementary school in Northland, New Zealand, runs a ‘Possum Purge’ fundraiser. The event, referred to as a ‘Gala Day’ is heralded as an opportunity for the community to come together and win some prizes. These prizes are given for various categories, including the most unplucked possums per team and the “Les Tilby Trophy”, which is awarded to a child who shoots or traps a possum with a specific weight, assuming they are “assisted by a responsible adult”. Due to COVID-19, their ‘purges’ for 2020 and 2021 were – thankfully – cancelled.

Advertisement for the Paparoa Possum Purge
Source: Paparoa School’s Facebook Page

Paparoa School’s ‘Possum Purge’ is unfortunately not the only event where communities, including young children, are encouraged to participate, and celebrate, in the killing of ‘pest’ animals. Drury School, located south of Auckland, was heavily criticised for its possum hunt in 2017 where young children were witnessed drowning live joeys who were plucked from their dead mothers in buckets of water1. Uruti School, a primary school in Taranaki, was host to a ‘best-dressed dead possum competition’ in 20122,3. Critter Day in Whangamomana, Taranaki, saw young children bringing in their ‘best kills’ and posing for photographs4. These are only a select few. While possums are the primary targets for many of these events, pigs, rabbits, wallabies, and goats are also paraded for their deaths at annual hunts.

These events are often transparent about their mission (e.g. purge to conserve) and are forth-coming about their deliberate inclusion and education of young children. For example, the Hororata Pig & Possum Hunt claimed their event was “designed to encourage children to enter” and included “family photo competition[s] as well as a possum throwing competition for juniors”5. The advertisement for the Paparoa ‘Possum Purge’ above was clearly marketed to young families and school-age children with the bouncy castle and fire engine. Additionally, participating in these events can get you rewarded. There are often a dazzling list of prizes, ranging from cash awards, donated vouchers from local businesses, and big-item prizes, including firearm silencers and chainsaws (i.e. there’s something for everyone!). Of all prizes that could be offered, why these?

Chainsaw Prize for Paparoa School’s 2021 ‘Possum Purge’
Source: Paparoa School Facebook Page

While these events have been heavily criticised by activist scholars such as Dr Lynley Tulloch and Dr Marc Bekoff6, little has been done regarding the ethical considerations towards not only the animal victims of these hunts, but the children being raised alongside this as well. These children, ranging from pre-school-age to elementary school-age, are amidst incredibly important years for their empathy development and healthy socialisation. It has been well established by researchers that there is a strong link between animal abuse in childhood with potential human abuse in adulthood7,8. This is not to say that every child who participates in hunting and killing of ‘pest’ animals will turn into domestic abusers, but statistically, it is much more likely.

Relatives search for family members amongst exhumed bodies from the ‘Great Purge’s Vinnytsia Massacre
Source: Ukrainian American Youth Association – Crime of Moscow in Vynnytsia

As I taper off for this blog post, I am reminded about the importance of words and how much power they hold. It is not difficult to see the vein of violence which underpins these events. The association with eradicating ‘pest’ animals with a ‘purge’ is a very interesting decision. ‘Purge’, while ranging in etymological meanings, typically meant to cleanse or purify. This process of ‘cleansing’ New Zealand of its unwanted ‘pests’, through events called ‘purges’, draws parallels with other historical ‘purges’, such as the ‘Great Purge’ by Stalin and the U.S.S.R. The ‘Great Purge’, or ‘Great Terror’, saw the murder of an estimated 750,000 people between the years 1936-19389,10. Importantly, this is not to equate or make light of the devastating human rights violations that have occurred in the past, or are occurring now, but it does make me question why humans can hate something so much that ‘purging’, or ‘cleansing’, the environment of them is worthy of rewards and a celebration.


To learn more about the Vinnytsia massacre and raise awareness, please visit:
https://www.yadvashem.org/untoldstories/database/index.asp?cid=686


References:

1 Polley, N. (2019, June 21). Petition Started to Stop Drury School Possum-killing Fundraiser. Stuff. Retrieved from: https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/education/113663171/petition-started-to-stop-drury-schools-possumkilling-fundraiser

2Tulloch, L. (2017, August 11). Uruti Possum Hunt and School Violence. Scoop. Retrieved from: https://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/HL1708/S00023/uruti-possum-hunt-and-school-violence.htm

3 Tulloch, L. (2018, January 22). Teaching out kids to kill in the name of conservation. Stuff. Retrieved from: https://www.stuff.co.nz/environment/100695495/teaching-our-kids-to-kill-in-name-of-conservation

4 Tulloch, L. (2018, October 11). Highway to Hell: There are other ways to prove ‘Kiwiness’ than animal hunts. Stuff. Retrieved from: https://www.stuff.co.nz/environment/107760453/highway-to-hell-there-are-other-ways-to-prove-kiwiness-than-animal-hunts

5 Stuff. (2014, April 10). Hororata Hunt Launched. Stuff. Retrieved from: https://www.stuff.co.nz/marlborough-express/news/kaikoura/9927093/Hororata-hunt-launched

6Bekoff, M. (2018). Youngsters encouraged to kill possum joeys in New Zealand. Psychology Today. Retrieved from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/nz/blog/animal-emotions/201707/youngsters-encouraged-kill-possum-joeys-in-new-zealand

7Ascione, F. (2008). The international handbook of animal abuse and cruelty: theory, research and application. Purdue University Press: Chicago.

8Newberry, M. (2017). Pets in danger: Exploring the link between domestic violence and animal abuse. Aggression and Violent Behavior34, 273-281.

9Shatz, M. (1984). Stalin, the great purge, and Russian history: a new look at the” new class”. The Carl Beck Papers in Russian and East European Studies, (305), 48.

10Conquest, R. (2018). The Great Terror: Stalin’s purge of the thirties. Random House.

Prisoners of War

Content Warning – Animal Cruelty

SPCA New Zealand
Speak up if you are witness to violence.

If you are in New Zealand and know of an instance of animal cruelty, please visit this link for information about how to report animal cruelty: SPCA New Zealand

If you are not in New Zealand, visit your local SPCA website for more information.

On June 11, 2021, an incredibly distressing video was posted on a personal Facebook account by a user referring to themselves, rather vulgarly, as ‘Rough Cxnts Ltd’. The video showed an extremely stressed brushtail possum tangled in the throes of an tightly-held animal control pole. Horrifying shrieks and screams emanated from the possum, who was jerking and clawing at the ground in a frenzied, desperate attempt to escape by any means necessary. The man holding the lead aggressively snapped the pole backwards, chuckling to himself as the possum flung back and exerted a guttural cough. The pole was electrified and shocked the possum throughout the whole video. It was one of the worst instances of possum cruelty I have ever seen. To me, the possum here was a prisoner of war.

Screenshot of Video, post since deleted
Courtesy of Animal Advocate

After calming down from the initial shock of viewing the video, I became very frustrated and enraged. Who is this person ‘Phil from farm management’? Why and how could they do this? As I scrolled down the video link to look at the comments (a minefield in and of itself), I realised that despite some expected outraged and horrified comments, there was still an unhealthy amount of jestering and joking occurring on the message board. (Un)Fortunately, the video was abruptly taken offline a few hours after I first watched the video and the link is now no longer available.

Screenshot of Video, post since deleted
Courtesy of Animal Advocate

Though I could barely watch beyond the first five seconds as I was completely overcome by the weight of raw emotion and devastation, I managed to call the New Zealand SPCA Animal Cruelty telephone line and reported the video. Already aware of the video, the operator expressed an investigation was already open about it. Unfortunately, this is not the first case of social media being an avenue for animal abusers to share videos of possum cruelty thinly veiled, and directly referred to, as ‘pest’ control. There are several instances of note, such as the 20181 and 20212 videos shared to TikTok of men, being encouraged by those filming, to punch defenceless possums in the face. How is this allowed? One only has to glance at articles like Leahy’s (2018) piece3, which asked whether this was cruelty or ‘pest’ control (as if you need to ask?), to see the framing of possums as villains in action. Quite clearly the weight of the possum-as-‘pest’ narrative justifies, or at least drastically downplays, instances of cruelty such as these – if it didn’t, much more would have been done in response to prevent the 2021 incident from occurring.

Screenshot from 2018 ‘Possum Punch’
The Country Radio Station
Screenshot from 2018 ‘Possum Punch’
The Country Radio Station

As I have been exploring and researching about this war on ‘pest’ animals in New Zealand4 the more I have critically reflected and theorized about how this narrative of war on ‘pests’ extends far beyond the metaphorical sphere. This discourse causes possums, and other ‘pest’ animals, to be treated as if this is an all-out battle and ethical rules do not apply – and this is not me as a vegan, feminist, animal activist scholar calling it a war – it is referred to as a ‘war’, literally and symbolically, all throughout conservation publications and associated materials in New Zealand5,6. While there is excellent prior research critiquing New Zealand’s war against ‘pests’7, and possums specifically8,9,10,11, along with the Predator Free 205012 movement, there has yet to be anything on a larger scale, which critically delves deeper into the root issues of what is causing the normalisation and celebration of cruelty that I witnessed in the video. This cruelty does not exist in a vacuum.

Cartoon of Former Conservation Minister Margaret ‘Maggie’ Barry with Possum ‘Pests’
Courtesy of Jamie Steer (2016)
‘The War on Pests’
Source: Environment Canterbury
Advertising for the Pest-Free Kaipātiki event, ‘Predator Blitz’
Source: Pest-Free Kaipātiki

I honestly did not know how to lead this blog after my initial entry. I realise how important this conversation is and I wanted to introduce it in a digestible way in order to advocate publicly alongside my research. I am at least a year away from completing my thesis, but possums are suffering right now and I cannot stay silent. After seeing this video and having time to reflect on its cruelty, I was compelled to reaffirm just how framed the possum is here in New Zealand.

So – I argue, despite recognizing the legitimate need to care for and uplift native species of flora and fauna, that possums here in New Zealand, such as the one in the video in the beginning, are treated as villainous prisoners of war – ones which do not deserve, under any circumstance, such cruelty. The video’s malignant abuser was like a tyrannical soldier, emblazoned by the cruelty and encouragement of institutionalized combat against ‘pests’. His actions were a public parade, of sorts, to share in the torture of a despised enemy among his comrades (albeit through the relative anonymity of social media). It is important to note that not all New Zealanders buy into this framing – thank goodness. There is very much a community of compassionate and kind people who stand alongside me; they truly give me the energy to push forward. I am certain that we, as a nation, need to practice what we preach about kindness – even to possums.


1 Matthews, J. (2018, December 11). SPCA investigating after video of man punching possum surfaces on social media. Stuff. Retrieved from: https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/109254592/video-of-man-punching-possum-surfaces-on-social-media

2 Moore, Heath. (2021, April 14). Horrific video shows Kiwi man punching possum in face in ‘blatant animal cruelty act’. NZ Herald. Retrieved from
https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/horrific-video-shows-kiwi-man-punching-possum-in-face-in-blatant-animal-cruelty-act/RAJXLTSMGKFCQ4AXWUO6Y6FLSY/

3 Leahy, B. (2018, June 25). Possum punch: Pest control or is this animal cruelty?. NewsTalkZB. https://www.newstalkzb.co.nz/news/national/possum-punch-pest-control-or-is-this-animal-cruelty/

4Steer, J. (2015, August 5). A war on pests and weeds is ‘malicious’ and ‘incompetent’ and will ultimately fail. Stuff. Retrieved from: https://www.stuff.co.nz/science/82113675/a-war-on-pests-and-weeds-is-malicious-and-incompetent-and-will-ultimately-fail

5 Environment Canterbury. (2009). The War on Pests: Dealing to Key Pest Plants and Animals That Threaten Native Species. Environment Canterbury. Retrieved from: https://www.ecan.govt.nz/document/download/?uri=1172438

6 Department of Conservation. (2010). Bay of Islands community declares war on pests. Department of Conservation. Retrieved from: https://www.doc.govt.nz/news/media-releases/2010/bay-of-islands-community-declares-war-on-pests/

7 Morris, M. C. (2020). Predator Free New Zealand and the ‘War’ on Pests: Is it a just War?. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics33(1), 93-110.

8 Dutkiewicz, J. (2015). Important Cows and Possum Pests: New Zealand’s Biodiversity Strategy and (Bio) Political Taxonomies of Introduced Species. Society & Animals23(4), 379-399.

9 Potts, A. (2009). Kiwis against possums: A critical analysis of anti-possum rhetoric in Aotearoa New Zealand. Society & Animals17(1), 1-20.

10 McCrow-Young, A., Linné, T., & Potts, A. (2015). Framing Possums: War, sport and patriotism in depictions of brushtail possums in New Zealand print media. Animal Studies Journal4(2), 29-54.

11 Potts, A. (2013). Kiwis against possums. In A. Potts, P. Armstrong, & D. Brown (Eds.), A New Zealand book of beasts: Animals in our culture, history and everyday life (pp. 201-225). Auckland University Press.

12 Linklater, W., & Steer, J. (2018). Predator Free 2050: A flawed conservation policy displaces higher priorities and better, evidence‐based alternatives. Conservation Letters11(6), e12593.

‘Voracious’ Appetites


For a few seconds, I held out a blueberry in front of the wooden nest box. My hand shook ever so slightly, I had yet to physically meet a brushtail possum (Trichosurus vulpecula) before. A black paw timidly appeared from the darkness and quickly plucked the blueberry from my palm. I peered around the corner, my eyes adjusting to the darkness of her nest box, and saw her. She had beautiful beady eyes, this gorgeous pink nose, and massive fluffy ears. Only her head was visible; her body was cocooned in this fleece blanket that lined her nest box.

The rescued possum
Picture courtesy of her rescuers

She was found as a tiny joey clinging onto her dead mother, who was killed by a vehicle and left to die on the side of the road. Had someone not checked her mother’s body, she would have starved to death as her mother’s milk dried up, just another casualty of New Zealand’s war on possums. As I stared at her happily popping blueberries into her mouth, it was quite clear to me that she, and those like her, were anything but ‘voracious’ as so vigorously claimed. How could this even happen?

Framing of a Villain

To understand this framing, it is important to have some background on the history of possums in New Zealand. Possums were successfully introduced from Australia in 1858 by British settlers seeking to establish a fur trade. The region, described as a ‘bird’s paradise’1, was largely mammal-free, except for a few species of native bats and marine mammals. Despite New Zealand changing radically since colonial settlement (e.g. from land use change to species composition), this notion of the environment as ‘pure’ has not only been reinforced since then, but it has become an integral part of New Zealand’s global identity (e.g. the 100% Pure New Zealand tourism campaign, touted as a massive marketing success in reinforcing New Zealand’s brand2).

These newly introduced possums spread into the bush with ease; they were without the predators that maintained their numbers in their Australian homeland and had forests full of vegetation to eat. These possums, favouring the seclusion of the remote bush, proved rather difficult for humans to access and control, making the harvesting of fur, the whole reason the possum was there, much more difficult to mechanise.

In response to possums spreading unabated further into forests and revelation they were vectors of bovine tuberculosis (thus threatening two of the nation’s primary economies of dairy and beef), government agencies and conservation authorities began an aggressive process of framing possums as villains, describing them in terms such as a “pest of plague proportions” with “voracious appetites”3.

Despite possums being arboreal folivores with a digestive system similar to herbivorous horses and rabbits (called hindgut fermentation4), they are blamed for extensively predating on endangered native birds and their eggs (though these claims are dubious as research on the dissection of thousands of possum stomachs revealed less than 0.1% contained non-plant matter5). This framing contributed to possums, along with rats and stoats, to become targets for complete eradication in an aggressive, and highly unrealistic, country-wide propaganda campaign, Predator Free 2050 (PF 2050). Fuelled by complex intersections of colonialism, human supremacism, and nativism, PF 2050, and its accompanying conservation ‘education’, is in full swing in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Anything Goes

Sentiment among the mainstream environmentalist community is to get rid of this ‘pest’ by any means possible (e.g. “hit them, and hit them hard”6 or “the only good possum is a dead possum”7). Young children are actively encouraged to participate in the killings and celebrate their contribution to ‘conservation’, with events such as dead possum dress-up contests8 and possum hunting fundraiser events (including the infamous event in 2017 where children drowned joeys in a bucket while onlookers watched9). Those who engage in ‘pest’ control activities are regarded as patriotic citizens10 whom are fighting the enemy (the ‘invasive’ possum) to ‘restore’ New Zealand to its pre-human ‘pristine’ state. They are popular targets for motorists, with squashed possums being a popular icon for road-trip bingo. Possum fur has even been referred to as “eco-friendly” and “cruelty-free”11 as the existence and support of the possum fur trade is framed as eco-consumerism that protects native flora and fauna. To adhere to possum-hating rhetoric is almost a prerequisite to be a proper, patriotic Kiwi10. It is almost as if, for the brushtail possum in New Zealand, anything goes.

Pamphlet found at DOC Rotoiti/Nelson Lakes i-Site
Produced by Kiwi Holiday Parks & Accommodation, Bluebridge Cook Strait Ferries, & Ace Rental Cars

The aggressive framing of the possum as a “voracious predator” which is destroying New Zealand’s biodiversity is simply ignoring any mention of anthropocentric pressures and squarely placing blame on a convenient scapegoat. For the brushtail possum, a protected and valued species within Australia, this marsupial is framed as a villain across the Tasman. For them to be unfortunate enough to be born in New Zealand, discourses of identity, belonging, and nativism begin to influence their treatment and whether they are deemed worthy of compassion, even in their death.

Becoming a Possum Advocate

I had not always been aware of this injustice towards brushtail possums – in fact, I was not even fully aware there was a difference between the opossum in North America and the plethora of other possum subspecies in Australasia. Originally from Canada, I moved to New Zealand in 2019 to pursue my PhD in Human-Animal Studies at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. I had not picked a specific topic upon my arrival, but knew I wanted to explore something related to speciesism and the treatment of animals categorised as ‘others’. I have done research in this area before, but not on such a large scale. I was lucky enough to be paired with absolutely incredible supervisors, Dr. Annie Potts and Dr. Nik Taylor, who led by example and mentored me to become the academic activist that I now am, giving me the confidence to speak up in an environment where voices of this kind are often marginalised, ridiculed, and ostracised.

While the plight of other ‘pest’ animals is equally as important as the possum, I chose them as there was something uniquely peculiar about the aggressive nature of their framing that was unlike anything I had ever seen before, something which I needed to understand further. After meeting some rescued possums, and experiencing their gentle presence first-hand, I quickly realised the gravity of what this aggressive framing has done, and continues to do, to them. With support, I designed a research project that would allow me to best use my particular skill set to advocate for possums through the lens of compassion and empathy.

An elderly possum I got to meet during fieldwork – he sure loved snacks!
Picture courtesy of their rescuer
Re-Framing the Possum

While this is a very short introductory post to the framing of the possums in New Zealand, there is much more to uncover (and re-frame). The more I learn, the more I want to share. This blog will attempt to grapple with these complex ideas and act as a vessel to encourage community engagement and activism. This blog would not be possible without funding from the Culture & Animals Foundation, for which I am incredibly grateful for their assistance and support.

Please share, follow, and engage with this material – not for me, but for the possums that so desperately need people to care. Thank you,

Emily Major

References

1https://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/SC0510/S00005.htm

2 https://www.tourismnewzealand.com/media/1544/pure-as-celebrating-10-years-of-100-pure-new-zealand.pdf

3https://www.doc.govt.nz/documents/science-and-technical/everybodyspossum.pdf

4 Foley, W., Hume, I., & Cork, S. (1989). Fermentation in the Hindgut of the Greater Glider (Petauroides volans) and the Brushtail Possum (Trichosurus vulpecula): Two Arboreal Folivores. Physiological Zoology, 62(5), 1126-1143. Retrieved March 23, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/30156201

5https://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/AK2001/S00248/doc-not-truthful-saying-possums-are-bird-predators-coranz.htm

6 Fischer, Jeannine-Madeleine. (2017). “‘Hit them hard and hit them well.’ Possums, Pollution, and the Past in Aotearoa/New Zealand.” Environment & Society Portal, Arcadia, 10. Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society. https://doi.org/10.5282/rcc/7878. 7 http://www.stuff.co.nz/southland-times/opinion/5580798/Editorial-Only-good-possum-is-a-dead-one

8 https://www.stuff.co.nz/environment/100695495/teaching-our-kids-to-kill-in-name-of-conservation

9https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/94301098/animal-welfare-complaint-laid-after-possum-joeys-drowned-at-school-fundraising-event

10 Potts, A. (2009). Kiwis against possums: A critical analysis of anti-possum rhetoric in Aotearoa New Zealand. Society & Animals, 17(1), 1-20.

11 https://www.stuff.co.nz/business/81851424/possum-fibre-and-fur-industry-wants-to-prove-its-crueltyfree

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