Holding the Proverbial Line

For those just arriving to this website, Framing Speciesism is a research activism blog written by me, Emily Major, that seeks to explore how we ‘frame’, or think about, animal species. The current project focuses on the framing of the brushtail possum in Aotearoa New Zealand, which is the subject of my doctoral research at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. I have dedicated my life to serve all species of animals – particularly those who are discarded, exploited, or demonised. Thank you for your time!

It was a stunningly gorgeous day and my partner and I were on holiday in Akaroa, a charming small town on the Banks Peninsula in New Zealand. As many countries can relate, New Zealand’s tourist industry has suffered extensively from the lack of international visitors due to the pandemic1; however, you wouldn’t know it based on the lively summer atmosphere in town that day. My partner and I, taking a stroll along the waterfront, walked into a souvenir shop and I began absentmindedly spinning a rack of postcards, keychains, and magnets. Suddenly, my attention was immediately caught by one of the most surprising finds that I have ever seen in this country: a plain brushtail possum fridge magnet (see below).

The possum magnet
Source: Author

The magnet itself was nothing special – it was a duplicate picture that was featured on the postcard version and wasn’t particularly distinctive; but, as I lifted it up to examine it, I realised it was just that – a magnet. I almost didn’t trust how innocuous it looked. There were no anti-‘pest’ messages or fear-mongering ‘facts’ listed about the possum on the label, nor did I notice any suggestive posing you would commonly see in photographs of possums in New Zealand discourse (such as those below). Very strange, indeed!

A discussion on how images and language are used to villanise possums would not be complete without reference to this oft-used Nga Manu photograph of a possum holding a treasured kererū egg. There is extensive criticism of this photograph and its authenticity (including context as to potential captivity, pre-emptive starvation, etc.), which is enough to discuss in a blog post of its own.
Source: Nga Manu

I took the magnet up to pay and the cashier, looking up while scanning the item through, disapprovingly questioned ‘do you like possums, then?’. I always expect some sort of negativity or criticism to arise whenever possums come up in a situation where people are unaware of my work. However, this time I was on holiday and didn’t want this crudeness to ruin my good mood. It could have meant nothing and I was looking too much into it. I responded with a smile, “yes, I do”, and we moved on.

However, the more I think about this interaction, the more it reiterates to me just how ingrained the possum-as-‘pest’ narrative is in New Zealand – and that the glue of maintaining this narrative is the everyday social policing done by people within the dominant discourse towards others. While a lot of what I cover in my research consists of overt forms of conservation messaging (such as abusive forms of ‘pest’ control and acts of sanctioned cruelty), there is an equally important underbelly of more casual forms which assist in upholding the status quo. In that short interaction with the cashier, the dominant narrative against possums was being reaffirmed.

Source: Blackwell Journal Tribune

Holding the Line

Considering the back drop of the current climate in New Zealand with COVID-19, this experience made me wonder: could the cashier’s frankness be encouraged by the fact that most tourists in Akaroa that day were likely New Zealand domestic tourists? New Zealand, having closed their borders to visitors in 2020, is currently heavily reliant on domestic travellers instead of the droves of international tourists that normally visit the nation (the tourism industry experienced a staggering 47.5%, or $7.7 billion NZD, decrease between 2020 and 20212). In my own experience as someone born and raised outside of the country, and who has had friends from abroad visit (pre-COVID, of course), foreigners are more likely to balk at the idea of how possums are treated in ‘pest’ control measures here. Given this, I doubt this experience would have happened with an international tourist, infectious with their excitement of traveling in a new country. Rudeness is hardly good for business.

I wonder, then, was the cashier’s disdain at my affection for possums a form of social policing – a small attempt to hold the proverbial line – where possums are ‘pests’ and I was on the odd one out for thinking otherwise? Anthropological research has explored the impact of peer-to-peer, or group-wide, social control to the internalisation of hegemonic ideas3,4, where informal forms of social control can be done through small interactions to regulate attitudes and norms, like the magnet experience I had. This led me to think about other products you could purchase in New Zealand that was made from pieces of possum bodies, such as clothing, food, and accessories, and to wonder how their acceptance as products has materialised.

‘Wear a POSSUM, Save a KIWI’

Typically when you see items for sale in New Zealand that feature possums, it will be paired with a description of why you, as this patriotic consumer, should purchase this item. In buying this piece, such a piece of clothing made from possum fur, your money works to eradicate possums through funding the possum fur industry. Your purchase also ‘protects’ native forests in New Zealand from these defoliating ‘predators’.

Encouraging patriotism through consumers with the “Wear a Possum, Save a Kiwi” signs at ‘The Octagon’,
a gift shop in Dunedin, New Zealand
Source: NZ Daisuki

Possum fur has been advertised as “cruelty-free”5 and “eco-fur”6, with the American company, Eco-Luxury Fur, once using the catch phrase “all of the luxury, none of the guilt”7 in an attempt to minimise the ethical problems with the fur industry to an international audience. While it is unclear whether this business is still in operation, similar mechanisms to Eco-Luxury Fur’s branding is present within the marketing of possum products in New Zealand today. Consider this excerpt from Comfort Socks, a New Zealand company seeking to sell its possum-Merino blend socks, writing:

“The brushtail possum was introduced to New Zealand in the 1850s and this particular species of possum is now causing havoc on our natural wild life and native forests.
The need to control the number of possums in New Zealand, in order to protect the native wildlife, flora, and fauna, saw the development of a specialised fibre within the knitwear industry of New Zealand. This fibre incorporated New Zealand Merino wool, and Possum fur, a combination that proved to be successful. A superior, high quality yarn was created, that also worked to successfully help the ecology of New Zealand by creating a demand for possum fibre.”

While the fur is used for items like socks and jumpers, their flesh has been manufactured into pet food, such as the ‘Possyum’ brand of chilled dog food rolls and the ‘Raw Essentials’ possum meat products. Just take a look at some of the wording used in attempt to sell these items:

“Possum meat is sourced from processing facilities licensed by MPI. There are strict controls around land owner access, sourcing methods and poison declarations. Our dog rolls are are made under stringent MPI production criteria. The removal of possums from our forests without the use of pesticides encourages the regeneration of New Zealand forests and the protection of our native birds.”9


Our possum is wild; soft-trapped then shot by licensed hunters… These wild, free-ranging animals are living off our rich NZ flora, which makes them an incredibly nutritious food for cats and dogs… They really are the ultimate food for our pets! Our supplier hunts and processes possum in accordance with the principles of ecological sustainable development, which has a positive flow-on effect to the conservation of New Zealand’s forests.”10

Raw Essentials

While these are only three examples of companies which are trying to sell products that contain possums – they are entirely full of contradictions. In one sense, the motive for selling and purchasing these items is to assist in completely removing possums from the New Zealand ecosystem, while in another, these businesses – in the capitalist system – are dependent upon a steady supply of dead possum bodies in order to grow and make money. While these ideas are discussed in more detail in my thesis (hopefully finishing by mid-2022!), the experience had me reflect on relationships between social control and consumerism using the possum as a resource.

Source: Erica Berenstein

I have had many conversations like these with my PhD supervisor, Dr Annie Potts, who had published extensively in this area. The contradictory relationships that New Zealanders have with possums and their products makes it questionable whether the country truly does want to erase them. However, one thing is for certain. If we were to manage to completely eradicate possums, humans would have to face the enormity of damage we, as a collective society, have done to the New Zealand environment. Unfortunately, the pessimist in me thinks we will just find another poor animal to transfer the blame.


1,2 Tourism Industry Aotearoa. (2021, March). Quick Facts & Figures. Tourism Industry Aotearoa. https://www.tia.org.nz/about-the-industry/quick-facts-and-figures/

3 Lindzey, G. E. (1954). Handbook of social psychology. I. Theory and method. II. Special fields and applications. Addison-Wesley Publishing Co.

4 Cusson, M. (2015). Social Control. In James G. Wright (Ed.), International Encyclopaedia of the Social & Behavioural Sciences (Second Edition). Elsevier Ltd. 

5 Stock, R. (2016, July 7). NZ Possum Fur Industry Wants to Prove It’s Cruelty-Free. Stuff. https://www.stuff.co.nz/business/81851424/possum-fibre-and-fur-industry-wants-to-prove-its-crueltyfree

6 Wear New Zealand. (2022). Possum Fur. Wear New Zealand. https://wearnewzealand.com/fashion-catalogue/possum-fur

7 Portland Business Journal. (2008, March 16). Brushtail Possum: ‘All of the Luxury, None of the Guilt’. Portland Business Journal. https://www.bizjournals.com/portland/stories/2008/03/17/newscolumn1.html

8 Comfort Socks NZ. (2022). About Us: Possum-Merino. Comfort Socks. https://www.comfortnz.com/view/about-us/possum-merino

9 Superior Pet Food. (2022). Possyum Supreme Dog Roll. Superior Pet Food. https://superiorchunky.co.nz/supreme-possyum/

10 Raw Essentials (2022). Raw Possum for Dogs and Cats. Raw Essentials. https://www.rawessentials.co.nz/education/possum

A Framing Speciesim Update

For those just arriving to this website, Framing Speciesism is a research activism blog written by me, Emily Major, that seeks to explore how we ‘frame’, or think about, animal species. The current project focuses on the framing of the brushtail possum in Aotearoa New Zealand, which is the subject of my doctoral research at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. I have dedicated my life to serve all species of animals – particularly those who are discarded, exploited, or demonised. Thank you for your time!

You may have noticed that there has been a delay in posts to Framing Speciesism… at least I sure did!

‘WRITE A NEW BLOG POST!!!!’ was on my checklist of things to do for what has felt like ages, but now the ‘impossumable’ has happened (I am near the end of my thesis journey), I can focus more of my efforts on publishing and sharing the exciting research that I have found.

So… I am unbelievably happy/relieved/thankful to report that I submitted my thesis for examination in February 2023 and have since been preparing for my thesis defence (which is due to take place next week). As the examination process comes to a close, I have a schedule for more regular blog posts on the Framing of Speciesism with possums.

For those that are interested in reading more about my thesis and what I uncovered, there is a bit longer to wait as I have chosen to embargo my thesis for one year. This decision was made to protect my intellectual property as I work to publish my research in academic journals first. I am working on several manuscripts now, with most of these avenues being targeted towards open-access journals (as I firmly believe that social activism cannot be effective if behind an expensive paywall).

When these articles are officially published, the links will be made available via this blog. I will also discuss what I found in shorter, more digestible blog posts as not all of us have the time to be reading +7,000 word articles.

Thank you for sticking with me and keep watch for new posts coming soon!

Rat mum and author of Framing Speciesism
(and soon-to-be Doctor!)

‘Blacks Rd Possum’: Woman Meets Hungry Joey

For those just arriving to this website, Framing Speciesism is a research activism blog written by me, Emily Major, that seeks to explore how we ‘frame’, or think about, animal species. The current project focuses on the framing of the brushtail possum in Aotearoa New Zealand, which is the subject of my doctoral research at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. I have dedicated my life to serve all species of animals – particularly those who are discarded, exploited, or demonised. Thank you for your time!

Post-publishing note:
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).

Screenshot of the article around 5 hours after it was posted to the ODT Facebook page
Source: Otago Daily Times

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.

Children celebrating their catches from the 2021 Waimate Shooters Club Pest Quest
Source: John Bisset / Stuff

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 describing checking their possum traps, Sue Telford mentions “it’s not everybody’s idea of fun”.
Source: Sue Telford

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).

Common brushtail possum and joey (‘Trichosurus vulpecula‘)
Source: Flickr, by [http://www.flickr.com/photos/wollombi/ wollombi] {{cc-by-2.0}}

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 Journal4(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 Report20(3), S13-S13.

6 Airenti, G. (2018). The development of anthropomorphism in interaction: Intersubjectivity, imagination, and theory of mind. Frontiers in psychology9, 2136.

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

‘Possum Purge’: To Cleanse and Purify


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:


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

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



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


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


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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