Possums Deserve Love, Too – Philip McKibbin

Possums Deserve Love, Too

Philip McKibbin

Possums are persecuted in Aotearoa, but I believe they deserve love just like humans do.

I know this is a controversial position. In New Zealand, we are brought up believing possums are bad, and we are constantly told we need to get rid of them.

Maurice, a rescue possum living in Canterbury

Possums are widely blamed for environmental destruction, but much of what Kiwis think they know about these animals is incorrect. For example, most New Zealanders believe possums habitually prey on native birds and their eggs – but there is little evidence of this, and plenty to suggest that they don’t. The Handbook of New Zealand Mammals says these introduced animals are ‘opportunistic herbivores, feeding mainly on leaves’. 

Possums have been linked – more convincingly – to defoliation and die-back, as well as bovine tuberculosis, but it is unclear how big an impact they have. One thing is certain: the effect they have on the environment is minor compared to the harm we do.

Despite this, possums are targeted with traps and poison, which are inherently cruel. These so-called ‘pests’, along with stoats and rats, are now victims of the ‘Predator Free 2050’ campaign, which aims to kill them all off by the middle of this century. 

(Just as the term ‘predator’ is an inaccurate descriptor for possums, ‘predator-free’ is a perverse vision for the future of this country. Aotearoa never was predator free, and hopefully it never will be – unless the Department of Conservation is also planning to eradicate kārearea, and the countless other native species that prey on animals.)

Maurice, at home

Possums are often denounced as ‘invasives’, but this label is misleading. Possums did not invade New Zealand; they were brought here, by humans, to be exploited for their fur. Now, we blame them for problems we have created.

Rather than reckoning with our own destructive behaviours, we are wasting money on a spiteful campaign that will inevitably fail. Instead of looking critically at the most serious causes of environmental degradation – like animal agriculture, which is responsible for deforestation, pollution of our land and waterways, and greenhouse gas emissions – and working to end our harmful practices, we are scapegoating possums. As humans, we blame them so we can feel better about the devastation we cause.

Of course, some people argue that because humans introduced possums, we have a responsibility to get rid of them. But I believe the notion of ‘responsibility’ leads us in a different direction – namely, toward relationality. We brought possums to Aotearoa, so persecuting them is extremely unfair. Instead of cruelty, we should show them aroha – which means treating them with compassion, kindness, and empathy.

But what about biodiversity? We can promote this without eradicating possums. We will do it by changing what we consume, divesting from animal agriculture and diversifying our economy, returning land to native forests, and reinvigorating traditional Māori gardening practices. If we continue to establish wildlife sanctuaries like those at Tiritiri Matangi and Tāwharanui, we will not lose our native species. (We can do this non-violently, by trapping and neutering so-called ‘pests’, then releasing them away from sanctuaries.)

The reason we are not yet doing those things is not because they are impossible, or because they would be ineffective. It is because they require us to change. As well as making changes to our lifestyles, we will have to make changes to our economy and re-think how we do conservation.

Still, we must change, because animal rights abuses are unacceptable. As UK-based activist Kim Stallwood points out, Predator Free 2050 is a state-sponsored, taxpayer-funded torture and killing programme. It is morally atrocious.

Ultimately, we need to learn to live with possums. Just as it would be absurd to suggest that humans should be exterminated because of the harm we do, it is wrong to torture and kill other animals because of the – much smaller – impact they have.

We should show possums love.

Philip McKibbin is a writer from Aotearoa New Zealand, of Pākehā (NZ European) and Māori (Ngāi Tahu) descent. His book Love Notes: for a Politics of Love is published by Lantern. He co-organised ‘The Politics of Love: A Conference’ at All Souls College, Oxford. www.philip-mckibbin.com

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