School Possum Hunts Have Negative Consequences For The Healthy Development Of Empathy In Children

Published: Mon 10 Jun 2024 02:15 PM
School possum hunts in Aotearoa New Zealand tend to be polarising. On the one hand is the school’s touted mission of environmental conservation couched in community values and identity. On the other hand, is the killing of animals within the context of schools and education, which is deeply problematic.
The recent Te Ranga School’s possum and pest hunt is a case in point. Principal Aimee Kennedy described it as “such a big part of our school’s identity and the community loves it”. This event is a huge fundraiser. It has been framed as conservation and kaitiakitanga (guardianship) by the school. The Friends of Te Ranga School is keenly refocusing on this message, building in environmental conservation as an inquiry topic leading up to the event.
This sounds laudable. No doubt children are learning about endemic species, environmental interdependence and ecosystem integrity through this programme. But what else are they learning? What hidden messages about how other animals (non-native and / or ‘pests’) deserve to be treated are being transmitted to children?
I agree it is vital that children learn about the significance of caring for our environment and develop knowledge and understanding of how to do so. I also think children should be empowered to undertake pro-environmental action. I just don’t think they should be involved in killing animals, or that this is something to be celebrated. I also don’t think that exposing children to masses of dead animals amid a festival atmosphere is healthy. It normalises violence.A dead goat hung up while a child looks on at Te Ranga School. (Photo/Supplied)
And the last thing our world needs today is more violence by humans.
I went to the Te Ranga School possum and pest hunt to see what their environmental refocus looked like. It had all the hallmarks of a regular school possum hunt. There was a gala day attached to it with pony rides and spin the wheel and hoopla jars of lollies. Excited families were enjoying a community day out.
But the gala day was also full of dead animals. After a three day hunting window the dead animals arrived at the school during gala day to be weighed and counted for prizegiving.An array of dead animals at Te Ranga School. (Photos/Supplied)
This was not for the faint-hearted. There were blood splattered utes with dead pigs, goats and deer. Dead animals were everywhere. The goats and deer had their throats slit, and they hung limply from utes in a near decapitated state. The decomposing bodies of goats, deer, possums, peacocks, rats, pigs, and wallabies kept coming. The sheer volume, diversity and smell of these dead animals was overwhelming.Dead deer in trailer. (Photo/Supplied)
Dead possums were piled up high in a trailer while wallabies lay stretched on the ground. The children milling around the animals viewed them with interest. They played around them, picking up peacock feathers and peering down onto the wallabies lying on a tarpaulin. They helped to weigh the possums and watched as dead goats and deer were strung up. This desensitizes children to the killing of animals.Dead wallabies. (Photo/Supplied)
At the prizegiving principal Aimee Kennedy said, “I’ll keep this short as it’s wet and people smell like dead animals and I’m sure you all want to go home for a shower!” This was met by a brief tittering from the audience.
I was alarmed that this should be received as a joke. People should not smell like dead animals at a school gala day.A deer with a slit throat hanging in full view at Te Ranga School. (Photo/Supplied)
The juxtaposition of a celebratory family day out with so many dead animals is jarring. While some aspects of the Te Ranga School possum hunt had been sanitised – such as a gumboot instead of a dead possum for ‘toss the poss’ – it was still about the killing. The pungent smell of dead animals amid the sausage sizzle and gumboots was nauseating.
There was a large array of prizes for the hunters, including wins for the ‘heaviest possum’ and ‘most possums’. The winning team for ‘most possums’ was ‘here poss, poss, poss’ with 206 possums. Another category was for the best team name. The winner was ‘dead by lead’.
The use of war language in many possum hunts is disturbing. Everyone thought ‘dead by lead’ was hugely funny. This highlights the attitude of many New Zealanders toward possums and other ‘pests’.
Dr Emily Major (Ph.D. ) has written eloquently about the way in which framing animals such as possums as ‘pests’ in Aotearoa relegates them to an unworthy status. This makes them vulnerable to bias and hatred and mistreatment. Emily Major says that we need to reframe education and base it on the principles of compassionate conservation and conservation psychology. She argues that we can protect native species without having to kill possums and other animals.
We are living in precarious times and are facing a myriad of environmental crises. These include climate change, mass extinction of species and a host of unsustainable practices. The way we educate children about the other animals with whom we share the planet matters. At the heart of reframing environmental education is compassion and empathy. All animals matter.
Possum hunts on the other hand emphasise killing over compassion.
Framing animals as ‘pests’ is a way of relegating them into the ‘unworthy basket’. We need to teach our children that all animals are worthy of respect and should be treated compassionately regardless of how they are framed.
There have been other school possum hunts that have erupted in controversy in the recent past. Notably baby possums were drowned at Drury School’s fundraiser hunt by being thrown in a bucket of water. Drowning is not considered by the SPCA to be a humane manner of euthanasia.
Jane Goodall has weighed in on school possum hunts in Aotearoa saying that, “if control of non-native species is to be undertaken that it is done so as humanely as possible, and with empathy and compassion. The task need not employ malice and disregard for living beings, who unfortunately find themselves to be in an unwelcome environment through no doing of their own”.
I would argue that celebrating and gamifying the death of animals at school possum hunts is a form of disrespect. Professor Emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology Marc Bekoff writes the he is “deeply bothered by New Zealand’s incessant and violent war on wildlife.” He suggests that teaching children to kill possums and other animals and to be proud of their achievements is wrongheaded.
Education is about growth and change. Involving children in killing animals may have serious consequences for the development of their empathy. Let’s not hand down outdated and cruel views and attitudes toward animals to our children. Children need opportunities to immerse themselves in nature in positive and affirming ways. This teaches them to think in a relational way rather than in a compartmentalised fashion. While possums may not belong in Aotearoa, children can be supported in developing an ethic of care and compassion for them, considering their subjectivity.
Let the gala days be about restoring native bush and planting trees, not killing non-native animals.

Next in Comment

Rwanda's Stillborn Middle-Income Economy
By: Ann Garrison - BAR Contributing Editor
Rekindling The Old Love Affair: Can Trump Save Netanyahu?
By: Ramzy Baroud
On The Elections In France, Iran And Britain
By: Gordon Campbell
On Luxon In The NATO Pressure Cooker
By: Gordon Campbell
Trendy Appointments: Australia’s Special Antisemitism Envoy
By: Binoy Kampmark
Struggling Toward Consciousness
By: Martin LeFevre - Meditations
View as: DESKTOP | MOBILE © Scoop Media