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Why the SPCA aren't completely wrong about 1080 poison

Stoat. Photo/Getty Images

In its advocacy against 1080 poison, the SPCA has fallen out of step with this country’s conservation priorities, but they have a point.

The SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) has long been one of our most valued and respected institutions, but in its redoubled advocacy against 1080 poison, it has fallen out of step with this country’s conservation priorities.

Were we to stop using this weapon against exotic wild predators, our native flora and fauna would suffer rapid, and in some cases final, decline. It is most unfortunate the animal-welfare charity chose the early new year to encourage stronger anti-1080 activism among its supporters, as 2019 is a forest “mast year”, in which a higher-than-usual seed fall is expected to turbocharge rodent and other predator populations.

The SPCA is right to deplore the suffering the lethal green pellets cause. But the native creatures killed by the targeted ferrets, rats, possums and their cohort also suffer – and not in a way nature intended, even in its “red in tooth and claw” sense. New Zealand is unique as a habitat where birds evolved to have no natural predators, save for a small number of birds of prey. Our birds have no defence against mammalian teeth and claws.

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No one should celebrate the use of 1080 or any other poison, but in the circumstances it’s a necessary evil. Repeated reviews by qualified experts have declared it the best weapon we have yet found against species and habitat loss, and by a considerable margin. Despite what some hunting lobbyists say, professional shooters and trappers could not begin to equal the speed and reach of 1080 drops.

The SPCA’s position is nevertheless politically courageous and in keeping with its ethos that all animals have an equal right to be protected from cruelty. It argues that causing one animal to suffer to protect another is morally wrong. But to borrow from Animal Farm, New Zealanders are increasingly willing to declare native animals “more equal than others”.

There’s an ugly note of triumphalism at times about the mass deaths of what are, after all, blameless animals that had the misfortune of being brought here by our misguided forebears. Their additional perverse bad luck is that they have thrived at the expense of our native species. Species extinction, shrinking biodiversity and habitat destruction are urgent global concerns, and if anything, New Zealand remains open to charges that we don’t do enough for conservation.

The SPCA makes some cogent arguments about the availability of more-humane methods, instancing gas-powered bolt killers increasingly widely used by native-forest conservators. These kill instantaneously and don’t leave contaminated carcasses. The SPCA also fairly calls for more action to further the development of contraceptive bait, surely the holy grail. Curtailing predators’ breeding would be the best solution, literally grandfathering unwanted species out of existence.

It is not, as some conservationists have charged, naive of the organisation to press for more-humane biological agents to be used in the predator cull. It is, simply, a rational advocacy for less cruelty.

The SPCA is not even necessarily being naive when it calls for co-management of pest and native species. Given predictions that some pests will prove ineradicable, this is pragmatism. “There should be greater emphasis on looking for solutions that would enable species that cannot be completely removed to co-exist in the environment instead,” the SPCA wrote to its supporters.

Still, it is unfortunate that the SPCA, with its compassionate agenda, is trying to make itself an activist in an arena crowded with less-laudable agendas. It will suffer reputational damage by being seen in the same corner as some extreme activists. Many of them profess to be guardians of our flora and fauna, though in reality their priority is to “protect” exotic animals so they can hunt them. Some anti-1080 campaigners have been found guilty of extortion and blackmail; others regularly threaten poison-drop helicopter pilots with violence and sabotage. They frequently peddle untruths about the poison’s effects, scoring an own goal last year when none of the dead birds they produced at a protest at Parliament showed any trace of 1080.

All New Zealanders would surely welcome a more humane solution than 1080. But for the time being, the estimated 25 million birds, chicks and eggs and the uncountable insects and reptiles dispatched by our unwelcome imports each year need it on their side.

This editorial was first published in the January 26, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.