A Wildlife Article from All-Creatures.org

Is There Hope for Ending New Zealand's War on Possums?

From Marc Bekoff, Psychology Today / Animal Emotions
November 2023

These so-called "pests" may be spared if we understand the psychology behind killing them.

Bushtail Possum
Image from Pinterest

've long been interested in and deeply bothered by New Zealand's incessant war on wildlife, the goal of which is to kill all non-native predators by 2050.1 For this and many other reasons, I was pleased to learn about Dr. Emily Major's research on why possums and other animals are the focus of this brutal campaign. Her Ph.D. thesis called “Possums Are as Kiwi as Fish and Chips” is a must read for understanding why New Zealand's war began and continues and how an understanding of the psychology behind killing so-called "pests" might be one way to end the killing that includes teaching youngsters to kill possums and other animals and be proud of their killing ways because it emphasizes killing over compassion.

Here's what Emily had to say about her seminal research that deserves a global audience in which she calls for reframing education, redefining nature, and incorporating the principles of compassionate conservation and conservation psychology.2

Marc Bekoff: Why did you choose to do your Ph.D. thesis on this topic, why did you use this eye-catching title, and how do your interests relate to your background and general areas of interest?

Emily Major: My interest in "pest" species sparked when I realised the immense cruelty of rat poisons. One day, I found a domesticated rat who was living under the shed outside. As I prepared to take him to the vet, I watched in horror as he quickly deteriorated and haemorrhaged from his nose and eyes, passing away in my arms. His death impacted me profoundly. No being deserves that—"pest" or otherwise.

I have since become an academic activist, where I investigated speciesism and "pests" for my Ph.D. My supervisor suggested exploring brushtail possums as they are New Zealand’s "public enemy number one." One of my participants created the thesis title by stating, "Possums Are as Kiwi as Fish and Chips." Neither are truly "from" here, but over time have become a part of the fabric of New Zealand’s society.

MB: Who do you hope to reach in your interesting and important work?

EM: I intend to bridge the gap between those who care about conservation and those who care about possums (or other "pests"). Our values, while focused on different species, are not that different. Collaboration is key to solving these problems. We can protect native species while avoiding cruelty towards possums—they are not mutually exclusive ideas.

MB: Why would colleagues and others interested in conservation psychology and compassionate conservation be interested in your research?

EM: While there is some existing research on how "pest" species are treated in conservation, there was a clear gap in alternative conservation perspectives in Aotearoa New Zealand. The tale which emerged is replicated in various contexts around the world. Understanding how they play out globally can offer researchers the potential to explore alternative, more compassionate futures.

MB: What are some of the major topics you consider?

EM: My research considered compassionate conservation and the alternative perspectives to the possum-as-"pest" narrative in Aotearoa New Zealand. This work also explored the inclusion and rewarding of young children in the killing, trapping, and baiting of "pests," which incited serious concerns about their healthy development of empathy.

My participants included Māori, Moriori, Pākehā (New Zealanders of European descent), and tauiwi (foreigners not born in New Zealand) who hold fringe viewpoints on conservation. They were possum rescuers, animal advocates, biodiversity advisors, medical and education professionals, and/or academics.

Miseducation was identified as the primary reason why possums were being framed, with participants referencing belonging, environmental "purity," Pākehā identity, and economic propaganda as some of the driving forces behind this. Possums were subsequently denied sentience and scapegoated for problems that are more anthropogenic in nature. It is easier to blame possums than to look at human land (ab)use and consumption.

Four themes emerged as potential solutions: 1) reframing education, 2) the pursuit of alternative "control" methods, 3) decolonisation of conservation, and 4) redefining nature. One participant, in response to the discussion around compassionate conservation, argued that we should "not manage forests as abattoirs." Individual animals matter just as much as the wider species. This is where compassionate conservation can offer support.

MB: How does your work differ from others that are concerned with some of the same general topics?

EM: This research was the first of its kind to explore in-depth brushtail possum advocacy and compassionate conservation in Aotearoa New Zealand. The biological and conservation sciences already study the exploitation, objectification, and extermination of this "pest" species. This research takes a more feminist approach by focusing on principles of compassion and empathy. There is clear support for alternative methods to be prioritised—we just need the resources to be put in place to see how this could realistically be achieved.

MB: Are you hopeful that as people learn more about what is happening in New Zealand, they will become more interested in pursuing the use of humane, non-lethal protocols to deal with the problems at hand?

EM: If you were to ask me this question at the beginning of my research, I would have been sceptical that I could challenge the nationwide anti-"pest" narratives. At the time, I felt the problem was utterly insurmountable; the hatred and vitriol were too strong.

However, I have seen firsthand how perspectives change. For example, I have had several students stop me on campus to let me know that their views towards possums have evolved because of a tutorial or lecture I gave. While they may still value native flora and fauna, they, too, were able to see how conservation needs compassion. The nature of these anti-possum attitudes is that they rely on the normalisation of abuse and cruelty to possums. For this species, it is not seen as abuse or cruelty.

I feel confident that just by having discussions, we can work towards finding a solution that can protect native species whilst reducing cruelty and harm towards possums. It is entirely possible and within reach. We just need the natural and social sciences to work together to find a compassionate solution.


In conversation with the University of Canterbury's Dr. Emily Major, an expert in the study of human-animal relationships (anthrozoology).

1) For more information on New Zealand's war on wildlife see: Jane Goodall Says Don't Use 1080, Jan Wright Says Use More; New Zealand Kids Get Into Killing Animals and Love Doing It; Teaching New Zealand Kids to Kill Animals Is Very Worrisome; Why New Zealand's Policy of Killing Animals Harms Children; The "Possum Stomp" vs. Compassionate Conservation and Ethics; Does Everybody Really Hate Possums? The Bandwagon Effect; Calling Animals "Pests" Is More About Us Than Them; Wildlife Conservation: Bringing Compassion to Wild Animals; Compassionate Conservation Matures and Comes of Age.

2) For more information on compassionate conservation click here and for on conservation psychology click here.

Margodt, Koen. Case Study: The Ethical Cost of Predator Free New Zealand 2050. Jane Goodall Institute, September 7, 2022.

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