Why Should Vegans Care About Pests?
Samah Seger and Philip McKibbin delve into the heated topic of pest control, looking at how we came to be in our current situation and imagining what a more compassionate approach might look like.
As vegans, most of us care about animals – but many of us still ignore so-called ‘pests’. Even if you don’t go out and kill them yourself, chances are you feel ambivalent about them. If you grew up here in Aotearoa, you were probably taught to hate them.
The war on ‘pests’
In New Zealand, ‘pests’ have an especially bad reputation, and a lot of time, energy, and resources are spent killing them. There’s even a government-sponsored initiative to eradicate them. The Predator Free 2050 programme aims to wipe out possums, stoats, and rats by the middle of this century. It isn’t only those animals who get killed, though; animals as diverse as hedgehogs, turtles, and wasps are also targeted by ‘conservationists’.
Much like meat-eating and dairying, ‘pest control’ enjoys widespread support here. Most Kiwis have trouble recognising the problems with it. This isn’t coincidental. ‘Pest’ animals are deliberately demonised, so that otherwise compassionate people accept the bad things humans do to them. New Zealand has started a ‘war’ against ‘pests’ – and military language is used to make them seem like the villains. They are characterised as ‘invaders’, and the struggle to eliminate them is portrayed as a ‘battle’ or ‘crusade’, which will be won with ‘weapons’ — like traps and 1080 poison — by an ‘army’ of volunteers.
Kiwis who grew up in Aotearoa usually fail to recognise this — perhaps because, as schoolchildren, we were required to produce research reports on ‘pest’ animals, or, if we lived rurally, sent out to kill them at school fairs. More often, it is immigrants and refugees who clearly perceive how perverse our treatment of these animals really is.
Unfortunately, many vegans accept the torture and killing of ‘pests’. However, the same analogies that help us see how wrong meat-eating is also encourage us to reconsider our treatment of ‘pest’ animals. “You wouldn’t eat a dog”, vegans say to non-vegans, “so why do you eat pigs?” We say: you wouldn’t poison a dog — so why is it okay to do it to possums? (And as all of us know, getting others to do it for us doesn’t let us off the hook!)
We think vegans should become advocates for ‘pest’ animals.
A commitment to animal rights is integral to veganism, which encourages us to live non-violently. Just as this extends beyond what we eat — to which clothes we wear, what activities we engage in, etc. — so, too, should it extend to our treatment of ‘pests’.
So-called ‘pests’ are animals, like dogs, pigs, and humans: they are sentient, they have interests, and they maintain relationships. And they are among the most mistreated animals in the world — especially those who live here in Aotearoa.
New Zealand’s treatment of ‘pests’ is inherently unjust. Most species the Department of Conservation is trying to eradicate are victims of colonisation: they were deliberately brought here by humans, for us to exploit. For example, stoats were imported to control rabbits, who were originally introduced for hunting; now, both are unwanted.
The way New Zealanders talk about these animals is inaccurate and inconsistent. We call them ‘invaders’ — but we brought them here. We say we want to protect native species — but we regularly kill native animals such as pūkeko (who are decried as ‘pests’), tuna (eels, who are killed commercially), and endangered īnanga (whitebait). We pretend we want to make New Zealand ‘predator-free’ — but Aotearoa has native predators, like kārearea, who feed on other birds and ‘pests’. The way we categorise animals seems to have very little to do with who they are, and a lot with how we can use them. Cats, dogs, trout, cows, and sheep are all introduced, but there is no national campaign to eradicate them — even though they arguably do more damage than so-called ‘pests’.
It’s important to ask why so-called ‘pest’ animals are targeted. Most people don’t ask; they simply assume it’s because ‘pests’ harm native species and the natural environment. But there’s a lot more to the story. Many of these animals are labelled ‘pests’ because they represent a ‘cost’ to the agricultural sector, and killing them thus perpetuates the worst causes of environmental harm. Indeed, the economy is used to justify our mistreatment of ‘pests’ in other areas as well — such as the ‘cost’ to our tourism sector, and the ‘cost’ to our carefully-crafted international image as a prehistoric, pristine land. Over time, this has morphed into a self-perpetuating multi-million dollar industry. As British conservationist Sir David Bellamy once enthusiastically declared, “New Zealand is the only country which has turned pest eradication into an export industry”.
Above all, humans treat ‘pests’ as scapegoats. By blaming them, we effectively deflect attention away from the harm we do, without changing our behaviour. The harm animals like possums, stoats, and rats are accused of is minimal compared to the destruction caused by human activities. If any species is a ‘pest’, it’s us.
Of course, some people will argue that killing ‘pest’ animals protects others – namely, native species – and that we therefore have an obligation to do it. We reject this reasoning. We wouldn’t kill humans to save kiwi (even though humans do far more harm than all so-called ‘pests’ combined), so we shouldn’t kill other animals, either.
Another objection we often hear is that, because humans brought ‘pest’ species to New Zealand, we have a ‘responsibility’ to eradicate them. But we reject this conclusion, too. Because we brought them here, we are in relationship with them. It is our responsibility to treat them with respect. This is true of all ‘pest’ animals, from the kiore (rats) who were brought here by the ancestors of Māori, to the wasps who arrived last century. We need to accept that we cannot magically undo the damage humans have caused — indeed, it is irresponsible to pretend we can torture and kill our way back to how things were.
If New Zealanders truly wish to transform our relationship with the natural world, we should commit to addressing the damage caused by colonisation, which has subjugated Indigenous peoples, natural ecosystems, and non-human animals for centuries. This would require an entirely different set of actions to those utilised for ‘pest control’. Rather than embracing violence, it would emphasise relationships, which change and evolve over time. Our actions would be guided by values such as whanaungatanga and kotahitanga, which recognise and respect the personhood of others as well as our interdependence.
So, what should we do?
As soon as New Zealanders stop blaming ‘pests’ for environmental destruction, we will be forced to take responsibility for our own actions. This means drastically changing our behaviours — reducing unnecessary consumption, foregoing animal products, etc.; and developing ethical environmental policy — dismantling pollutive industrial systems, rewilding farmland, growing plants that sustain native animals, banning plastic, etc.
New Zealand wastes an enormous amount of time, energy, and resources on ‘pest control’. All of this effort could be better directed — toward climate change mitigation, cleaning up our waterways, and the restoration of our forests. Also, we want to challenge the notion that, as Kiwis, our focus should be only on New Zealand. Aotearoa must play its part in addressing global threats, too, so that everyone benefits. After all, it won’t matter much if all that’s left of our native ecology are a few takahē on a flooding island.
As vegans, we should lead for ‘pest’ animals. Many of the same personal qualities and skills that enable us to be vegan — compassion, critical thinking, resilience, etc. — can help us to advocate for their rights. And veganism itself supports us in doing this: as well as encouraging us to look beyond speciesism, it helps us to see that it isn’t just ‘species’ we should care about, but the individual animals who comprise those groups, too.
We can break the trance! Let’s advocate for an approach grounded in aroha – one which emphasises loving values such as compassion, tiakitanga, and sustainability.
Samah Seger is a Mandaean Iraqi currently living in Te Tai Tokerau. She is a co-founder of the decolonial animal rights group, Aotearoa Liberation League: all.org.nz
Philip McKibbin is a writer of Pākehā and Māori (Kāi Tahu) descent. His book, Love Notes: for a Politics of Love, is published in New York by Lantern: philip-mckibbin.com
Did you know?
Brushtail possums (Trichosurus vulpecula) were deliberately introduced in the 19th century, so that a fur trade could be established. They have a reputation for preying on native birds and their eggs, but according to the Handbook of New Zealand Mammals, they ‘are best described as opportunistic herbivores, feeding mainly on leaves’.
Stoats (Mustela erminea) were introduced in the 19th century to control rabbits. (Rabbits, who were originally introduced by European settlers for hunting, were increasingly viewed as a threat to farming.) As well as eating birds and insects, they prey on mice, rats, and possums — i.e. animals who are, themselves, considered ‘pests’.
Three species of rat live here: the kiore/Pacific rat (Rattus exulans), the Norway rat (Rattus norvegicus), and the ship rat (Rattus rattus). Kiore were introduced — probably accidentally — by the Polynesian ancestors of Māori, and are considered by some iwi to be taonga (treasures). Rats are omnivores, and are both predators and scavengers.
[Source: The Handbook of New Zealand Mammals (3rd edition), edited by Carolyn M. King and David M. Forsyth, Otago University Press, 2021.]
So you want to be an advocate for all the animals of Aotearoa? Great! Here are some actions you can take:
- Talk to your whānau and friends about the importance of loving all animals.
- Get involved in rewilding efforts – grow a tree, join a planting group, or campaign for the return of farmland to forest.
- Write to your local MP, the Department of Conservation, and media outlets, demanding they condemn the Predator Free 2050 programme.
- Foster rescue animals — such as baby possums, who often survive car accidents in their mother’s pouches (there are some great support groups on Facebook).
- Be creative. Think outside the box!
The articles we present in our magazine and blog have been written by many authors and are are not necessarily the views and policies of the Vegan Society.
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