environment

Bye bye Easter bunnies

This weekend, the Easter Bunny will visit hundreds of thousands of Kiwi households delivering chocolate eggs.

The following week, Environment Southland will join councils in Otago, Canterbury and the Waikato in a bunny eradication programme involving the introduction of the RHDV1 (K5) rabbit virus. The haemorrhagic virus will, it is hoped, kill 35-40 percent of the millions of rabbits which each year cause $50 million-$100 million in lost agricultural production.

It won’t be a pleasant death. Scientific studies show the virus can take 2-4 days to kill a rabbit and is painful. It can cause fever, spasms, blood clots, difficulty breathing and hemorrhaging of organs like the heart, lungs and kidneys.

Good riddance, say the majority of New Zealanders.

But will visitors see it the same way? Or could suffering bunnies be seen by tourists as tarnishing our clean green image?

Over the course of the autumn the virus will be released around top tourism hotspots like Queenstown, Wanaka, Dunedin, Pauanui, Thames and Taupo. And that's set two South Island tourism academics wondering about the possibility that a shocked visitor faced with dead or diseased rabbits could start a viral social media campaign that might put people off visiting our 100 percent Pure land.

“Bunny rabbits are seen as cute creatures in other parts of the world and the thought of cute creatures suffering awful deaths will be deeply offensive and problematic for many visitors.”

James Higham, professor of sustainable tourism at Otago University, thinks the risk is real. He says it’s dangerous to assume that people coming to this country have the same environmental values we have. The way someone from the UK thinks about killing a rabbit or a stoat is very different from how a New Zealander would see the same death, he says. In the same way, while New Zealanders see possums as native wildlife-destroying pests, Australians see the same animal as a cute, endangered marsupial.

“Questions of animal welfare, particularly if an animal is seen to be suffering a prolonged death, do strike a chord,” Higham says. Think about Spain and bullfighting, the UK and fox-hunting, New Zealand and dolphin by-catch.

“Bunny rabbits are seen as cute creatures in other parts of the world and the thought of cute creatures suffering awful deaths will be deeply offensive and problematic for many visitors.”

He remembers being surprised a few years ago talking to a group of tourists about New Zealand’s problems with unwanted species. Their perception was totally removed from the way Kiwis see the issue. “The view of these international visitors was ‘You introduced these species, right? So they belong here now, whether you like it or not; they are now part of your ecology, whether you like it or not.”

Mandy Carter, campaigns director for New Zealand animal rights group Safe, says New Zealanders often forget that introduced animals have the same capacity to suffer as any other animal. “We brought them here, therefore we remain responsible for their welfare.”

Carter advocates for more humane ways of keeping the rabbit population down, such as fertility control, which is being developed to control squirrels in the UK and rats in the US.

But introducing unknown fertility-impacting substances into New Zealand raises other ethical issues. And developing that sort of solution is expensive and slow.

Whereas  the K5 virus is just so damn cheap. The Otago Regional Council is spending only $60,000 on the 100 doses it’s releasing on private land, says ORC’s director of environmental monitoring and operations, Scott MacLean. You couldn’t pay for many hours in a laboratory (or in a field with a shotgun, if it comes to that) for that price.

"There are significant calls for tourism boycotts in relation to animal rights issues, and they gain significant traction."

As long as visitors remain blissfully unaware of what’s going on, there is no issue for New Zealand’s reputation, says another Otago University tourism professor, Neil Carr. But that could all change if the story gains traction overseas via social media.

Carr follows a number of international animals rights forums online and says there is already a certain amount of incomprehension overseas about New Zealand’s attitudes towards animals.

The treatment of bobby calves, for example, or primary schools organising possum-throwing competitions. When these make headlines overseas, Carr says, they can change the way some people view the country.

“All it’ll take is one dead rabbit that’s been hemorrhaging and someone to take a picture and pop it up on social media and for it to go viral. It’s not going to be a good image for New Zealand. Imagine if it went viral over Easter, when we’d be killing the Easter bunny.”

The likelihood of tourists seeing infected bunnies is increased because farmers have been warned not to remove dead rabbits. This is partly because the design of the virus release programme is partly based on flies spreading the virus. People removing dead animals could jeopardise the effectiveness of the programme, MacLean told the Otago Daily Times, and any reports of people doing that would be taken “very very seriously”.

But the wrong dead bunny photo on an influential social media feed could be serious for New Zealand’s clean green image, Carr says.

“You can imagine how easily messages could get out of control and New Zealand’s valid reasons for wanting to keep rabbits under control will get lost in the message of us killing bunnies.”

Will it bring New Zealand’s tourism industry to a halt? Very unlikely, Carr says. “But I can see some potential foreign tourists saying ‘Maybe I won’t go this year’... But then I guess you have bean counters putting the number of tourists you lose against the economic benefits to farmers.”

“You can imagine how easily messages could get out of control and New Zealand’s valid reasons for wanting to keep rabbits under control will get lost in the message of us killing bunnies.”

One of Carr’s PhD students is researching how social media campaigns calling for boycotts around questionable animal right practices (bullfighting in Spain, eating dog meat in China etc) can work their way around the world.

“He can dig into Twitter and look at specific boycotts and find trends in terms of how particular boycotts are picked up. He can trace geographical concentrations of support for boycotts and map those onto different regions of the world. And he’s finding there are significant calls for tourism boycotts in relation to animal rights issues, and they gain significant traction.”

Take University of Colorado emeritus professor Marc Bekoff, who co-founded the group Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals with world-famous chimpanzee expert Jane Goodall.

Over the last six months alone, Bekoff has tweeted out a Guardian article calling for rodeos to be banned in New Zealand, a story about a US academic shocked by Kiwi violence to wild animals, and his own story in the Huffington Post entitled “Animal Abuse Knows No Bounds: New Zealand Encourages Kids to Kill ‘Pests’”

Bekoff has more than 5100 followers on Twitter and his essays on animal emotions in publication Psychology Today have more than 4.1 million hits.

“I think that releasing the virus is utterly immoral and reprehensible,” Bekoff told Newsroom. “There is absolutely no justification for doing this.”

His view - that of an outsider - is in sharp contrast to how the Department of Conservation sees the rabbit virus issue. Herb Christophers, principal advisor in DOC’s customer engagement unit, says DOC supports the release of the virus, which Christophers says is done in the long-term best interests of native wildlife, agriculture and the New Zealand economy.

“Managing rabbits is part of rural life to the extent that without it, many farms would not be viable today.

“If people wish to run a social media campaign with photos of dead bunnies and calls for tourism boycotts maybe they should also come up with alternative practical solutions for rabbit control. Because there have been more than 150 years of severely adverse impacts of rabbits on agriculture in New Zealand with no viable control method in recent years apart from [rabbit hemorrhaging virus] RCD.”

Let’s hope our overseas visitors see it that way - from the perspective of the New Zealand farmer, not the New Zealand bunny.

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