Shooting of protected seal no surprise

People were horrified by Newsroom’s revelation on Saturday that a protected leopard seal had been shot in the face and killed. 

But we shouldn’t really be surprised. Cruelty to mammals is part of our national culture. This is not the first time a protected mammal has been attacked and, unless we change our attitudes, it will not be the last.

In 2005, former All Black Andrew Hore and two other Otago farmers were convicted and fined for killing a protected fur seal on the Otago coast.

Judge Peter Rollo described their action as a “grossly irresponsible, spontaneous act of hooliganism”.

The trio had been out fishing and, as they returned to land, began shooting at rabbits on a cliff. When they saw seals on the beach and cliff, they shot at them, sending the mammals fleeing into the water and killing one of them.

In 2010, Jamaal Large and Jason Godsiff were returning home to Blenheim after working at a salmon farm in North Canterbury.

During the drive they talked about killing seals, as they believed the mammals were pests who depleted fishing stocks. They thought many others who fished and hunted shared their views.

The pair went to Ohau Point after dark, took galvanised pipes out of their vehicle and bludgeoned 23 seals to death by inflicting crushed skulls and open wounds on them.

Eight of the animals were pups. Some of the seals took several days to die, lying helpless and wounded on the beach.

Both men were convicted under the Animal Welfare Act of wilfully ill-treating animals causing death. Godsiff pleaded guilty at an early stage but Large battled through the courts and was eventually convicted on only two of the three charges he faced.

Worryingly, the judge found him not guilty on the charge relating to the seal pups, as he said the Crown had not proved beyond reasonable doubt that they suffered pain or distress. As the pups’ skulls were soft and undeveloped, it was possible that they had been pulverised with one blow and the animals had died instantly without suffering pain.

In New Zealand, we are taught that a large number of mammals are “pests” and that it is accordingly all right to kill them – and to do so in grossly inhumane ways.

That finding completely ignores the fear and emotional distress the pups suffered, witnessing their mothers being clubbed to death and waiting fearfully to experience a similar fate. How could they possibly have failed to suffer distress?

The telling point about this case is the defendants’ view that seals were pests. Their work on a salmon farm had taught them to regard seals as nuisances and competitors for fish.

Godsiff grew up on a farm and was used to shooting rabbits, possum and feral goats. He regarded the seals as being similar pests, despite the fact that they are protected under the Marine Mammals Protection Act.

His attitude is not actually surprising. In New Zealand, we are taught that a large number of mammals are “pests” and that it is accordingly all right to kill them – and to do so in grossly inhumane ways.

This stance is bred into children from an early age. 

In 2010, a rural Manawatu school held a possum-throwing contest. Children were encouraged to hold the dead animals by their tails and hurl them as far as they could. 

An unscientific Manawatu Standard online poll found that 60 percent of people thought it was all right to throw dead possums, while 40 percent considered to disrespectful.

At Drury School in Auckland, an annual possum hunt is held as a fundraiser, with people being encouraged to kill as many possums as they can over three nights and then bring the corpses for a weigh-in.

Last year, public controversy erupted when it was reported that a student had been put in charge of taking baby joeys from the possum’s pouch and drowning them in a bucket of water. The school denied that children had drowned the joeys, but did not deny that they were drowned. Drowning is not a humane method of killing.

In June 2018, a video emerged of a man punching a possum in the face so hard that the animal was sent flying through the air.

New Zealanders tend to think that our attitudes to so-called pests are shared by other countries, and that our crusade to poison, trap and shoot mammals is admired.

Some people thought the man’s actions were justified because possums were pests, while others considered the violence to be animal abuse.

New Zealanders tend to think that our attitudes to so-called pests are shared by other countries, and that our crusade to poison, trap and shoot mammals is admired.

However, that is not necessarily the case. The New Yorker in 2014 published a lengthy article titled Annals of Extermination: The Big Kill – New Zealand’s crusade to rid itself of mammals.

The story noted that, with a population of just 4 ½ million, this country had some 4000 conservation groups and might be the most nature-loving nation on the planet.

“But theirs is, to borrow E. O. Wilson’s term, a bloody, bloody biophilia. The sort of amateur naturalist who in Oregon or Oklahoma might track butterflies or band birds will, in Otorohanga, poison possums and crush the heads of hedgehogs. As the co-ordinator of one volunteer group put it to me, ‘We always say that, for us, conservation is all about killing things’.”

It is difficult to argue with that, when so many conservation groups promote poisoning and trapping and shooting as admirable and ethical weekend activities and successive governments spend millions on killing mammals.

The author went on to say:

“[I]n New Zealand, killing small mammals brings people together. During my travels around the country, I found that extermination, weird as it may sound, really is a grassroots affair. I met people like the Adsheads, who had decided to clear their own land, and also people like Annalily van den Broeke, who every few weeks goes out to reset traps in a park near her home, in the suburbs of Auckland. In Wellington, I met a man name Kelvin Hastie, who… was organising the community to get a rat trap into every hundred-square-metre bloc. ‘Most of the neighbours are pretty into it,’ he told me.”

New Zealand is an outlier internationally in its use of 1080, which subjects animals to a horrific death. Possums can take up to 40 hours to die in agony, while ferrets, dogs and stoats can become paralysed and struggle to breathe before dying a slow death.

If we are going to reduce mammal numbers, we need to find humane ways of doing this – probably through contraception.

We should also stop calling mammals “pests”. Humans created the current perceived problem of mammals in places we don’t want them by introducing them to countries where they were not once found.

If we keep referring to some mammals as pests and promote the idea that killing them inhumanely is acceptable, we can expect that some New Zealanders will continue to misinterpret this message and think that killing protected mammals is also all right.

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