The SPCA’s inconvenient truth

Instead of shooting the messenger, it’s worth considering what the SPCA says about 1080, Marie McEntee writes.

The SPCA has again entered the toxic arena of the 1080 pest control debate, claiming the use of toxins as a control method for environmental pests is inhumane. It is calling for the use of this toxin to be banned, with greater research to go into more humane innovations.

Let’s not deny the SPCA has a valid point, and as legal guardian and advocate of animal rights it is well within its mandate and expertise to take this position. Instead of shooting the messenger, let’s carefully consider the message, however contrary it may be to the current paradigm of pest and predator control in New Zealand. 

Any animal’s death, be it a target species or a non-target, following ingestion of poison is unlikely to be a pleasant one and appealing to qualifiers like “relatively” humane does little to deny this inconvenient truth.

It is undeniable that 1080, and other toxins, do not need to meet the same humane standards imposed on other pest control methods, such as kill traps. To be considered humane, authorities demand death in traps occurs in as little as five minutes. Such demands are stringently measured when new trapping technologies seek approval as humane. The National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee’s testing regime for traps demands no failures over 10 attempts to meet humane criteria.

The European Union, which has strict rules, is working to outlaw Fenn traps – a trap used in New Zealand for stoat control – for specific species, as they do not meet its humane standards. Our own Department of Conservation moved away from Fenn traps many years ago because of humane concerns. New traps were developed to replace them.

Facts work both ways

If we are, as advocated by some pro-toxin commentators, to use the ‘facts’ of science to dispel the anti-1080 arguments then we also cannot ignore the ‘facts’ of science to bury the inconvenient truth that toxins. In particular, the aerial distribution of 1080 and brodifacoum does not meet the same standards for a humane predator death demanded of other methods of pest control.

Poisoned animals take hours or days to die. Furthermore, aerial application of toxin is indiscriminate and can have significant impacts on non-target species, some of which are fully protected native species.

In the past few days we have heard counter-claims and attacks against the SPCA from the usual pro-1080 lobbyists. They include arguments of the “suffering” inflicted on species from introduced mammalian predators, or the inhumane death of birds in the mouths of predators (also no doubt unpleasant). A particularly spurious line is the hierarchy of species that apparently justifies inhumane killing techniques for introduced species. 

As humans at the top of the food chain, we alone in the world have ethics and morals. We must take responsibility for all our control methods, including those used for feral cats, rats, mice, possums, deer, pigs, goats, stoats, ferrets, weasels and any other unwanted fauna.

As a social scientist who researches and works in ‘science in society’, including pest and predator management, I have only ever met two people who have argued, in their case on religious grounds, for the right of the rat to live in New Zealand’s bush. Most people agree rats need to be controlled and, where possible, eradicated for the good of our valuable and unique native flora and fauna. 

People would love a New Zealand that was rid of rats, possums, stoats and other predators. However, there is disagreement about cats, deer and pigs, which is likely why they are not included in Predator Free NZ. The controversy however, lies not around why but rather how we eradicate, with the indiscriminate aerial distribution of toxins evoking the highest level of concern, as the SPCA has said for some years.

A condescending simplification

Over the past days commentators have repeatedly relied on the outdated argument that opposition to 1080 occurs because people are ignorant of the facts. It is assumed this perceived ignorance can be addressed by education. Such condescending simplification of this socially complex issue destroys opportunities for meaningful, honest and robust dialogue. Yet that is exactly what we need in order to work through this minefield. 

Socially complex arguments are not arguments about facts. They are arguments about values and morals and choices. Scientific evidence can and should play a role, but this will not resolve the clash of values we see around 1080. We need engagement, listening and tolerance of alternative, reasoned points of view. If we cannot show evidence of this maturity now with 1080, what hope will we have as science ventures into other more controversial pest control technologies, such as gene editing?

In the current climate, the extremes of pro- and anti-lobby groups stifle good discussion. The anti-1080 extremist views, only a small sector of the anti-1080 lobby, occupy too much of the media’s attention. The pro-lobby group, meanwhile, spends too much time side-tracked into counterclaims of ‘facts’ to use against this extremism. 

Organisations raising valid questions, like the SPCA, are painted as extremists, but they are not. The SPCA has a right and probably a legal obligation to question current practices around the use of toxins, however inconvenient the truth may be.

New Zealand’s isolation risks leading us to exist in an echo chamber. I have just completed a six-week trip visiting environmental pest control projects on six inhabited offshore islands in New Zealand, Australia and the United Kingdom. The projects I visited varied in their scale of operation, species targeted and methods of control.

I saw incredible successes, particularly in the UK in difficult terrain with large-scale ground based control programmes using bait stations and trapping with live and kill traps. I saw the value of working with communities in an open, honest, transparent and flexible way. Scientists and agencies who undertake pest control work are not neutral and they have profound effects, both positive and negative, on the communities in which they operate.

Let’s see the SPCA’s call as aspirational as it is not talking about a ban tomorrow.

New Zealand pest and predator control needs to be reframed away from the kill everything or lose everything dichotomy. This stifles innovation and dialogue. Instead, let’s look at a smorgasbord of pest control ideas, even at the large scale, and work overtime to eliminate non-target impacts of the use of toxins. Let’s acknowledge the double standard that applies to humaneness for trapping and poisoning, strive to develop toxins that meet the same standards we demand of traps and open the discussion to talk about the targeting of specific predator species.

Let’s see the SPCA’s call as aspirational as it is not talking about a ban tomorrow. And let’s not deny the ecological benefits of predator suppression, where the goal may not be zero predators. Let’s explore innovations that are in tune with communities, welcome respected agencies like the SPCA to the table and work with them rather than attempt to marginalise them. 

If we can move a step closer to this enlightenment then the SPCA may just possibly have made a contribution to this debate that has a bigger impact than simply calling for a ban on the use of 1080.

New Zealand has made huge and internationally important advances in environmental pest control. Let’s not stop now. To rest on our laurels risks the voice against a total ban on toxins becoming more strident. Agencies’ use of toxins is dependent on communities granting them a social licence to operate and the granting of this is more precarious than some may recognise.

Let’s start by respecting the SPCA’s right to take a position that raises valid questions, however uncomfortable the answers may be. If history has taught us anything it should be that tolerance and inclusion will lead us to better outcomes. Dogma and division, even from those who purport to hold the moral high ground, will only lead to conflict that may very well destroy exactly what we are trying to protect.

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