Call them what you will — an ecological nightmare or a misunderstood marsupial — the possum is in the news a lot in New Zealand.

A recent media item reported on the "shocking" sight of two dead possums hanging from a sign in West Auckland.

As New Zealanders, our cultural attitudes toward the possum are complex, and at times downright scary.

The possum has been much maligned for being an ecological pest. The impact of possums on our natural environment is often used to subject them to a form of vigilante justice by people.

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To many New Zealanders the possum is an invader — a vicious hunter, preying on native birds, invertebrates and bats. Possums are also said to compete with birds for habitat and food and disturb their nesting sites.

Environmental concerns should not be discounted. There are valid reasons to worry about the impact of possums on our native vegetation and wildlife, including changes in forest composition due to munching through an estimated 21 tons of vegetation a day.

Landcare Research says the possum is a foreign animal that does not belong here. They say possums alter the structure of the forest due to their preference for species such as rata and kamahi. This selective removal of particular species means forests will begin dieback after 15-20 years of possum colonisation.

It is a mistake to disregard the impact of possums and other non-native species on our environment.

New Zealand is a unique biodiversity hotspot, with a high degree of endemism due to 85 million years of geographical isolation. That means these species, such as the kiwi, are found nowhere else. In addition, some animals such as the velvet worm (peripatus) and tuatara are ancient animals descended from the time when New Zealand broke away from supercontinent Gondwana.

Possums, on the other hand, are an import from Australia, and the semi-friendly rivalry between Australians and New Zealanders does not help their case. The possum is vilified in New Zealand beyond any measure of decency. They are hung up on roadsides; their dead bodies are dressed up, thrown and used on obstacle courses in children's school fairs and possum hunts.

So what case, if any, does the possum have in New Zealand?

Well, from the possums' vantage point, they are naturally doing what any animals (including humans) does when introduced to a new environment — adapt or perish.

Between 1858 and 1922, 36 batches of possums were liberated in New Zealand in 450 places by acclimatisation societies. The point of liberating possums was to establish a fur trade. The case for the possum seems quite simple. We brought them here and now have a responsibility to ensure they do not suffer in our attempts to reverse this foolish ecological deed.

The possum has a case to be treated with kindness — not because I believe it belongs in our forests — but because it is a sentient being.

The possum can feel, can experience pain, hunger, thirst, and fear as well as positive emotions like happiness and satisfaction.

Yet we trap and kill them mercilessly, often glorifying their deaths.

The possum needs to be seen as a sentient animal first and an introduced species second.
The Department of Conservation and Forest & Bird have been at the forefront of vilifying the possum through deliberate use of war language.

DoC's predator control programme is labelled "battle for our birds". Through its language DoC has cast the possum as a "pest", "predator" and an "invasive species".

The possum does not have the chemical arsenal to fight back against 1080, an extremely cruel poison that is DoC's weapon of choice.

Children in New Zealand become quickly indoctrinated into this anti-possum mantra through school possum hunts and Enviroschool programmes that encourage them to trap pests.

We can win the "battle for our birds" in more intelligent and compassionate ways. Landcare Research is at the forefront of this with its development of immunocontraception to reduce possum breeding.

The fact that the possum is an environmental issue in New Zealand should not give us free licence to subject them to cruel treatment or to teach our children it is okay to vilify an animal.

Our children need to be taught to treat animals with compassion and should not be held up as environmental warriors — they are not child soldiers, they are human beings developing their own unique relationship with nature.

Through developing an intelligent and sophisticated approach to conservation, guided by compassion, we may begin to heal our troubled past with the Earth and the animals who live here.

* Dr Lynley Tulloch specialises in sustainability education, and has lectured at the University of Waikato for 11 years. She is an animal rights advocate and founder of Starfish Bobby Calf Project, a grassroots vegan activist group.