ARE WE raising our children to be a nation of amoral psychopathic killers?

One American professor seems to think so, based on the Wanganui Chronicle coverage of the Great Fordell Possum Hunt and Spring Gala.

Marc Bekoff is Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado.

He's well-known for his writing on animal welfare, is author of a book on the emotional lives of animals, and promotes the idea of "compassionate conservation", which seems to involve saving endangered species without killing or harming anything else.

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Bekoff came across news coverage of schoolkids in Hawkes Bay trapping possums and stoats, and children around Fordell helping kill possums, hares, and peacocks, and was appalled.

The "slaughter", as he called it in the Huffington Post, was an example of "inhumane education". He was deeply concerned, based on the well-known link between animal abuse and human abuse that New Zealand children would graduate from performing "violence toward nonhuman animals" to violence towards other people.

All this of course was risible to anyone from New Zealand, or anyone who'd taken the trouble to learn something about our conservation crisis. Bekoff obviously missed Elizabeth Kolbert's long article in a recent New Yorker, praising DOC's mammal-killing expertise. The idea that hunting erodes our humanity would be puzzling to anyone from a culture where shooting rabbits or hunting deer is common practice. By Bekoff logic, after generations of possum-killing New Zealand must be awash with serial killers and soulless murderers, but the refined city people of New York and Los Angeles, who've never hunted in their lives, obviously have very low rates of violent crime.

Many people took the trouble to educate Bekoff in the comments, but didn't reply. Perhaps he's a drive-by pundit, shooting up the intellectual neighbourhood and not looking back. Perhaps he realised he was talking nonsense. But just in case, since he obviously reads the Wanganui Chronicle, I'd like to invite him to come to New Zealand and explain to us all how we're doing conservation wrong.

Bekoff has said, "It's time to put away the guns, the traps, the snares, the poisons" and figure out how to live in coexistence with nature. The lives of individual animals matter, he points out, and killing is not the answer. Do we gently persuade the possums to stop eating our native forest, or do we catch them all, one by one, in a non-traumatic way and ship them in cat carriers back to Australia?

The problem is that animals themselves aren't very compassionate. The stoat that spent weeks rampaging through Orokonui Sanctuary and killed every last saddleback certainly wasn't. Our introduced species seem to have no desire to live in harmony with native species; time is running out and killing is the best tool we have. We teach kids to trap possums not because we're cruel, but because we care deeply about our damaged natural heritage. We're raising them to be passionate, indeed compassionate, conservationists.

-Dr Mike Dickison is Curator of Natural History at the Whanganui Regional Museum.