With its call to ban 1080, the SPCA have literally put the cat amongst the pigeons. Their  kaupapa is to prevent cruelty to animals by human beings. 1080 is a poison which takes roughly 12 hours to kill by denying oxygen to organs. Vomiting, fits and internal bleeding occur, so it is, one imagines, an unpleasant death. Cruelty is ‘being indifferent to or delighting in another’s pain’ (OED). The SPCA argues therefore that DOC and OSPRI (formally TB FREE NZ) are being cruel when they administer 1080.

Historically, the SPCA, established here in 1882, has been an effective lobby group: cattle are no longer badly treated, horses are no longer flogged, dogs beaten, kittens drowned and so on. The state imposes fines, even imprisonment, for those found guilty of cruelty. It has become generally agreed that we should look after our fellow creatures humanely and if we do have to kill them we should do it with the minimum of suffering. The society has also drawn the link between child abuse and animal abuse, both being caused by a lack of empathy. In a 2007 survey, the SPCA was the second most trusted charity in NZ, so it has some mana.

Forest and Bird have reacted with some vehemence. Usually the anti 1080 lobby can be portrayed as being made up of obsessive ferals, but the SPCA does not fit this mould and the complexity and the problematic of the environmentalist’s kaupapa in regard to 1080 is revealed. Generally they prefer to turn a blind eye, but if pointed out, they argue that the cruelty attached to 1080 use is a necessary evil in order to preserve our indigenous flora and fauna. For OSPRI the dairy industry, one of our main earners, is under threat. We have to be cruel in order to be kind and the end justifies the means. War imagery is used, e.g. Battle for the Birds and collateral damage is acceptable.

There are of course worrying connotations to this reasoning if we transfer it to human society, because similar arguments are used to justify ethnic cleansing: foreigners have crept into the midst of a ‘pure people’ who lived happily in a past golden age. The foreigner must be demonised: stoats, rats etc aren’t just living their instinctual life, they are ‘cruel murderers’ according to Forest and Bird. DOC websites will always picture snarling possums. For OSPRI possums are economic saboteurs. Suddenly these predators have been given consciousness and ethical judgement, which is stretching logic. The same state that will fine someone for drowning a kitten is itself, through one of its departments, poisoning thousands of animals who by living their natural lives threaten native species who evolved in a land cut off from the rest of the world. The native species natural habitat (wilderness) becomes carefully constructed and policed areas where the indigenous are encouraged to breed and the foreigners fecundity is an absolute threat, with an Armageddon of species loss just around the corner. The whole paradigm becomes infected with nationalism, the indigenous becoming central to national character and pride. At the same time the Anthropocene is upon us, that affecting of the planet by human beings at a geological level, with another great extinction on the cards.

These are perplexing and difficult issues and for this reason will not go away, no matter how often the anti 1080 brigade are portrayed as ‘nutcases’, who now include the SPCA. Do we try to return to a mammal-free Aotearoa? But what about humans, cows, horses, sheep, goats, deer, pigs, Tahr… When we move past the mammals to possums eating out our native forest, it is somehow ethically simpler. But then there is lupin, gorse, wilding pine plus the over populated dairy industry (perhaps as villainous as possums when we add polluted waterways and disappearing wetlands). None of it’s easy to resolve and purity can become absurd: DOC have been known to suggest that pohutakawa trees be removed from South Island national parks because they are not native. Certain weka have somehow become genetically impure. And therefore when someone like the SPCA steps in with their simple ethical argument: Don’t be cruel to our fellow creatures (a little like an organisation in Hitler’s Germany suggesting we should be kind to one another no matter what our ethnicity, politics, sexuality or religion), environmentalists become very grumpy indeed. At the same time, these environmentalists will generally be believers in diversity amongst human beings and pro refugee.

I don’t have the solution. When we did a play on the subject a decade ago we could see every side, and the only sensible suggestion we could make was for every community to be given the research, and after rigorous debate, to decide for itself.

And we are left it seems with some research questions: while 1080 has been proven to break down quickly in water, there seems to be little research as to the extent of the suffering involved in a 1080 death; there do seem to be issues with regard to how long it lasts in the food chain and there do seem to be issues relating to mutation caused by sub lethal doses. But yes, it is relatively cheap and effective and the introduction of predatory mammals was a disaster, caused once again by the worst predator of all, the human species.