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1080 and animal welfare – Expert Reaction

An overseas scientist’s report labels the use of 1080 in New Zealand as “unethical”, and says the Predator Free 2050 goal is “unrealistic”.

The report, The Ethical Cost of Predator Free New Zealand 2050, is written by the chair of the Jane Goodall Institute’s ethics committee, and features supporting quotes from Jane Goodall herself.

The SMC asked experts to comment. 

Professor James Russell, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland; and co-author of the research, comments:

“This report originates from continental Europe, where habitat destruction and farming are the major causes of biodiversity loss. In contrast the birds of New Zealand did not go extinct due to habitat destruction and farming, they went extinct due to the introduction of predators. Recent research even shows that managing predators on farms and in urban areas brings these birds back. The report is in fact focused more on 1080 rather than Predator Free New Zealand and even then fails to note that actually only 12% of New Zealand receives 1080 pest control.

“However, what worries me most about this report is that it did not take the opportunity to partner with local experts, especially indigenous people, with diverse backgrounds and experience in conservation and ethics in Aotearoa. A collaborative ethical investigation such as this would have been far more compelling, and in fact has already been done, but is entirely overlooked by the author, Dr Margodt. In 2019 an independent bioethics report on Predator Free New Zealand was undertaken, and more appropriately that report drew upon people of diverse backgrounds, cultures and experiences, both national and international, to form a more comprehensive and balanced view of the ethics of Predator Free New Zealand.

“Critically, Dr Margodt makes the key ethical error of not realising that choosing to do nothing is still a conscious choice to do something: in this case choosing to let native birds die. Not teaching our children about the impact of introduced predators is teaching them to turn a blind eye to our native birds. The report finally ends with what is merely a weak claim for the status quo: the ongoing banishment of our taonga manu to far flung island reserves and fenced sanctuaries, where they would forever remain prisoners in their own land.”

Conflict of interest statement: Professor Russell has been an advisor to PF2050 Ltd and DOC.

Associate Professor Ngaio Beausoleil, Co-Director, Animal Welfare Science and Bioethics Centre, School of Veterinary Science, Massey University comments:

“This non-peer-reviewed paper argues that the goals of New Zealand’s Predator Free 2050 campaign are unachievable using existing technologies and that those technologies are unethical because of their impacts on pest animal welfare. The paper also argues that lethal pest control is unnecessary to recover populations of native animal species and that the NZ government should invest in non-lethal approaches to managing predators as well as addressing non-pest causes of native species decline.

“Vertebrate animals, including those mammals classed as ‘pests’ or ‘invasive species’ in New Zealand, are legally recognized as being sentient. That means they are capable of having unpleasant experiences such as pain, breathlessness, nausea and fear. Most, if not all methods for controlling sentient pest animals will have some negative impacts on their welfare – this is true even of non-lethal methods such as exclusion using fences and translocation (moving animals from one place to another).

“Whenever possible, methods with better animal welfare outcomes (i.e. more humane methods) should be selected when it is deemed necessary to control pests. In terms of existing methods, well-designed kill traps that are properly set and maintained and quick-acting toxins like cyanide have less bad impacts on animal welfare than leg-hold traps and slower-acting toxins like 1080 and anticoagulants (e.g. brodifacoum). However, realistically, factors other than animal welfare impacts influence these decisions – for example, human and companion animal safety and bait shyness limit the use of fast-acting cyanide, especially around places that people (and rodents) live. Only aerial distribution of some toxins is practically and financially viable for pest control in remote forest areas, leading to heavy reliance on 1080 in Predator Free 2050 thus far. And increasingly, cultural considerations are influencing the choice of control tools.

“It is generally acknowledged that the goals of Predator Free 2050 are unlikely to be achieved using only existing technologies. As a result, the New Zealand government has invested heavily in the development of novel pest control methods that will be ready in both the short (e.g. pest-selective toxins) and longer-term (e.g. genetically mediated fertility control). Importantly, any new method for controlling sentient pest animals should be scientifically shown to be more humane than the ones currently in use. Achieving this requires the involvement of researchers with specific expertise in animal welfare science throughout the development process.”

Conflict of interest statement: Associate Professor Beausoleil is a researcher on an MBIE Endeavour grant to develop pest-selective toxins. 

Emeritus Professor Dave Kelly, School of Biological Sciences, University of Canterbury, comments:

“I read the full report and it’s ecologically naïve and in places illogical. It misunderstands the overall goals of conservation in NZ, and never seems to consider the biological and ethical implications of not using the toxins, i.e. that threatened endemic species would go extinct, which is irreversible. It misunderstands the different situations in which 1080 and brodifacoum are used, and misunderstands the short and long term strategies that underpin PF2050. It seems to assume that conservationists will apply ever-increasing quantities of 1080 to NZ, when in fact 1080 is used in targeted areas in specific circumstances to protect identified rare species in the short term. Longer term it’s always been stated that other techniques are needed, but importantly, the current methods can keep rare species alive while that development work proceeds.

“Most fundamentally, it makes the mistake of focusing on only one part of the system (suffering in predators, particularly rats, during control operations) and ignoring the ethical aspects of suffering in, and possible extinction of, prey. That’s pretty weird given that ship rats are one of the world’s most widespread and abundant mammal species, at no risk of extinction anywhere, and responsible for a wave of extinctions of endemic species throughout the globe. The report also fails to recognise that an eradication campaign can minimise suffering by killing all the pests currently in an area, so that there is no more breeding by pests, and no future work needed to kill their descendants for the indefinite future.

“The report suggests alternatives to the use of toxins in NZ, but apparently fails to realise that the alternatives listed are already being deployed to the extent that technologies, species biologies, remaining habitats, and available funding allow. The toxins are essentially used only where none of the other alternatives is feasible, for a host of reasons the report apparently is unaware of.

“In short, this is not a reasoned weighing of the pros and cons of conservation action in New Zealand – for that see Jan Wright’s 2011 report. This is an impassioned and somewhat myopic argument about only one small aspect of the debate, specifically whether it is ethical to cause some suffering in a pest mammal in order to achieve some other ethical goal. By only thinking about a small part of the question, and failing to understand the details or even fundamental goals of conservation practice in NZ, the report only comes up with inapplicable or irrelevant answers.”

Conflict of interest statement: “In 2013-2017 we had a grant from the Animal Health Board (later Ospri) to measure forest birds before and after 1080 control operations in Canterbury, West Coast and Nelson. They did not have any influence over what we found or what was published.”