Research Summary

No country for possums: young people’s nativist views

Villainizing possums may further nativist views among young people in New Zealand

Australian Journal of Environmental Education

Studies show that New Zealanders care deeply about the environment and are committed to protecting their country’s biodiverse landscapes. As such, they have a long history of supporting ecological restoration and conservation policies. One such policy established New Zealand’s biosecurity system, which calls for the elimination of invasive plant and animal species that threaten ecosystems and food systems. Although New Zealand is home to many invasive species, many New Zealanders have a particular disdain for the Australian brushtail possum. Violent eradication of possums is not only tolerated, it is often celebrated. The researcher argues that media and schools reinforce and perpetuate possum hatred among New Zealanders of all ages. This study examined the psychological impacts of species eradication in the name of biosecurity. Specifically, it explored how harboring intense negative views of possums—and participating in or condoning their inhumane removal—may foster nativist views (protecting New Zealander interests against those of immigrants) in young people.

This study took place in Auckland, New Zealand, where the researcher identified two schools that reflected the city’s urban, multicultural nature. From these two schools, 171 students (89 males, 82 females) elected to participate in the study. All participants were 13 years old, an age group the researcher believed would reflect the younger generation’s views of biosecurity. All participants completed a questionnaire (that included scaled and open-ended questions) about their knowledge and perceptions of invasive species. The researcher then interviewed nine survey respondents (five male and four female) who had written detailed responses to questions about their biosecurity experiences. Each interview lasted about 20 minutes. The researcher used statistics to analyze the survey data, and analyzed the interviews and survey responses to identify common themes.

Survey results indicated that possums were considered the most egregious of invasive animals. When asked to identify “unwanted animals,” the most frequent response was possums (28% of participants). Further, when asked to describe the problems created by unwanted animals, 41% of respondents feared negative effects to the environment, including ecosystem and habitat destruction. Due to possums’ association with ecosystem degradation, participants instinctively internalized hatred toward them.

When respondents were asked how they would stop the spread of unwanted animals, the most frequent response (33% of participants) was to eradicate them by means of killing, shooting, or poisoning the animal. The author believed this indicated how young people have been influenced by the education and advertisements on invasive species eradication.

When asked to identify how unwanted species arrived in New Zealand, respondents attributed the introduction of these species to people from other places, or “outsiders.” Although not measured, the researcher identified that the narrative—that invasive species, which have harmed the New Zealand environment and economy, arrived via “outsiders”—had shifted from “outsiders” bring bad things to their country to “outsiders” are responsible for all the bad things in New Zealand.

The study concluded that biosecurity practices, like species eradication, send a message to New Zealanders that eliminating species considered “other” or “unwanted” is both acceptable and good for the country. Based off of the terminology young people used to describe invasive species (i.e. alien, exotic, unwanted), the researcher believes that this disdain towards non-native species has translated into antagonistic/xenophobic feelings toward immigrants and other ‘outsiders’. Exacerbating, or perhaps stemming from, these negative feelings toward immigrants is the fact that participants attributed the introduction of unwanted species to immigrants and outsiders.

This study was limited because it had relatively few participants. The results of this study cannot be generalized, and similar research in a different geographical or sociopolitical context could generate different results. Additionally, for each of the survey questions, 30-45% of respondents selected “no response,” which means the results might not accurately reflect what the group believed. Lastly, the study claims that negative feelings towards invasive species resulted in nativism among participants. However, levels of nativism were not measured, nor did the study establish that that negative feelings towards invasive species caused nativism. More narrowly, the study established that participants used nativist language when describing their feelings on invasive species.

The researcher recommends that environmental and outdoor education practitioners teach about indigenous and invasive species in balanced and thoughtful ways. This should include reflection about the origins of invasive species. Further, the researcher emphasizes the importance of giving young people opportunities to discuss and debate the merits of biosecurity so they may develop educated and informed opinions. The researcher also suggests that educators focus on the importance of stewardship and care for living things through outdoor education. Lastly, the researcher recommends framing messages about invasive species in ways that are not reminiscent of xenophobic rhetoric. Specifically, messages should not refer to invasive beings as “alien” or “exotic.” Combined, these strategies might encourage a more nuanced and informed understanding of invasive species and, by extension, a more tolerant and inclusive view of people from other countries.

The Bottom Line

This study investigated whether negative messaging about invasive possums in New Zealand contributed to nativist views in young people (all aged 13). The study found that the disparagement of possums in New Zealand may contribute to nativism. The researcher recommends focusing EE curricula on both native and invasive species and educating individuals on the origins of invasive species, effective stewardship, and the merits of biosecurity.