I have some final thoughts on New Zealand, and I hope people smarter and more educated than I am on this topic can shed some light on the Darwinian conundrum of New Zealand’s relationship with wildlife.
Let me say first that we love New Zealand. Who wouldn’t? The beauty of the landscape defies description. The people are warm and welcoming. Nature and the outdoors inform the culture. The people take pride in how green the country is, both literally, in the lush vegetation, and politically, in their no-nukes, clean energy, reduce-reuse-recycle way of life.
That said, we noticed almost immediately when we first arrived in Opua last year and again on this trip to the South Island the complete absence of terrestrial wildlife. There are birds and there are fish but last year when we first went ashore to hike the tracks in the Bay of Islands the only evidence of animal life we saw were the many traps to catch stoats, an animal we had never heard of and which, we soon learned, is considered an “invasive species” to be eradicated. Our education in what Kiwis consider pests continued when we saw a vendor selling hilarious taxidermy of another animal we couldn’t identify and which turned out to be an unfamiliar species of possum. They are killed without mercy and their fur spun with wool and sold in tourist shops as sweaters, hats and gloves.
We come from a place rich in wildlife, the hardwood-forested Western Pennsylvania, where on my morning walks in the local city park I was guaranteed to see squirrels, chipmunks and deer, and occasionally a fox or raccoon. The sounds of small animals scurrying in the undergrowth make the woods feel alive. All across America you’re likely to find yourself up close and personal with animals, from jackrabbits in the West Texas desert to coyotes in the Sonora to elk in the mountain west, alligators in Florida, black bears in the upper Midwest, iguanas in the Virgin Islands. We love them all.
For us, encounters with animals are part of the joy of travel. It was always a delight to suddenly come across monkeys and sloths in Costa Rica and Panama, tortoises and iguanas in the Galapagos, pigs in the Marquesas, goats and sheep all over the Caribbean. Unexpected close encounters with wild animals are some of my most cherished memories. By contrast, the only animals we saw in New Zealand were behind a fence. We never heard the telltale rustling of leaves or saw a pile of scat that hints at a hidden creature nearby. The landscape is sterile. Beautiful, but empty and silent.
We mentioned this several times to Kiwis we met and always got the same answer. There are lots of animals, they told us defensively, and went on to talk about the abundant bird and sea life. But what about land animals? Again, the answer was always the same. They are “invasive” and threaten the indigenous species of birds or plants and need to be eradicated.
“I think they must be taught this in school,” Jack said, because it sounded like doctrine. We read that New Zealand originally had no native mammals beyond a few species of bat. Then European settlers brought rats, cats, possums, deer, goats, pigs, weasels and others, all of which are now considered pests because they disrupt the delicately balanced ecosystem that existed hundreds of years ago.
I struggle with this notion. What moment in time, I wonder, do we designate as Year One, the baseline of an ecosystem beyond which any introduced species is considered invasive? Who decides that change stops now? Or 100 years ago? Or 500? (Listen to an insightful podcast on this issue here.)
This notion is not limited to plants and animals either, as I can think of some religious sects who’ve chosen to remain at a particular period of time as to mode of dress and the rejection of technological advancements. Isn’t time a river? Isn’t change changeless? If evolution is constant, why do we designate a species invasive instead of an example of survival of the fittest? Why do the English want to eradicate the gray squirrel to protect the red squirrel, when the gray squirrel is the more successful species? When is a non-native species valued and allowed to find its place in an ecosystem vs. categorized invasive and marked for death? Can we control nature? Should we try? (John McPhee tackles this question in “The Control of Nature.” He comes at it from the perspective of a geologist, but the quandary is the same.)
I poked around on the internet for answers and found a forum of biologists among whom the consensus seemed to be that science doesn’t decide the value of a species relative to another, but politics and economics do. And with that, the lightbulb went off. In New Zealand, the only non-native species that seem to be valued and protected are the sheep and cows farmed for food. In recent years they’ve added deer and it was a shock to our North American sensibilities to see herds of deer in pastures in the daylight. Where we come from deer are largely nocturnal and live in the woods. “We call them venizon,” a Kiwi friend told us, because they’re only raised to be eaten. That made me sad.
All of this gets to the heart of my discomfort with New Zealand and it’s relationship to animals. The only animals they value are raised to be killed and eaten. As a Buddhist, I’m troubled by the selective lack of affinity for fellow creatures of the earth, by the offhanded way Kiwis explain that whole species must die because they prefer other species to live. We never heard anyone express a fondness for animals beyond their pets — birds and sea life, yes, but small mammals? No. I don’t mean to paint Kiwis as cruel and heartless. On the contrary, they are kind and wonderful people. But their culture does not value or nurture a relationship with animals and as much as we loved New Zealand, we never quite got over the silence of the land.