By Hattie Klotz, with files from Mike Shahin
The following article first appeared in The Ottawa Citizen, March 8, 2001, and is reproduced with permission of the author.
AFTER YEARS OF CONFRONTATION between fur fanatics and environmentalists, the lowly possum is emerging from the New Zealand bush to bring the two solitudes together.
The quirk is in this unlikely mediator’s method: everybody in New Zealand wants the possums dead — which is exactly what is bringing the humans together.
The Australian brush-tailed possum, put simply, is a pest of epidemic proportions.
There are an estimated 60 to 90 million possums in New Zealand, causing death and destruction to much of the unique native habitat on the South Pacific country’s islands. The marsupials have prospered quickly since arriving in New Zealand, multiplying from only a few hundred introduced in 1837 from neighbouring Australia and Tasmania.
They munch their way through an incredible 21,300 tonnes of vegetation nightly, decimating native tree species. They are omnivorous, eating native birds and eggs, which they steal from the nest, and competing for food with birds.
As the government and environmental groups work to control the possum population, New Zealand entrepreneurs are lending a helping hand by creating a growing trade in possum products. The possum allows designers to use luxurious fur products in their fashions without incurring the wrath of anti-fur protesters. In fact, any use of the possum’s fur or skin gets the thumbs-up from environmental groups in New Zealand.
Pelts from these small animals are used as fur liners for coats, as fur collars and scarves, and they are even sewn into warm possum-fur blankets. Possum fur is often plucked and spun with sheep’s wool to create soft and luxurious sweaters, hats and scarves; possum-leather products are almost indestructible. It’s rumoured that Tiger Woods won’t play golf with any other glove than one made of possum skin.
Many of these products come with a label that reads, “Thank you for buying possum fur. You are helping to save our environment.” Could this be ethical, eco-friendly fur?
Even World Wildlife Fund New Zealand sanctions “the commercial harvesting of possums, as one measure that can assist in eradicating the species completely from New Zealand.”
“We support killing possums,” said Eric Pyle, conservation director of WWFNZ. “We’d like to see all possums as dead possums, and the fur industry may provide an additional incentive for people to kill possums. From a conservation perspective, they are seen as New Zealand’s number one pest problem.”
Though there are many ways to kill a possum, the government appears to favour spraying. “The pest problem that we are facing in New Zealand is so severe that we see pesticides as the best option at the moment,” said Mr. Pyle. “Otherwise we will be faced with several plant extinctions. But it is sufficiently lucrative at the moment for people to track possums” for the fur and skin industry. The preference, though, would be to have no possums at all, he said.
But Greg Howard, a New Zealand businessman, says his government is missing an opportunity to greatly expand the country’s $35-million export industry in possum products. He wants the government to kick in funds toward a million-dollar processing plant for possum fur, skin and meat (which is considered an aphrodisiac in Asia). Mr. Howard, whose company Planet Green sells possum skins for golf gloves and bikinis, said the plant could create hundreds if not thousands of jobs.
“We’re saying, leave it to (the industry),” Mr. Howard said in an interview from New Zealand. “We’ll take care of the possum.” So far, the government has “just ignored us,” he said.
The government has wasted too much money spraying pesticides, which can harm other animals and does not allow hunters to recover the possum, Mr. Howard said. The possum industry would trap or use cyanide-laden bait so that the animals could be recovered and used. (Mr. Howard said each possum can be worth about $30.)
Fur-industry advocates in Canada say the eco-friendly possum-fur argument can be applied to the trapping of beaver here. Although native to Canada, the beaver is largely seen as a pest that causes damage to the environment when numbers become too high.
“As they overpopulate and expand, they start building dams to create the ponds they need,” explains Allan Herscovici, executive vice-president of the Fur Council of Canada. “They can flood roads, agricultural land, people’s basements and shoreline areas. It can be a very serious problem.”
Mr. Herscovici says the fur trade in Canada plays an important role in controlling beaver damage. “In the early 1990s when the demand for fur was lower and trappers were going out less, in many areas people immediately began seeing problems caused by beaver. When this happens, the wildlife department has to go out to hunt beavers, trap them and break up dams at the taxpayers’ expense. It’s at these times that you start to see the management role that the trade plays.”
Not only does the fur industry promote good animal management, says Mr. Herscovici, but it also encourages sustainable use of renewable resources and protects habitat, while ensuring that no endangered species are used. “Biologists are telling us now that there are as many beaver in Canada as when the Europeans first arrived. This is an extraordinary ecological success story after 400 years of trading. Here, you’ve got a natural resource produced by the land. Beaver and muskrat give an incentive to protect forests because when somebody comes along to log it or build a shopping mall, people can say, ‘Wait a minute, this land is producing value and it is supporting people.’”
WWF Canada says it does not object to trapping of non-endangered and sustainable species in this country. Although it is not an animal-rights organization, it is a respected environmental group that is concerned with long-term sustainability and protection of endangered species. If the beaver or muskrat were endangered, it would have concerns over the trapping industry.
But extreme animal-rights groups such as PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, won’t have anything to do with the trapping trade, sustainable or otherwise. Their basic philosophy is against the use of any animal product by humans.
And PETA does not buy into the ecological argument that supports trapping. “Contrary to fur industry propaganda, there is no ecologically sound reason to trap animals for ‘wildlife management,’” the group’s literature says. “In fact, trapping disrupts wildlife populations by killing healthy animals needed to keep their species strong. Left alone, animal populations can and do regulate their own numbers.”
The difference in New Zealand is that the possum population exploded and thrived because it was transported to a place in which it had no natural predators; also, the possum’s own food sources, both plant and bird, had evolved for thousands of years without any need to develop defences against this foreign threat.