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The Serial seagull killer and Biological Xenophobia

Opinion – Lynley Tulloch

In New Zealand the red-billed gull (commonly known as the seagull) is often regarded with disdain by beachgoers. These gregarious birds are often considered noisy thieves, displaying shameless and annoying territorial aggression around your fish and chips.The Serial seagull killer and Biological Xenophobia in New Zealand

In New Zealand the red-billed gull (commonly known as the seagull) is often regarded with disdain by beachgoers. These gregarious birds are often considered noisy ‘thieves’, displaying shameless and annoying territorial aggression around your fish and chips.

Many people consider seagulls as ‘sky rats’ with demonic red eyes whose sole purpose in life is to steal your chips. Pest control companies site the red-billed gull as a ‘pest bird species’.

Maybe that is why someone shot nine of them, and then either stomped them to death or ran over them near a Kaikoura Wharf on Sunday June 17, 2018. It was a painful and horrific death.

This isn’t the first time this has happened in Kaikoura either. There was an incident in 2014, where 17 seagulls were massacred and then run over, strewing feathers and blood all over the wharf. The Kaikoura Star also reported two separate incidents in July 2011, and others in previous years.

This begs the question: is there a repeat offender at large? A serial seagull killer on the loose?

There are at least three issues of significant concern that arise out of these incidents. Firstly, acts of violence toward animals are morally reprehensible. No animal should suffer cruelty on this scale. Secondly, cruelty to animals is a pathway to violent criminal behaviour. Thirdly, seagulls are classified as “nationally vulnerable” and “declining” and their reputation as ‘pest birds’ is disingenuous and unhelpful to their survival as a species.

I’ll focus on the vulnerable status of seagulls to begin with. Kaikoura Wildlife Rescue Manager Sabrina Luecht who attended the seagulls in the most recent incident was horrified at this abject cruelty. She said, “many people viewed gulls as pests, but this was incorrect.” She goes on to say that the red-billed gull is actually a native New Zealand bird that is nationally threatened.

That’s a bit of a curve ball to those New Zealanders who only regard birds such as the charismatic tui or characterful kakapo as worthy of national respect. The red-billed gull, that common devil-may-care, ruthless fish-and-chip thief, has been reviled. And when an animal gets categorized in New Zealand as a ‘pest’ it becomes subject to any number of indignities. You only need think of the poor possum who is not only killed by any means, also made fun of by school children who dress up his dead body in school possum hunts. We love to hate the imposter in New Zealand – its biological xenophobia.

It may surprise some to know that this bird is more vulnerable than the tui. The tui, that charismatic long-tongued. nectar-sipping shiny bird, is classified as “not threatened”. Can you just imagine if tuis were repeatedly killed and stomped on in New Zealand? The national fury would not stop until the offenders were brought to justice.

Here in New Zealand we have a reputation for loving birds – and with good reason. Many are endemic, found nowhere else on Earth. These birds, such as the tui and the well-known Kiwi have ancient origins, having lived and evolved here for over 85 million years in isolation. We have 168 native bird species, and 93 of these are endemic.

Our birds are used as a cultural signifier, giving us an identity and point of difference from the rest of the world. We call ourselves ‘kiwis’ after the unusual flightless endemic bird with nostrils at the end of its beak and hair-like feathers.

However, the seemingly abundant seagull is not accorded the same respect. I don’t want the seagull to die out any more than the kiwi. Too many of our native and endemic species have already been quite literally booted out of their nests and into the abyss of extinction. Over 50 New Zealand bird species have become extinct since human settlement around 800 years ago.

What we are left with in New Zealand is a mere whisper of a time that was. We don’t want that whisper to be silenced.

So it is imperative now more than ever that we face the unpleasant reality that cruelty toward animals is on the rise in New Zealand. This surge in increased animal cruelty has been documented by the SPCA. Violent behaviour toward animals is both morally repugnant and complex. One thing is clear – those who abuse animals are on a violent path.

A study by University professor Kathleen Heide and animal welfare expert found that offenders of violent crimes were significantly more likely to have abused pets and stray animals in their youth. In their book Animal Cruelty: Pathway to Violence Against People they found that the kind of abuse inflicted on animals was similar to that which was later inflicted on people.

More than ever we need compassionate education in early childhood education and schools that focuses on preventing animal abuse and cruelty. Connecting children with nature and bringing them in touch with wildlife and companion animals is as essential as literacy and numeracy skills. Perhaps even more so if we are to inhabit a world worth living in.

We should be encouraging our children to love the red-billed gull, a characterful bird whose intelligence and wit is undeniable. And as adults we have to understand that we are on the birds’ territory and not the other way around.

The red-billed gull was here long before us, in a time when the waves crashed on sandy beaches free from sun burned bodies and fish and chips. Hopefully they will be here long after us.

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