Jonathan with a future beer
For centuries New Zealand flightless birds and slow-moving reptiles lived without fear of native predators. This golden era ended when the British showed up on rat-infested ships. Since then, rats have become the key player in the destruction of native forestry and the extinction of nine native species of birds. Clearly the rats need to go, but how do you motivate New Zealanders into becoming active rat hunters?
Beer Trap is a program that lets time-rich and beer-poor university students swap dead rats for free brews. Genius, right? We spoke to Jonathan Musther, one of the masterminds of the campaign, about the intricacies of fixing the environment with young Kiwis and alcohol.
VICE: So first of all, how do I get a free beer?
Jonathan Musther: It's pretty simple, you bring a dead rat to Victoria University of Wellington’s Science Society, we supply the traps, and we exchange it for a voucher which you can use to claim a drink at The Hunter Lounge (the uni bar).
Other than beers, why are we killing rats?
It’s a twofold problem. For one they kill a lot of our natives. They eat skinks and lizards and they also eat insects like the Weta. Plus birds’ eggs—even tree-nesting birds like the Tui’s because rats can climb trees quite happily.
Rats can climb trees?
Yeah, absolutely. The other side of the coin is not only are they directly predating our species, they are also competing with them. In New Zealand, the ecological niche that rats occupy in Europe was solely occupied by the foraging ground-dwelling birds and large insects like the Weta. Rats forage more efficiently because they evolved with a lot more pressure from other organisms. New Zealand was a really cushy place to evolve—birds didn’t have to bother flying.
Why do you want students in particular killing rats?
Right now the Department of Conservation have a great trapping system in our parks and reserves, but they can’t just walk in and start trapping in the backyards of various people’s house. So we began thinking about how we can get people involved with urban trapping. It started as a project in the Wellington zone to create a buffer zone around the parks and reserves, so that the birds that hop across the fence don’t just get eaten.
We do have a bit more of an obligation up in Kelburn [near the University], because we have Zealandia and the Otari-Wilton Bush. Those are the two big breeding areas, and the birds go between the two, and while in transit they get eaten by a cat or possum, or they nest outside and their eggs get eaten by a hedgehog or a rat.
So we decided to get students involved, running Beer Trap from the Victoria University Science Society, and that the best way to incentivise them would be to get them a free drink. They are students after all.
Have you had trouble with offering alcohol as an incentive?
Some people have, but I don’t think it’s an issue because I don’t think anyone’s going to catch that many rats. No one’s going to catch ten rats and go to the Hunter Lounge and get sloshed.
If they did they probably deserve it. They did just kill ten rats.
Yeah, if they want to have a big night, sure.
So, what else are you killing?
The traps we’ve been giving away are mostly to catch rats, you’d probably catch a stoat as well. But I personally have some other traps out with Halo that can catch rats, stoats, and hedgehogs.
You’re killing hedgehogs?!
There’s not a lot of research out there on hedgehogs, but the Department of Conservation says that we’re only just beginning to realize how evil they are. They got away with it for quite a while now for being cute. But they have done some studies in the South Island which show that they are responsible for one in five fatal attacks on low-lying bird’s nests. They also go nuts over invertebrates and insects, one hedgehog was found with 283 Weta legs in its stomach. And they can eat 10 percent of their body weight each night—so about 3.5oz in one night.
I think we have a lot sentimental attachment to hedgehogs, and they are very cute and lovely, but they’re eating our national icons like the Weta.
Is it hard to convince people that what is essentially a huge ugly insect should be saved over the life of a cute little hedgehog?
I think what it comes down to is that [Wetas] don’t live anywhere else. And we as a society have decided that somehow there is an intrinsic value in species, and when any species is close to extinction we give attention to that and try to bring them back.
People draw the lines in funny places. I can’t understand that if we’re going to value something cute like the dopey-eyed Kakapo parrot, because they’re rare, then we should also value something like the giant ugly Weta, which is also rare.
I can sympathize with people who say that you shouldn’t kill animals, and I can sympathize with the viewpoint that there is some intrinsic value in a species and that we should maintain it—but anything in between is weird. Your decisions are just ruled by emotion, and you’re letting that get the better of you. You say, “I want to save these because they’re cuddly and cute, but those I don’t care about because they’re ugly.” I can’t get my head around it. It’s one end or the other.
Have you been getting any opposition?
Yeah, with the Hedgehog people [Hedgehog Rescue New Zealand]. The public feedback was mostly positive until the hedgehog thing came into play. We’ve now been dubbed, “remorseless hedgehog killers.”
That’s gotta hurt, what are the Hedgehog people doing?
The Department of Conservation spends millions of dollars poisoning and trapping hedgehogs, but then Hedgehog Rescue New Zealand comes along and finds those hedgehogs, nurses them back to health and release them back into the wild.
What’s the end goal of all this “remorseless killing”?
For now what we have to do is to keep those [predator] numbers down as far as we can so native species stand a chance. But the hope that all conservationists have is that you’d be able to eradicate these predators from New Zealand entirely, eradicate rats, possums, stoats, weasels, mice, and hedgehogs. So instead of finding a rat or a hedgehog in your garden you might find a kiwi, and instead of a rat in your roof you might find a giant Weta—even though that would be terrifying.
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