The pest question: this is why you’ll always find me in the kitchen at parties

So, what do you do?

It’s a common question that we often ask when meeting people for the first time, usually at parties or social events. For the last year or two I get a sinking feeling when I’m asked this. I usually know where it will end up.

So, what do you do?

“I’m head of the Department of Pest-management and Conservation at Lincoln University.”

Do you work on pests?

“Yes, some of my work is on introduced mammalian pests.”

There is usually a pause while they take this in.

So what do you think about 1080?

Ah the 1080 question. It usually comes up. And based on the huge amount of misinformation floating around, I prepare for the next round of questions.

“1080 is a tool. A very useful and successful tool. We’ve made real progress in controlling pest numbers with it.”

Chatting. Image by Adrian Paterson

Yes, but it’s really toxic.

“Well it is a toxin, so, yes, very effective at killing pest mammals.”

But what about it getting into the water?

“It’s water soluble and we have almost never detected it in water from areas of use, and when we have, it has been in vanishingly small traces that pose no threat. Your cup of tea and your pot of puha have more in them.”

But doesn’t it kill everything where it’s used?

“No.”

But people say that forests go silent after it has been used.”

“There may be non-target deaths in a 1080 operation (but even that has been difficult to show as a major issue). However, all of our follow-up monitoring show that the benefits come in the following years as natives are free from predation risk. Forests become a whole lot noisier than they were.”

What about all those photos of dead kiwis!”

“Almost always these are kiwi that have been killed by dogs. The photos are misappropriated.”

What about deer?

“Yes it kills deer. Deer are pest species as well.”

But what about those that like hunting?

“Deer populations are very resilient. After all our efforts in 1080 control, deer are still found everywhere.”

1080 kills dogs!

“It certainly does. Dogs are incredibly susceptible to the 1080 toxin. That’s why we inform people about where we are using 1080 and not to take dogs there.”

Doesn’t 1080 linger in the environment for ages?

“No.”

Really?

“Really. We actually spend a lot of time trying to make toxins last longer in the environment so that they can do their work. For example, James Ross and Elaine Murphy from my department have shown that putting shellac on baits allows them to stay attractive to rats for much longer in the field.”

Aren’t there other toxins we could use instead of 1080?

“Of course, but not as many as you would think, as it is so expensive and time-consuming to register them and get them to market. Most of the options are a lot worse in their affects than 1080.”

How so?

More chatting. Image by Adrian Paterson.

“Some bioaccumulate, basically get passed around the food chain and can cause problems to all sorts of other organisms. Others are not as humane in the way the kill the animal. Others are more difficult to distribute into the bits of the environment that we need to get them to.”

So 1080 is better than the other options?

“Yes, at this stage.”

There is usually a pause for a swallow or two.

I don’t like how we use helicopters to drop poison into our forests. Can’t we be more precise in how we give the pests the toxin?

“We spend a lot of time and effort on this. For example, James and Elaine from Lincoln have been part of team developing an addition to a trap called a spitfire.  This is aimed at targeting stoats. The trap has some tech in it that identifies when a stoat walks into it and then squirts a toxin called PAPP onto them. The stoat goes off and licks its coat clean, swallowing the toxin. Kills stoats but not other things that might wander in.”

Sounds great!

“In theory. There are a lot of kinks to work out before this could be used for real.”

Well why not use traps? That would be better than toxins.

“Maybe. Traps are definitely another tool. We do use them a lot. Usually in small areas close to communities. Especially where community groups have a lot of manpower to help put out and maintain the traps. They can be very effective.”

So lets use more!

“Traps require a lot of work to put in place and then need to be regularly checked. This is usually not possible for large remote areas. They, also, have issues with killing non-target animals.”

Can you make the traps better?

“A lot of what we are doing is trying to make traps better. For example, with a bit of wireless tech you can get traps telling you when they have been activated. That helps with reducing how often someone needs to physically check a trap. We look at different designs, different ways of setting them up, different lures to attract the pest species and so on.”

So traps might replace 1080?

“Probably not. They will always struggle to work over large areas in difficult terrain.”

Hmmmm. I’ve heard that we might be able to use genes to do something. Make them infertile. That sounds like a good 21st Century solution.”

“Ah yes, gene drives. It is theoretically possible to manipulate certain genes to help others, say those that cause infertility, to spread through a population. This could work over the whole pest population, ultimately reducing it to something very small.”

Sounds great!

“It’s still very much a theory. There are all sorts of ethical issues. In the past, people have really objected to genetic manipulation of a species.”

Yes, but these are pests after all.

“And then there is the problem of making a decision for the rest of the world.”

Ah?”

“Let’s say we do this for possums and are successful. Can we honestly say we can contain it in New Zealand and that it won’t get to Australia and wipe out the possums there (which are native and threatened). Or worse, start doing it to the other native marsupials? You think trans-Tasman relations are not great at the moment….”

But is possible that genes might be useful?

“Absolutely. But not for a long time, even if all goes well.”

We usually pause for a drink at this point and often that’s the end. Sometimes it goes on.

Still more chatting. Image by Adrian Paterson.

What about all these people that protest? They must have a point?

“Well they certainly have beliefs. I’m reasonably confident that few of them have looked at the vast scientific literature on the 1080 topic. It’s always easy to scare people with ‘it will make you miscarry your baby’ or ‘it poisons the river systems’ or ‘it kills everything’. It’s much harder to get people to check the research that shows them ‘no it doesn’t’, ‘no it doesn’t’, and ‘no it doesn’t’.  In fact I can show you a great site on your phone that has compiled a lot of the information, if you want?”

No thanks, I don’t really trust those websites. I heard on facebook, though, that 1080 and pest control were just part of a Department of Conservation plot to [insert crazy scheme].

“You do know that the majority of 1080 dropped in New Zealand is not to help DoC or conservation?”

Ah?

“The majority of this effort is to stop Tb spread for our agriculture.”

If the conversation really starts to go downhill we can end up with the following.

Yeah, but you can’t trust the science or the scientists.

“And why is that?”

Well, they get all this money so of course they are going to find no effect. It’s what the funders want.”

This is when I usually have to pause and take a deep breath. Once you reach the conspiracy zone it’s time to bail out, frantically try and catch your wife’s eye for help, fake a seizure, or something.

“Money?”

Yeah, you know, DoC, big Pharma, [insert nebulous or absurd group].”

How to answer? I could say that ‘DoC is the most impoverished government department….’, or ‘I arrived here in my 2001 Toyota Estima, I wouldn’t mind seeing bit of that money!”, maybe “If there really was a conspiracy that included dozens of scientists and organisations, my ticket to fame and fortune would be in exposing it!”, perhaps “If I wanted money for my research then I would work on some crop or agricultural pest where they get a huge amount of support, not scrapping over the limited funding in the vertebrate pest management area!”. Usually, it’s not worth the effort.

“You may be right… they might be listening to us right now. Oh, it looks like my wife needs me. Nice to meet you, see you later.”

I then scurry off wondering whether I should go back to introducing myself with my other main research interest, evolutionary biology. Oh wait, that leads to a whole other conversation at parties that I’ll have to tell you about another time.

Staying at home does have an appeal.

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