New at the School Fete: The Possum Throwing Contest!

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ted mead, the image bank

Australian brushtail possum (Trichosurus vulpecula) in hollow tree

A rural school in New Zealand has become the center of a brouhaha over a recent school fair in which an informal possum throwing contest was held. Children and parents from Manawatu school competed to see who could throw possums the farthest. This jollity took place after a possum hunt, so the animals were dead, which on the one hand makes it less cruel, but on the other makes it vastly more ghoulish. Happy children + marsupial carcasses = hmmmm. (More on Profiling Student Cheaters: Are They Psychopaths?)

Possums, which are actually protected in their native Australia, were introduced into New Zealand to try to establish a fur industry. But they have no natural predators and are quite randy, so they’ve become something of a pest there, devouring local crops and gardens.

The community didn’t really pay much mind to the Poss-Toss — they’re not uncommon in those parts — but after the local newspaper ran a photo of the blithe but morbid event, readers called the area Society for the Protection of Animals to express their concern.

Complainants, of which there were three, felt it was teaching children to have a lack of respect for animals, even dead animals, and might mean the kids would have less empathy and compassion as they grew older. Plus, possums: TCTT — too cute to toss.

Colin Martin, the principal of Colyton School, while noting this was not a school-sanctioned sport, defended the practice and pretty much told the city-slickers to butt out. “Where a farmer has livestock, they also have dead stock,” he said. “Our children regularly dispose of animals; a scene which their urban peers would find quite shocking.” (More on What Goes on Inside the Brain of a Misbehaving Boy?)

He’s (sort of) supported by a recent study that suggests children raised in foraging hunter-gatherer societies are likely to have more empathy. The study did not specifically cite the tossing of dead animals — rather, it looked at factors like being cuddled and breast-fed as a baby, getting enough play time, and having multiple adult caregivers — but, that aside, it (again, sort of) follows that neolithics would have had a similar familiarity with life and death up close.

And as a bonus, the principal used the international media attention to get in a plug for a school event. “Anyone who believes that Colyton School promotes indignity and abuse to animals is invited to our annual pet day on Nov. 2, here at school. You’ll see lambs that have been lovingly hand-raised and brushed running to their owners.” Way to stay on message, Principal Martin!

A poll run by the local paper on whether possum-throwing should be banned came out about 50-50. Koala-throwing, bilby-tossing and wallaroo-pitching, however, are still big no-nos.

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