A US professor says New Zealand children are being brought up to hate and be cruel to wild animals.
University of Colorado ecology and biology Professor Marc Bekoff was outraged after a south Auckland school fundraiser led to young possum joeys being drowned alive in a bucket of water.
He's speaking out against what he calls the "culture of violence" in New Zealand that says it's okay to kill pests, and the "inhumanity" of the Department of Conservation's [DOC] Predator Free New Zealand plan.
"You're killing healthy animals. It's killing. And some people have begun to call it murder," he told Newshub.
"What does it mean to be an invasive species? As a biologist, some of these animals have been around for 50 or 100 years and they're part of an ecosystem."
Possums are considered pests in New Zealand, killing millions of native birds every year.
The Predator Free 2050 project aimed to rid New Zealand of possums, rats and stoats by 2050 when it was set up in 2016. It's unclear if the current Government will keep the policy.
In July, Drury School's parent-run possum hunt came under fire by the SPCA. It encouraged people to kill as many possums as possible over three nights. The corpses were then brought in for a final weigh-in.
Activist Lynley Tulloch alleged in a petition to Education Minister Nikki Kaye "[a] young girl was put in charge of taking baby joeys from the possum's pouch and drowning them in a bucket of water."
The school later admitted drowning wasn't a humane way to kill animals, and said it would work with the SPCA to change its ways.
And in August, Ormond Kindergarten, just north of Gisborne, hosted the Father's Day Possum & Rabbit Hunt Competition. Prizes were handed out to hunters with the most kills, as well as the heaviest.
Prof Bekoff condemns the "inhumane cruelty" of our school system, where kids are taught hunting animals is fun.
"I think that scapegoating and profiling these animals really goes a long way in ultimately harming them and I'm very concerned about scapegoating and profiling them in school activities," he argues.
"The message it sends to children is that animals are basically disposable objects who are there for us to decide their fate."
But Federated Farmers national president Katie Milne has defended school possum hunt fundraisers.
"The people who are organising these fundraisers need to just check the correct advice from the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) before they set out, and put that in the rules so that everybody knows what they're supposed to be doing," she told Newshub in July.
Such events can be carried out ethically, Ms Milne said.
"We do have to treat all animals with respect and make sure they're doing it in the correct way, so that it does offer the greatest amount of respect for the animal they're putting down."
But Prof Bekoff is concerned teaching children to be cruel to pests leads them to cruelty towards pets - and to humans too.
"The effect it has would be to desensitise them from the feelings that these animals have. It's also a good example of human domination of the environment," he says.
"Think of a possum or stoat or a weasel as your family dog, a sentient being, as a sentient mammal who has feelings. Would you treat your dog that way?"
Some New Zealanders have been sending him hate mail in retaliation.
"I just had an incredibly vulgar email come in now from somebody in New Zealand."
But others have sent Prof Bekoff messages of support.
"I'm in very close contact with a lot of New Zealanders, some of whom... are just appalled by what's going on."