The pickup trucks rolled up one by one, ferrying a stream of animal carcasses into the show grounds. Pigs, deer, possums, even feral cats — all would be weighed and showcased, the bigger animals strung on racks, the smaller ones laid out in rows that became heaps as the day went on.
The event, a hunting competition on New Zealand’s South Island, was a family affair. A helicopter dropped candy for a “lolly scramble.” Nearby, younger children ran through an obstacle course carrying dead rabbits or ducks, while older children raced with a 50-pound boar on their shoulders.
“You have to hold its snout so that it doesn’t wobble and fall off,” Jo Richards said as she waited for her 9-year-old son to compete. “They love it, though.”
New Zealand has long waged war against invasive species, a mantle vigorously embraced by the hunting contest, held in the tiny town of Rotherham in June. With no native land mammals, the island nation has tried to eliminate or sharply reduce “pest” species introduced during colonization that harm indigenous birds, bats, frogs, fish, marine mammals and plant life.
While New Zealand has made protecting its unique flora and fauna a job for everyone, the competition exposed a snare of tensions: Which animals deserve protection, and who gets to define cruelty and humaneness? Perhaps most significantly, it stirred up flesh-and-blood questions about how children should be taught the seemingly contradictory concept of killing for conservation — the idea that some species need to die for others to thrive.
The event, the North Canterbury Hunting Competition, gained global attention before anyone had fired a shot in these grassy plains and rolling hills an hour north of Christchurch. The organizers had announced a new category in which children would hunt feral cats. Animal rights groups said they worried not only that domestic cats could be killed by mistake, but also that children would be given the message that killing is a game.
The organizers eventually backed down, restricting the cat hunt to adults. But they argued that the backlash had been overblown, and that it was crucial to teach children about the damage done by all invasive animals in New Zealand, including feral cats.
Beyond the feline fuss, the idea of having children help with efforts to protect native species is largely uncontroversial in New Zealand, and children in that country and many others have long joined their parents in hunting game animals.
In parts of New Zealand, children are brought into the conservation campaign from a young age, with some schools teaching students about the necessity of eradicating pest animals and even how to trap and kill them. Competitions to hunt invasive species are part of the fabric of rural communities and have long been used as school fund-raisers.
Some activists worry that compassion is being lost in the rush for eradication. They point to reports that children have dressed up dead possums or drowned baby possums in buckets of water during school hunting fund-raisers as evidence that the events desensitize young people to violence.
But among rural families — for whom raising and slaughtering livestock are facets of life and dinner often includes game animals they have personally killed — hunting is no worse than violent video games, and the competitions get children off their screens and out into the sunshine.
The divergent views over the hunting contests reflect broader questions “about children and innocence,” said James Russell, a conservation professor at the University of Auckland who has advised the national government on its efforts to reduce invasive species. “And death — how do we teach that, and in what way, to children?”
An animal’s death is “horrible and unpleasant but also natural and inevitable,” he added. “And arguably in this case it’s a thing that needs to happen to protect other species.”
In rural communities, there is little debate. Pest animals “do a huge amount of damage, and people in the cities don’t see that, because they don’t live that,” said Peter Johnstone, a local retiree. “People say, ‘What you’re doing is cruel.’ No, what they’re doing is cruel.”
While the cat contretemps initially generated uncustomary criticism of the North Canterbury competition, the clash later broadened to questions about whether it should exist at all.
At the event, animal rights activists waved signs that read “Leave animals alone! Murderers!” and “If your child behaves like a feral pest, can I get $5 a skin?”
In response, a few children held up animal carcasses in front of the protesters. One child started a chant of “Meat! Meat! Meat!” and it was quickly taken up by about two dozen others. The children directed the chant at the activists “because they’re vegans,” Page Bailey, 10, said with a grin.
The activists were appalled. “It’s so disturbing,” said one of them, Sarah Jackson, adding that the children’s behavior “shows that they have no respect for dead animals or the lives of animals.”
To the competition’s organizers, the children were standing up for themselves against outsiders questioning their way of life — one that has left them neither squeamish nor fazed by life and death.
“My kids have seen me kill sheep since they were babies,” said Mat Bailey, one of the competition organizers and Page’s father. “They’re tough country kids,” he added.
Two nights before the competition, he, some friends and his two daughters had gone out into the dark mountains in search of invasive animals. One of the friends shot a rabbit that ran across the path. “It’s so cute,” Page said, stroking its downy ears, the body still warm, before hefting it into the back of a vehicle.
In the end, the controversy proved beneficial for the contest: Attendance skyrocketed, and the $32,000 (54,000 New Zealand dollars) it raised would help fund a third teacher for the local school. Mr. Bailey wanted to keep capitalizing on it; he was considering reinstating the children’s feral cat category next year.
Referring to the culture of an overwhelmingly urbanized New Zealand, Mr. Bailey said that “it’s all gone woke now, it’s all people’s feelings and ‘animals have feelings.’ That’s why we’re taking a stand now.”
But to many in the region, hunting is simply part of life, not a political issue.
“Are we desensitized, or is it just reality?” Beau Moriarty, whose father lives in the area, asked from the sidelines of the competition.
That morning, he had gone out with his father, Richard, and his son Max, a bouncy 3-year-old with a head of long blond curls.
Beau trekked down into a valley with his pack of hunting dogs while Richard and Max hiked to the top of a hill. When they met up again about an hour later, Max asked Beau, “Dad, did you get a pig?”
“Yeah,” Beau said.
“Do you have blood?”
Beau showed his son his clean hands. No blood.
As they walked, Richard quizzed Max on the names of plants as the boy turned over rocks along their path. Beneath one, he found a pale bug the size of a fingernail, which Richard identified as a grass grub.
Max considered the bug for a long moment. Then he placed the rock back over it, taking care not to squash it.