Compound 1080 (Sodium Monofluoroacetate)
From the Series: An Anthropogenic Table of Elements
In 2018, six dead birds appeared on the steps of New Zealand’s parliament. The activists who delivered them claimed these precious natives were poisoned by 1080, the country’s widely used pest control chemical. While a veterinary autopsy concluded that the birds were the assorted victims of cars, windows, and a shooting, the protest cast a temporary spotlight on the compound’s widespread and contentious use. The image of dead native birds on our law makers’ steps gestures to the tangles between Aotearoa’s species and citizens, and the knots they form with wider worlds shaped by war and capital. Here, American chemicals kill European pests to safeguard Aotearoa’s native species. The paradox of New Zealand conservation is that death sustains life, but what dies, how, and to what ends remains contested. Tracing 1080’s trajectory, I suggest that the chemical and multispecies composition of the present must be understood as an excrescence of colonial histories that still pattern life and death in the Anthropocene. I thus follow Heather Davis and Zoe Todd’s (2017) call to wind back the clock on this epoch and moor it in the deaths, dislocations, and dispossessions enacted by imperial Europe.
America exited World War II with an array of technologies of life and death—penicillin, the atom bomb, and organ transplant technology, all derived from wartime research. Obstructed trans-Atlantic shipments pushed the U.S. government to develop alternatives to newly scarce commodities. Researchers began improvising pest control chemicals to replace previous German imports. In 1943, Monsanto acquired a government contract for Compound 1080, a stunningly lethal rodenticide. 1080’s active compound is sodium monofluoroacetate (FAC), a natural product of certain African, Brazilian, and Australian plants (Connolly 2004). Herbivores endemic to those places metabolize FAC, but Australian settlers watched their introduced livestock die after grazing on heart leaf and bullock poison. Farmers elsewhere became 1080’s earliest market. American ranchers sought to combat the coyotes that killed their stock at night, and Compound 1080 proved particularly lethal to dogs. It was made into poison collars that killed whatever animal latched onto the soft necks of sheep and cattle.
Like the Anthropocene, 1080 seems like an exemplary twentieth-century product, but its ubiquity in Aotearoa is legible only in light of older exchanges. The need for this killing compound arose from other forms of death, shipped to New Zealand on Dutch and English vessels. Before human arrival, Aotearoa’s birds and invertebrates proliferated in an almost total absence of mammals.1 Though Māori hunted some species for meat and feathers, with European arrival, native populations disappeared en masse. Settler colonizers introduced species for food (deer, rabbits) and trade (possums), and as they asked new things of the land, turning bush to farm, they delivered new species to control earlier kinds. Farmers imported cats to control the rabbits that had morphed from foodstuff to pestilence. These waves of new life and fresh death broke alongside the human violence of colonization. With the impact of war, disease, and poverty, Māori life expectancy fell from 30 in the 1800s to as low as 23 by the 1890s. During this period, the Māori population more than halved (Pool 2011).
Since its 1954 introduction, Aotearoa has come to account for 90 percent of 1080’s use globally. While other countries largely stopped using it in the 1980s out of concern for its toxicities, the land of the long white cloud is regularly draped in its pellets. The compound’s wartime origins echo in local conservation rhetoric. Aotearoa’s predator control program is called “Battle for our Birds.” As the ex-minister for conservation wrote, “We are deliberately using the language of war because we are up against invasive enemies that are hard to defeat. If we are to save the creatures we love, we have to eradicate the predators intent on eating them to extinction” (Department of Conservation, New Zealand Government 2017, 3). Like most weapons of war, 1080 is morally challenging; the division is between those who see it as a necessary evil and those who would not see it used at all.
One of 1080’s efficiencies is its capacity for secondary poisoning—a chain effect that typically runs from rats to the stoats that scavenge their carcasses. Sometimes a dog meets a similar fate, sparking outcry in local corners of the internet. When misplaced, 1080’s effects are particularly affecting because of the slow and painful death it inflicts: herbivores suffer heart failure, carnivores nervous system failure and suffocation. Images (some legitimate, many not) of these effects abound online: deer with foaming mouths, heaps of dead Kiwi. This is matter out of place, but in flesh more than space—intended for some bodies, but arriving, fatally, in others. The image of death compels and incites viewers, extending the “theatre of the dead” (Desmond 2008) and fueling debate over the poison’s place in Aotearoa. In what has become a land of predators and prey, one body’s death promises the life of another; the resulting task is one of distribution.
1080 has become a flashpoint in Aotearoa for contestations over which species belong on the land, who can orchestrate death, and how exposures are allocated. These contestations implicate local futures and multispecies pasts, animating a powerful vocabulary of death (poison, genocide, extinction) to craft claims of belonging and constitute a moral, multispecies community. A wartime discovery has become a key chemical agent in a new war elsewhere, one that pits citizens and native species against predatory intruders. The Anthropocene compels us to account for multispecies vulnerability, to seize on some of the “futures [that] pop in and out of possibility” and make them stick (Tsing 2015, viii). This epoch was born in a violence that spilled out from our own species, and finding the right futures means reckoning with that multispecies past.
1. The only mammals native to Aotearoa were two species of bat.
Connolly, Guy. 2004. “Development and Use of Compound 1080 in Coyote Control, 1944–1972.” Proceedings of the 21st Vertebrate Pest Conference: 221–39.
Davis, Heather, and Zoe Todd. 2017. “On the Importance of a Date, or, Decolonizing the Anthropocene.” ACME 16, no. 4: 761–80.
Department of Conservation, New Zealand Government. 2017. "New Zealand's Threatened Species Strategy: Draft for Consultation." Wellington, New Zealand: Department of Conservation.
Pool, Ian. 2011. “Death Rates and Life Expectancy: Effects of Colonisation on Māori.” Te Ara: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand.
Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. 2015. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.