It was a Friday afternoon at the end of a long week, at the end of a terribly long season of long weeks. Sometimes, we just need something distracting to get us through to home and the weekend and, hopefully, rest. This Friday, at about 3.30, my friend Lucy tweets me The Spinoff’s “Live Update” segment headlined “Send this giant worm straight to hell please.” The Spinoff’s socials had just tweeted a link to it under “No, no, no, no” and in case the reader had not quite received the message as to how totally grossed out the journalist actually was about this worm, “no”.
The story, which you may have seen as it was repeated on other platforms (the original piece was published on Stuff, here), was about a Christchurch nine-year-old who had found a worm that was over a metre long by a stream in his garden. It was accompanied by a photo of an obviously delighted lad, holding up a worm of unusual size. Now, this might well be a creature that you neither want to see, have in your back garden or, heaven forbid, actually touch. We all have creatures that squick us out — mine are mostly cockroaches. But I’m also deeply mindful that the research shows that there are both innate and learnt components to those creatures that we don’t like, and that we treat creatures that we like differently from those that we dislike.
There is a term that I love, which is “feral charisma”, which was coined by Jamie Lorimer, a British geographer who looks at the way that humans relate to non-human animals, which he explains as “organisms that are radically different to anthropocentric norms.” He explains how having feral charisma is not necessarily a negative for the creature. His explanation makes me think of Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, which is full of the kind of telly that you watch from behind the sofa, full of teeth, bity-ness and danger. Everything in the way that the creature is presented highlights its feral-ness and the danger that its feral-ness poses to our human bodies. My research on New Zealand’s news media shows that many articles on wētā also present them as animals that people are “brave” to touch, before hurridly emphasizing that, actually, wētā are gentle vegetarians that are unlikely to bite you.
Our Friday-afternoon worm was presented by the article’s author in ways that highlighted all of its “feral” qualities. After the 5 (!) “no”s, the poor creature is called a “hell monster” and a “dirty earth snake.” I understand completely that these were for comic effect, and it was a Friday afternoon and the end of a long week after a series of very long weeks. And, maybe I too need a weekend off? But, the media both reflects and forms public opinion on topics and, in the absence of knowledge about a topic from any other source (personal experience, school etc.), everything we know about this worm is likely to be from the media. I said earlier that there is both an innate and a learnt component to the creatures that scare us or that we’re horrified by, and from this article, we are being taught to be horrified by this worm. And, unlike the sharks in my Discovery Chanel example, the Friday afternoon worms could be in your back garden! The actual horror!
The IUCN red listing for the Great White Shark specifically mentions how its portrayal in the media has caused actual harm to the conservation of the species. My research also shows that New Zealanders are much more likely to want to protect creatures that we see as beautiful, clever and important to our history or culture. I’m not going to argue for the Friday afternoon worm’s cleverness, although how good are you at burrowing? And, as my friend Ellen pointed out, the Friday afternoon worm might even be bioluminescent, which is something I can’t do even on a good day! I’m not going to argue that the Friday afternoon worm is beautiful, either. But I will argue forever that the Friday afternoon worm is important to us. Although we don’t know its species, it is probably endemic (it only lives in New Zealand), that individual was probably old (it takes a while to grow that big), and we probably don’t have many of them left. John Marris, the curator of the University of Lincoln’s entomology research collection, is quoted in the snippet as saying that these worms usually live in forests and land-use changes have reduced the forest cover of these islands, so they must be rarer than they once were.
We have a lot of creatures in and around New Zealand that need conservation attention. I’ve written before that the often quoted number of 4000 species of fauna, flora and fungi is, most likely, an under-estimate. We have so much conservation work to do, and we prioritise that work in many ways, including making sure that money goes to species that are “important”, which is in quotes because that is a value judgment. The media helps to create value around species in the way that it presents a creature. In this article, the Friday afternoon worm is used for sensation, but is also portrayed in such as way that people get to say “urgh, yuck. No!” and move on with their lives rather than slowing them down and allowing them to say “OK, not for me, but heck, we have some great critters here, eh?” We can only conserve creatures that we know about and, when money is tight, we will focus our conservation efforts on what we like. And media friends, you’ve got such a part to play in shaping what we like. What do you reckon about doing better next time? Our creatures (and plants and fungi) need your help.