Mayor apologises after saying protected animals need to be shot

The mayor claims his comments were taken out of context, but some environmentalists

A Liberal mayor has apologised after he called for bats living south of Sydney to "be shot" during a council meeting.

Sutherland Shire councillors were discussing rezoning a site that had recently been home to dozens of protected grey-headed flying foxes when Mayor Carmelo Pesce made the controversial remarks.

“The bats should be shot, and I'll say that. I said it before, they should be shot. They're dirty and they've got diseases,” he said on June 5.

Mayor Carmelo Pesce speaks into a microphone while former prime minister Scott Morrison watches on nearby.
Mayor Carmelo Pesce made the controversial comments about flying foxes earlier this month and has since apologised. Source: Facebook

The high-profile politician has been tipped to take over from Scott Morrison in the Seat of Cook with the former PM expected to quit federal politics in the near future. In 2020, the then-Prime Minister described Pesce as the “real deal - unvarnished, authentic, kind-hearted and community-minded”.

Mayor claims flying fox comments were 'a joke'

Mayor Pesce's comments were streamed live on YouTube, causing an uproar amongst environmentalists, but he says his words were taken out of context.

“I'm shocked that some people have taken it seriously… I'm actually very surprised. It was a tongue-in-cheek, people in the room laughed. It was a joke,” he told Yahoo News Australia. “Now if people have taken offence to it, I apologise."

He believes the response is a sign the world is becoming "too politically correct" and that Australians appear to be losing their sense of humour. "Everyone is too scared... we've got to relax a bit," he said.

Conservationist says extinction crisis 'no joke'

After listening to Mayor Pesce's comments, Jess Abrahams from Australian Conservation Foundation said flying foxes deserve our "care and respect".

He noted grey-headed flying foxes play a critical role as long-range pollinators of Australia's forests. Because much of their habitat has been destroyed, they are now vulnerable to extinction and protected under national laws.

"It is no joke that Australia is in the midst of an extinction crisis. We have caused the extinction of more mammals than any other nation," he said.

"Elected representatives, whether at local, state or federal level, should understand that the food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe, our economy and our way of life all depend on a healthy environment."

Why flying foxes are hated by some Australians

Flying foxes are nomadic species, so even though they have left the development site, they will likely return one day.

They are also frequently driven from their homes because some residents don't like their "noise", "mess" and "smell". Conservationists warn against relocating them because they are steadily losing their habitat, running out of food and susceptible to heatwaves. They are often maligned because they interrupt suburban life and have been incorrectly accused of attacking wedding guests in NSW, and residents around the Gold Coast.

On social media, Mayor Pesce's comments were described as “absolutely appalling and utterly cruel” and “an entirely inappropriate attitude for a mayor to have”. Local conservationists recalled Sutherland Shire attempted and failed to remove the protected classification grey-headed flying foxes in 2019.

Native species that are seen to interrupt human life often fall victim to human violence in Australian suburbs, with birds like plovers frequently targeted. Mr Pesce said he understands in his position as mayor and supports their protection, adding that shooting them would be “rogue” and “stupid”.

Mayor doubles down on disease comments

Asked about his comments that flying foxes pose a threat to humans, Mr Pesce doubled down. “They're diseased. That’s factual, that's factual. They've got diseases,” he said.

Illnesses caused by flying foxes are extremely rare amongst humans in Australia. Horses, cows and dogs are responsible for the majority of human deaths. Mr Pesce said he owns two dogs and between 13 and 14 cows and doesn’t hold the same negative feelings about them.

Mayor argues flying foxes ruined 'garden'

He believes concern about his flying fox comments “kicked off” after another councillor sent them to a local conservation group.

Mayor Pesce said hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent relocating the flying foxes from the proposed development site because it was close to schools and he was worried about child safety.

“They’re no longer there. They’ve moved on to Camellia Gardens which was one of our beautiful gardens where people got married,” he said.

“And now the bats have ruined the gardens and people don't even go there anymore. People won't take the kids and won't even get married. But my main concern was the safety of these children.”

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