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A real headline (Image design: Tina Tiller)
A real headline (Image design: Tina Tiller)

SocietyFebruary 20, 2024

What happens when your student flat activities end up in the news?

A real headline (Image design: Tina Tiller)
A real headline (Image design: Tina Tiller)

Every year, university students in Dunedin torture each other for fun. Former Critic Te Ārohi editor investigates the reality when stories travel beyond campus.

This is part two in a three-part series on student hazing. Read part one here.

On October 6, 2023, the Otago Daily Times reported that Dunedin students had bitten the legs off of live ducks as part of a hazing ritual. The news whipped up a media firestorm, making headlines overseas and dominating the pre-election newsweek.

The story hinged entirely on the five-sentence testimony of the mother of a boy whose friend group was hazed with the ducks. Five lines at the top of the article describe the duck story. The other 21 lines detail an entirely separate initiation. At no point was evidence cited.

As the editor of the student magazine at the time, I was perplexed. We had heard whispers of something involving a duck, but this was news to us. And it was shocking; in an environment where clout and one-upmanship is everything, the student reporters are usually the first to know about anything along these lines. 

So we started digging. The ODT declined to clarify what evidence they had, so we reached out to any one and everyone that had come to us with tales of hazing to see if they’d heard of this. There would be hints of a friend of a friend who knew a guy who knew more, but they never turned up anything useful. 

At one point, we got close. Initiates are often given “shopping lists” of items they’re meant to supply for their own initiation. Usually it’s mostly alcohol, but one girls flat also called for alternative milks and cheeses – the expensive stuff that students can’t usually afford on their own. Incredibly, the list for one notorious Castle Street flat totalled more than $1,195 between six people.

Then we were told of a list with the usual suspects: one 20-pack of eggs, six KFC wicked wings buckets, six bottles of red wine, a couple coffins of RTDs, a $50 bag of weed, two litres of cheap kitchen oil and other standard items. Then you get the weird stuff: 12 bananas. Three beef livers. One lamb heart. 

One live duck.

The residents of the flat didn’t want to talk to Critic at the time, for fear of drawing further media attention, but we managed to get hold of a neighbour who told us what that duck was about. We were told that there had indeed been a live duck at this event, but it wasn’t the one in the ODT’s story. 

In this case, apparently, the duck was simply added at the end of a very long list of required items. If any of the items were missing upon arrival, the boys received a punishment. Since the entire point of the evening was to degrade and humiliate, a live duck was included as a way to guarantee failure. Who would actually bring a live duck? 

But the boys did bring a live duck, and from what we were told, it was set free right away because “nobody actually thought they’d bring it”. The initiation went on as scheduled, with plenty of pelicans, hair-shaving, rotting trash-pit wrestling and egg-pelting. But apparently no animal abuse. 

And that was as far as we got. This whole story was born from five lines of text, three steps removed from its original source. And yet, pardon the pun, this is the story that grew legs.

Evidence or no, the allegations were horrific, and involved elements of real initiations that we’d seen with our own eyes. But to us, the whole thing appeared to be a dubious story, gleefully seized upon by “adult” media to confirm the presumed depravity of Otago uni students. 

Perhaps more concerning was how easy it was to believe.


At their core, hazing rituals are torture. If you compare the events of a Dunedin initiation to the tactics recommended by the CIA’s official torture handbook, the overlap is considerable. Bagged heads, shavings, beatings, derision… It’s all there. 

But if there’s one area where Castle Street residents outstrip the Americans, it’s inarguably their fascination with vomit. And the news absolutely loves it.

Vomit’s omnipresence in hazing rituals is astonishing. It’s reserved mostly for the boys, who jostle for superiority in an environment that mixes one-upmanship and alcohol with bodily fluids and self-harm. One student told Critic in 2017 “If one of the boys does a double Diesel funnel, you can just do a triple Diesel funnel… [or] a shoey of my bro’s piss.” That fateful afternoon, 100 people watched as someone had a wheelie bin of vomit showered over their head at an initiation that made national news.

The universal centrepiece of an initiation is something called a “pelican”: spewing into the open mouth of a friend. Outside of the mandated pelicans, boys are usually allowed to vomit “anywhere but the floor”. Headline material.

A flat initiation (Image: Supplied)

And there are plenty of other games that don’t make the news: an alumni of one flat described “painting the fence”, in which they had to drink a bunch of dyed fluids and then “we had to essentially make ourselves throw up onto the fence to paint it, and whoever had the most of their colour on the fence won that round.” 

These boys waited too long to find a good flat, so they ended up stuck in an absolute cesspit. Unbeknownst to them, this cesspit came with an initiation. And they loved it; our source said that their hosts were “really good genuine dudes, they weren’t out to humiliate us. Just a little bit of hazing, and we subsequently became really good friends.”

When it came time to initiate the next year’s tenants, the fence-painting boys were in for a shock: “It was two girls who wanted a quiet study flat, so we knew there was absolutely no chance we’d be allowed to do them like that. We were the last ones to get initiated in that house.” The flat has since been condemned as unlivable and destroyed.  

At least one prominent boys’ flat on Castle delved into the sexual, making its new tenants strip naked and watch gay porn. The last boy to get hard was the loser, and was punished. It’s another bizarre contradiction in Dunedin Lad Culture: what Lotto Ramsay called, in a 2023 award-winning article, “Homie Eroticism”. In Lotto’s words, “Dunedin is one of the few places on Earth where you’ll hear the f-slur casually used by straight [boys] who are mere hours away from drinking out of each other’s nutsacks.” 

And it’s true; for all the rank homophobia, these flats are where I’ve seen the highest concentration of naked young men, touching and fondling and falling over each other, sharing bodily fluids and sexual innuendo, all concealed beneath a draconian mask of heterosexuality. “I’m sorry that the only time you can be emotionally close to another man – whether romantic, platonic or something else – is when you’re both on the piss,” wrote Lotto. 

Speaking of sex, initiates always tell Critic that consent is everything, and that people are free to say “no” at any time. They insist that it’s a genuine contest, with everyone participating out of their own zeal. But that’s not the whole picture, as they’re also quick to mention the long list of punishments that can be doled out for any number of transgressions, such as not finishing a beverage quickly enough, forgetting to bring a required item, or simply for the hell of it. “You fear the consequences”, said one young man. “It’s best to just keep your head down and take what’s coming to you.” Now that he’d passed the gauntlet, he was particularly excited to take a turn running the event.

It’s not much better for girls, whose hazing rituals focus more on sadistic degradation and body shaming than outright physical abuse. But they’re not immune to the physical: one girl agreed to drink a slurry of shellfish juice and vodka, knowing full well she was allergic to shellfish. She brought her epi pen, and refused to condemn the ritual. 

Another girls group was told to have a ciggie race, chain smoking inside of wheelie bins. The gas filled the bins and, apparently, a young woman passed out and was knocked around. It took a while for people to notice. “Just say no!” you say? Well, at least one person stood up to the peer pressure and refused to smoke their mandated cigarettes, having recently lost a family member to lung cancer. In response, the hosts shaved off her eyebrows.

If any of this sounds dangerous, remember that all of these events are positively saturated in alcohol and usually take place on an empty stomach. The rationale is that you’re vomiting so much that the booze never actually makes it into your bloodstream. In fact, most students’ chief concern was the “waste of money” represented by the still-undigested pools of regurgitated Nitro, Lion Brown and vodka. 

But, in case that doesn’t persuade you of the safety, strict measures are in place to protect the students’ health: I was told that when one boy was turning blue from vomiting and drinking too much, he was told to have a ciggie break and a glass of water. As soon as his dart was smoked, it was back to the funnel and vom. This was pointed to, proudly, as a “health and safety” measure. 

Two students partake in an initiation task (Image: Supplied)

The most recent (widely reported and verified) initiation story was the eel story, where near-naked men stood in a bathtub, holding a live and panicking eel aloft like a trophy. The author of that piece would tell me, months later, how students in the heart of Dunedin’s depravity can sometimes seem to forget how their actions may be perceived by those outside their bubble. The mythological “Otago student experience” can act “almost as a form of brainwashing”, she explained, leading students who participate to “lose touch with how antisocial these initiations can sometimes be.” 

While this eel was released back into the water of Leith, the stress of the event and the constant manhandling probably cost it its protective gooey coating and therefore its life. “I only wish they’d killed it,” said one student, appalled by a video of the event, preferring to put the creature out of its misery. Another girl took a different approach, asking “who cares? It’s only an eel”. 

Hosts claimed it was outsiders that brought the eel, but a witness at the event said they’d seen it sitting in a waterless bucket for hours before it took centre stage. The vast, vast majority of students on campus were disgusted.

Not every piece of student media gets picked up by national outlets. But when it happens – and usually not because it’s a feel-good tale – there is little to protect student reporters from campus backlash. At least one reporter heard, through the grapevine, that a story they’d worked on had landed the subjects in hot water, and those boys were now trying to find the reporter’s address. 

In the middle of exam season, this reporter was so uncomfortable in their home and social sphere that they spent two months essentially in hiding: studying and sleeping on the bedroom floors of their coworkers, a ghost in their own city. 

In most cases, abuse has been levied by students towards other students. There is an ever-so-thin veneer of consent surrounding the activities. After all, they are adults in their private homes, conducting activities of their own volition, which they uniformly insist are fun and important. 

As one student so eloquently argued in 2018: “Fuck, if I put a tarpaulin out in my room and got my missus to piss on my face, would I get suspended from uni? What if I filmed it and put it on Pornhub? Why is that different? We all still consented.”

Despite the student’s choice of example, he does raise a point worth discussing: The university’s right to police private decisions. If all the parties express consent, the only thing they can be nabbed for is breaching the Otago Code of Conduct – though this sets the precedent that the university is able to pass judgement on the private, off-campus lives of its students, something that the Otago proctor Dave Scott is loath to do. But he’s a firm man, and will make an exception for initiations.

When Critic spoke to Scott in the wake of the eel incident, he outlined what’s been done to tackle the problem. At the start of the year, his office sends out emails and flyers to the flats they suspect will run an initiation, which spell out the risks and remind them of the consequences. Face-to-face visits are made with high-risk flats. It is at the very front of his mind. In 2023, his email included the line “there is genuine concern that one of these events will result in serious harm or death.” 

The proctor explained that “If we have a really bad event and a student dies – has an anaphylactic shock to something that they’re forced to eat, or dies of alcohol poisoning or whatever – who’s gonna be investigated? The host flat [will be], and that’ll be for a manslaughter charge.” He doesn’t want any part of that to happen: “I don’t want the death, and I don’t want the flat investigated.” 

On campus, he’s seen as the bad guy. He’s forced to watch as, in spite of his efforts, year after year, certain students do their very best to nearly kill each other. It haunts him. “But”, he said, “I will sleep quite well at night knowing that I’m doing this work. And I’ll make no apologies for it. It’s not a tradition; I don’t think it reflects our students at all.”

There are 19,000 students at Otago, and only about 1,000 live in this bubble of self-imposed depravity. So the proctor is right: these stories do not reflect all Otago students. But they definitely reflect a diabolical few. 

Odds are a Dunedin student will never engage with this world. But for those who do get sucked into its orbit, the forces of peer pressure are so extreme that you’re essentially forced to get with it, or get out. 

A study out of Otago University found that within this drinking culture, you either drank to excess as a point of pride, or you were mercilessly shunned. A young man told researchers “That’s just shit if they choose not to drink because it’s what we all do… don’t even bother coming out.” A girl explained that “You either drink and get wasted or you don’t drink at all.” Said another: “If you’re going to drink, why drink a few? I guess it’s kind of like go hard or go home, you know?” 

The same attitude is held for initiations, and is what the media and the rest of New Zealand sees. If you’re gonna do it, you’re gonna do it; no point being a bitch about it. It’s what we all do. Now get up on that soapbox and drink some vomit. ‘Atta boy, show us you belong.

In tomorrow’s instalment: The faux poverty of Castle Street flats

Keep going!