Hello possum: New Zealanders keep invasive marsupials as pets | New Zealand
Maurice likes to stay awake all night. When he finally settles in at 5 a.m., he makes sure everyone knows he’s there – then he curls up and sleeps all day.
“When he’s ready to go to bed, he washes our faces well to say hello,” Jo Little * says with a laugh. “He’s got really, really cold feet, and he’s got them all over your head.” It licks every area of your face!
Maurice is a brushtail opossum. His mother was hit by a car when he was just a little boy, but he survived. Little and his daughter Mary * saved him and raised him in their home in North Canterbury.
Marsupials are protected in their native Australia, but in Aotearoa in New Zealand they are widely regarded as pests. They were first released in the 19th century, so that they could be hunted for their fur.
Qualified as “predators” because of evidence that they sometimes eat native birds, their eggs, and other animals, opossums have been linked to significant defoliation and dieback of native habitats. As “reservoirs” – or potential vectors – of bovine tuberculosis, they are also seen as a threat to New Zealand’s agricultural industries. Today, they are the target of Predator Free 2050, a state-sponsored campaign to eradicate possums, stoats and rats by the middle of this century.
Despite this, some New Zealanders across the country are caring for injured and orphaned possums. Relying on each other for advice, as well as sympathetic vets who deexex opossums, they share their lives with these animals. They don’t want to be identified by their real name because they fear being targeted by farmers or others.
Claire Dixon *, who lives in Auckland, considers her rescue possum part of the family. “I call him my son,” she said. “I also have two daughters.
She thinks opossums are special animals. “Your relationship with them is unlike any other pet because it’s like you have a pouch and they treat you like you are their parent,” she says. “As they get older, they still consider jumping down your top to be their safe place, and they’ll go out there and cuddle you for hours.”
Eddie the opossum shares the house with other rescue animals – Dixon is currently caring for cats, chickens, pigeons and a very sick hedgehog. In order to make sure he has everything he needs, she sold his family jewels to pay for a fully-equipped enclosure.
There are restrictions on keeping possums as pets in Aotearoa. The Conservation Department says anyone who wants to keep one must get permission, but it doesn’t actively prosecute people who don’t.
The rules for keeping possums also vary from region to region. Dr Imogen Bassett, senior biosecurity adviser for the Auckland council, said opossums cannot be kept as pets in Auckland as they are ‘pests’ under the regional pest management plan Auckland, which is prepared under the Biosafety Act. “While people shouldn’t keep pet possums at all, the most critical thing is not to breed or release possums into the wild,” she says.
Everyone should meet a possum
Emily Major is a doctoral candidate at the New Zealand Center for Human-Animal Studies at the University of Canterbury, and her research focuses on opossums. She believes that nowhere in the world is an animal species as demonized as the possums are in Aotearoa.
New Zealanders have been misled about these animals, she says. “A lot of the ‘facts’ that are reported do not reflect what opossums actually eat.” The Handbook of New Zealand Mammals says they are “best described as opportunistic herbivores, feeding primarily on leaves”.
Major believes that some people blame possums for destroying the environment in order to avoid taking responsibility for their actions. “What the humans are doing is completely destroying New Zealand. In order to appease ourselves and make humans feel better about what we do with the environment, we make possums scapegoats, ”she says.
Dixon agrees. “People think that possums are angry, mean, and filthy little animals. They often ignore other causes of environmental degradation, she said, such as agriculture – which is responsible for deforestation and among the leading causes of pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. “We all know exactly the damage all of this is doing.”
Major argues that opossums are victims of colonization, as they were brought here by the Pākehā, or New Zealand Europeans, to be exploited. She says that by trapping, poisoning and slaughtering possums, the Pākehā are attempting to justify their own place in a country colonized by their ancestors – a process that has been disastrous for native species, the natural environment and the Maori.
“It’s like, ‘I belong here; I don’t deserve to leave. They deserve to go. ‘ The hatred directed at possums has little to do with animals, she says. “It has everything to do with the human understanding of belonging here in New Zealand.”
Little and her daughter wish everyone could meet a possum. Even people who see them as “pests” change their minds when they meet Maurice. “They have so much personality and character,” says Little.
Marie agrees. “They are excellent pets!”
* Names have been changed to protect anonymity