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Hello possum: the New Zealanders who keep wild marsupials as pets

·5-min read

Maurice likes to stay up all night. When he finally settles down at 5am, 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 gives us a good face wash to say ‘hi,’” Jo Little* says, laughing. “He’s got really, really cold feet, and he puts them all over your head. He licks every area of your face!”

Maurice is a brushtail possum. His mother was hit by a car when he was just a joey, but he survived. Little and her daughter Mary* rescued him, and have been raising him at their home in North Canterbury.

The marsupials are protected in their native Australia, but in Aotearoa New Zealand they are widely considered to be pests. They were first released in the 19th century, so that they could be hunted for their fur.

Labelled “predators” due to evidence they sometimes eat native birds, their eggs and other fauna, possums have been linked to significant defoliation and die-back of native habitats. As “reservoirs” – or potential carriers – of bovine tuberculosis, they are also seen as a threat to New Zealand’s agricultural industries. Now, they are targets of Predator Free 2050, a state-sponsored campaign to eradicate possums, stoats and rats by the middle of this century.

As they get older, they still treat jumping down your top as their safe place, and they’ll go in there and cuddle you for hours

Claire Dixon

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 will desex the possums, they share their lives with these animals. They don’t want to be identified by their real names due to concerns they may be 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 says. “I also have two daughters.”

She believes possums are special animals. “The relationship that you have with them is so unlike any other pet, because it’s like you have a pouch, and they treat you like you’re their parent,” she says. “As they get older, they still treat jumping down your top as their safe place, and they’ll go in there and cuddle you for hours.”

Eddie the possum shares the house with other rescue animals – Dixon currently looks after cats, chickens, pigeons and a very sick hedgehog. In order to ensure he has everything he needs, she sold her family jewellery to pay for a fully equipped enclosure.

There are restrictions on keeping possums as companion animals in Aotearoa. The Department of Conservation says that anyone who wishes to keep one must obtain permission, but they do not actively pursue people who fail to do so.

Rules around keeping possums also vary from region to region. Dr Imogen Bassett, the biosecurity principal adviser for Auckland council, says possums cannot be kept as pets in Auckland because they are “pests” under the Auckland Regional Pest Management Plan, which is prepared under the Biosecurity Act. “Although people shouldn’t keep pet possums at all, the most critical thing is to not breed or release possums into the wild,” she says.

Everyone should meet a possum

Emily Major is a PhD candidate in the New Zealand Centre for Human-Animal Studies at the University of Canterbury, and her research focuses on possums. She believes that nowhere in the world is an animal species as demonised as possums are in Aotearoa.

New Zealanders have been misled about these animals, she says. “A lot of the ‘facts’ that are being reported are not reflective of what possums actually eat.” The Handbook of New Zealand Mammals says they are “best described as opportunistic herbivores, feeding mainly on leaves”.

Major believes that some people blame possums for environmental destruction in order to avoid taking responsibility for their actions. “What humans are doing is completely destroying New Zealand. In order to placate ourselves and make humans feel better for what we’re doing to the environment, we are scapegoating possums,” she says.

Dixon agrees. “People get it in their heads that possums are angry, nasty, yucky little animals.” They often ignore other causes of environmental degradation, she says, like farming – which is responsible for deforestation and among the leading causes of pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. “We all know exactly the damage that all of that does.”

Major argues that possums are victims of colonisation, as they were brought here by Pākehā, or New Zealand Europeans, to be exploited. She says that by trapping, poisoning and shooting possums, Pākehā are trying to justify their own place in a country their ancestors colonised – a process that was disastrous for native species, the natural environment and Māori.

“It’s like, ‘I belong here; I don’t deserve to leave. They deserve to leave.’” The hatred directed at possums doesn’t actually have much to do with the animals, she says. “It has everything to do with human understandings of belonging here in New Zealand.”

Little and her daughter wish everyone could meet a possum. Even people who view them as “pests” change their minds when they meet Maurice. “They’ve got so much personality and character,” Little says.

Mary agrees. “They’re great pets!”

* Names have been changed to protect anonymity