The se­cret res­cuers of a na­tional pest


‘‘Some peo­ple hate them [pos­sums] so much they threaten to find out where you live and kill them.’’

Lit­tle Bat­man is fight­ing for his life.

The baby pos­sum strug­gles to feed af­ter the soft roof of his mouth was dam­aged when he was ripped from his mother’s pouch by a hunter.

Too young to reg­u­late his body tem­per­a­ture, the six-week-old is fed through a tube by his carer, who tends to his every need, des­per­ately try­ing to keep him alive.

She may be break­ing the law by do­ing so.

Sally (not her real name) is part of an un­der­ground net­work across the coun­try, ded­i­cated to sav­ing the lives of an­i­mals that are, to most Ki­wis, one of our most hated pests.

She has res­cued about 150 pos­sums, and cur­rently has 10 of them in her care.

Threats from the pub­lic, and fear of au­thor­i­ties re­mov­ing their pets, kept most res­cuers ‘‘un­der­ground’’, she said.

‘‘Some peo­ple hate them [pos­sums] so much they threaten to find out where you live and kill them.’’

Pos­sums, first in­tro­duced from Aus­tralia in 1837 to es­tab­lish a fur trade, are known to spread tu­ber­cu­lo­sis, and dec­i­mate na­tive plants and an­i­mals. They have no nat­u­ral preda­tors here, and now num­ber about 47 mil­lion.

Ba­bies, or joeys, are born the size of jelly­beans. Most of those that find their way to Sally and her sym­pa­this­ers come from hunters who have killed the mother only to find a baby in her pouch, or from peo­ple who stop to check the pouches of pos­sums killed on the roads.

Sick and or­phaned pos­sums are then moved around the net­work of res­cuers.

One Kapiti res­cuer said pos­sums made ‘‘lov­ing and loyal’’ pets that more peo­ple should take the time to un­der­stand.

She had owned three over the years and, although she kept them in­side, felt there was lit­tle harm in re­leas­ing them if they were de­sexed.

A Horowhenua woman, owner of six pos­sums, said get­ting vets to de-sex the an­i­mals would en­sure that they died out.

‘‘Just like the feral cat pop­u­la­tions. If they’re not breed­ing, then there’s no harm.’’

The law on keep­ing pos­sums is con­fus­ing. The Depart­ment of Con­ser­va­tion says they can­not be kept with­out a per­mit. But the Min­istry for Pri­mary In­dus­tries (MPI) says they can if the re­gional coun­cil al­lows it.

‘‘We’re not the pos­sum po­lice,’’ DOC spokesman Herb Alexan­der said. ‘‘We’ve got bet­ter things to do than creep around back­yards look­ing for pet pos­sums. We don’t get anal about en­forc­ing the law, but we don’t en­cour­age it.’’

Per­mits for pos­sum-keep­ing were not handed out by the depart­ment, un­less it was for the pur­poses of re­search – ‘‘Ba­si­cally for peo­ple who are re­search­ing how to kill them.’’

An MPI spokesman said the Biose­cu­rity Act let peo­ple keep a pet pos­sum with­out a per­mit as long as their re­gional coun­cil al­lowed it.

‘‘There are, how­ever, strict criteria around breed­ing pos­sums and putting them on dis­play.’’

Ac­cord­ing to the Greater Welling­ton Re­gional Coun­cil, pos­sums can be kept as pets, but can­not be re­leased, bred or sold.

For­est & Bird spokesman Kevin Hack­well said it was wish­ful think­ing if own­ers thought their pet pos­sums wouldn’t harm the en­vi­ron­ment.

‘‘The re­al­ity is that, if they want to look af­ter the en­vi­ron­ment, they should be hu­manely eu­thanis­ing the young.’’

SAFE di­rec­tor of re­search and ed­u­ca­tion An­drew Knight said the loss of na­tive birds was tragic, but the big­gest threat to bio­di­ver­sity came from peo­ple.

‘‘Pos­sums are sim­ply try­ing to ful­fil their nat­u­ral urges to sur­vive and re­pro­duce. We do not sup­port killing some an­i­mals to save oth­ers.’’


Baby pos­sums, or joeys, are born the size of jelly­beans. Bat­man is just start­ing to grow fur. Pos­sum res­cuer Sally

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