As the play on words cleverly states “one man’s fish is another man’s poisson.” Perhaps we could add to that “one man’s pest is another man’s possum.” That’s certainly the case with our beloved brushtail marsupial which is regarded as New Zealand’s worst ever feral invader. European settlers brought possums there in the 1850s where they soon found a ready made habitat, their numbers swelling to over 50 million a hundred years later. These days their spread is partially controlled through trapping and poisoning and for many Kiwis they have the social status of rats.
Here in Australia possums are protected wildlife but, as with many of our marsupials, it wasn’t always that way. We don’t have to go back too far in history when it was virtually open season in some States on the culling and trapping of a wide variety of Australian fauna. Koalas and possums were particularly prized for their fur. In Queensland for example, Government sanctioned koala and possum harvests took place right up until the 1930s. At one stage the killing of possums ranged from about 400,000 to three million per annum and koalas from about 450,000 to nearly one million – figures that are hard to comprehend today. God knows how many koala fur coats and other items of apparel have survived and are now hidden away, somewhat shamefully on top of old wardrobes or in outback country sheds.
These days, as so many native Australian animals are threatened with extinction, there are strict laws applying to their protection. Every now and then there are violations such as the 2016 live baiting scandal which saw the shutdown of the NSW greyhound industry and horrified many people. There are also individual incidents such as the head of science at St Augustine’s College in Brookvale, who in 2017 was convicted of animal cruelty for bashing a possum to death because it was eating the plants in his garden. The crime became even more emotive when it was revealed the female victim was carrying two joeys at the time.
Clearly he should have called for a licensed ‘possum man’, one of many throughout NSW who for around $200 a visit will come to your home and remove those noisy and at times destructive critters from your roof area. Whether it’s trapping or simply blocking the entry ports where the possums sneak in, their success rate is generally good. However the law says that any possums captured must be released at dusk within 150 metres of where they were living, given that they are very territorial and may not survive if they are introduced to a new area. Whether this ruling is universally observed is open to scrutiny and in less regulated times, possums may well have finished up at a greyhound training track or dumped in the bush.
A story which has always fascinated me is that of the legendary Blue Mountains possum man, who after 30 years of capturing and releasing possums, began to morph into a possum himself. It’s almost entirely mythological but the story goes that after such a long affinity with these nocturnal raiders, possum man began to think, act and even look like one of his furry friends.
Eventually he found himself sleeping all day, emerging at dusk to join a family of local possums in their foraging for food scraps, garden vegetables and other assorted items on the omnivorous menu. With a long grey beard and a huge shaggy mop of hair, he adopted the same stealthy movements of his marsupial mates, crouching low on hands and knees, and seldom spotted by curious neighbours or late night workers.
Evicted from his own home for failing to pay the rent, he was befriended by an 80 year old widow, who generously allowed him (and a family of possums) to sleep in her roof space. There he resided until the widow died in her early 90s and he disappeared into the wild scrub of the Megalong Valley.
Australians have always loved characters such as Blinky Bill and Kanga the Roo, and perhaps it’s time to enshrine possum man in a kind of reverse anthropomorphisation. Next time you see a bunch of possums at midnight, tearing up your vegetable garden, remember they could be human as well!