The Only Good Possum is...

Playing Possum with Rebecca Hawkes

In New Zealand’s alcoholic ingenuity, ‘Possum’ is a drinking game where players scale trees and consume beers (preferably 24-packs of Speights; Pride Of The South) until they fall to the ground from drunkenness. It is unclear whether the first or last to plummet is the real winner. I am ice skating over a backcountry farm pond up the throat of the Rakaia Gorge with a physiotherapist-to-be on holiday from her studies at Otago. She’s concerned by the practice of Possum – 'someone could die'.

The few mils of water atop the ice in the Cleardale pond reflect an unruffled mirror image of the sky. Frozen in stiff flight through these upside-down clouds is a common brushtailed possum. I shuffle onto the ice in my borrowed skates with trepidation; the possum is posed in a desperate breaststroke, nose just breaking the surface, the trail from its mis-stepped plunge re-frozen into the ice behind. It’s weirdly picturesque, a literal still life. Possums are good at death.

Brushtailed possums are critically endangered in their native Australia. But here, they are our biggest killers; Aotearoa’s plants lack the poisons, spines, and other evolved devices of dissuasion that limit the possum’s appetite from totally savaging any single species of shrub in their homeland. Alongside their gluttony, possums can be picky eaters. In New Zealand they’ll often strip trees of only a few native species from a forest, changing the composition of the bush rather than dining equally on less palatable pines. They also eat the flowers and seeds of their favourite plants; disturbing life cycles, disrupting regeneration, demolishing food chains. They decimate high-protein populations of weta, snails, and insects. They invade native birds’ nests; eat eggs and chicks. They are rumoured to eat their own dead. When food is abundant they can breed twice a year.

These malignant marsupials are also partial to clover grown in farmer’s pastures. On farms they spread Bovine Tuberculosis (TB), which can be passed on to humans by infected cows who’ve snuffled curiously at the bacterial sores on sickly possums that wander, groggy, into paddocks during daylight. Possum pestilence thus afflicts our most scenic ecology, our billion-dollar agricultural industries, and the more embarrassing exports of Kiwi imagination; drunken students playing ‘possum’ have been accused of damaging trees in botanical gardens from Dunedin to the USA. Possums beget death. So we go out of our way to persecute them; traps, 1080 drops, cars swerving on dark roads hoping for that satisfying whump on the bumper. I have grown up not-touching pink triangles and cyanide traps in the DOC bushland, learning to aim shotguns at every pair of eyes greenly beaming spotlights back from a treetop.

Old Pete down the road is Mt Alford’s most notorious poacher. He gets away with it because he’s too rickety to shift deer carcasses by himself, we can spare the nicked firewood, and his main hobby is trapping possums. We just want the buggers gone, and he can blunder through the bull paddock to the bush all he wants so long as he gets ‘em. He cures the skins in his garage while the Mrs makes cups of tea and carrot cake. One day when I am seven and getting onto the school bus by his house he hands me an entire possum pelt. It has a full fluffy tail, and eye holes that I can wiggle my fingers through. There are still a few whiskers rooted in the bristly suede around the muzzle. It grosses out all my townie friends. I am pleased.

I never quite get their disgust. It might just be that farm kids are used to stripping useful bits off the dead. The skins seem entirely separate once peeled off the naked bodies- as though the possums underneath were never properly alive to begin with. This is confirmed when I am touching the furry face of one of Pete’s dead possums and its tummy wriggles. A joey is scrunched in mummy-marsupial’s pouch, blindly draining cold teats. The bald wee chimera has the face of a dog, bulging goldfish eyelids, grasping monkey-fingers, and a tail tightly coiled like a moth tongue. It is all but hairless. The pelts strung on nails don’t seem at all related to the living animal; a wrinkled, shivering thing, cupped in the palm of my hand. Already dying.

The skin – or rather, the soft fur – is the only part of a possum with value. Brushtailed possums were introduced to New Zealand in 1837 to boost the fur trade, and even once wild numbers soared out of control, trappers kept releasing them until the 1980’s. Like polar bears’, the hairs in their furry coats are hollow, creating pockets of air that keep heat close to the skin. This makes the hairs both lighter and warmer than sheep’s wool, placing possum fur in demand for chic yet comfy merino-mink outerwear and novelty nipple warmers.

Still, these highly marketable thermal properties weren’t enough to save the possum in the pond. It’s probably for the best.