The Possum

One Wednesday in November around 10.30 pm the bell went and Werner, one of the guests at the Adobe Flats that week, was at the door. Werner is from some mountain top in Switzerland, but lives now in Kilsyth with his Italian wife, Alex, their three kids and her mum and dad. They all came to stay with me. Werner for all the world looks like the ‘villain’ in a silent film. Short, stocky, blonde hair a pencil sharp moustache and eyebrows unruly and seemingly painted on. He likes smiling and when his eyes flash there he is (in my mind) fighting Buster Keaton, or one of the galaxy of old-time film heroes.

He had bought a book at the Mallacoota Op Shop on Switzerland for 20 cents and had pointed out to me earlier his uncle in an Alpine Meadow milking cows. We are part of the Global Village. ‘You have troubles, Peter’, he said. It must be a burst hot water system or a blocked sever, I thought – Oh well. ‘Come in, Werner’. ‘I can’t, I am smoking’. ‘Come in and smoke inside’. I saw him (again in my mind’s eye) as a rotating column of smoke. But he killed his cigarette and came in. ‘You know, one of the possums that comes every night to check out what we are eating and takes bananas or bread from us, fell asleep in Alex’s lap. He came in, as usual, checked out every corner of the living-room, climbed onto the couch and curled up in Alex’s lap.’ ‘That’s no problem. Just pick it up carefully, if needs be with a towel, and take it outside’. ‘No, he might bite me’. It certainly was better than attending a blocked sewer and I went down to Flat 1.

Alex had moved the possum from her lap next to her onto the sofa and said, ‘I don’t think it is simply asleep, I think it is giving birth’. It was a small fragile possum curled up in a very particular way. It was sitting on its bottom, the long bushy tail stretched out straight ahead of itself, showing the hairless underside of the tail. (Hairless to afford a better grip when climbing). It was upright, but curved right over only showing a profile. And very, very still, apparently mesmerised by its own tummy.

I gently straightened its body, and sure enough it was a delicate young lady, with a much finer bone structure than the males, and always a give-away, no scars on her face. I have found that most males end up with scarred faces after their nocturnal duels. Girls shy away from such things and get on with raising the next generation.

Of course, she had a pouch. She was licking a track from her ‘birth-canal’ to be pouch, which was smooth and wet. The pouch opening was a delicate pink and also moistened.

Alex, Werner’s sensual wife, was glowing with pride that a wild creature would have enough trust to come in, ‘out of the cold and out of the night’ to give birth amongst its new friends. Everybody (the kids were still up) milled around, talking, taking videos and flash photos whilst the new mum went on licking her fur and observing the progress of the minute embryonic new possum. From time to time she would look up, give herself a good scratch all over with her right hind-leg and back would pop her head between her legs. To remain there without moving. I envied her flexibility as I don’t think I could lick any ‘birth-path’ without breaking my back.

When Werner first arrived at the flats and I mentioned to him that the possums would need a banana or some bread, that they would come inside to pick it up, could be stroked, he said that they also had bloody possums at home, eating his fruit, pissing through his ceiling. And anyway bananas are too expensive and how come they like bananas, had they been to Queensland? But he soon changed his mind, welcomed the nocturnal visitors and was thrilled. From time to time I agonise about whether one ought to feed and encourage wild animals to come so close. The arguments against it are that these animals become conditioned and dependent on handouts, also that their greater concentration allows diseases to spread more easily and the natural shyness that makes catching them hard, goes.

My ‘excuses’ are that I have taken their land, their trees, without even asking their approval. Therefore I consider that I am simply paying a small rent back to the owners. Most of the wild parrots came from the bush-fires of 1984 when 80% of the National Park surrounding Mallacoota, burned to ashes and an equal amount of wildlife perished in the heat and from the dearth of food afterwards. I offered a refuge at the holiday flats in those hard times.

None of the birds stay permanently but come and go. Even the magpies wander off to come back for visits. Artificial concentrations of birds occur in the wild during times of abundant food. Should there actually be more animals born because of the feeding, I feel the natural path is a dispersal of excess numbers back to the formerly devastated, now revegetated areas.

We are all attaining a little more wisdom, and don’t simply shoot anything we see. And, as the case of Werner and his family has shown, closer proximity also means more appreciation of our wonderful wildlife that needs desperately to be appreciated, to be considered when we continue to ‘forcibly’ occupy THEIR land. For me it is a way of life and these reasons are acknowledged and complimented by the return visits of my guests.

Of course, simply feeding is a barren exercise; shelter in the form of native plantings, water and NOT letting pussy out at night is part of a nearly automatic ‘awakening’ to the reality of living with one’s ‘neighbours’. For instances, Rainbow Lorikeets turn a bird-bath into a cascading shower with their total exuberance.

All the laundries in the flats attract welcoming swallows that build beautiful little mudbrick nests, glued to sheer walls. They quickly establish themselves, start raising their young and proceed to make a mess below on the floor. An old rubbish bin lid suspended below will catch the offending matter. Also I have taken all the doors off the laundries so that the parents aren’t either locked in or out.

This ‘awakening’ has brought me to the conclusion that ALL wild animals also have an IQ of at least 100. To me, IQ 100 means success in finding food and shelter and the ability to successfully procreate. This therefore, deserves respect. Domesticated animals, such as cattle, horses, chooks, etc. average the inadequate IQ of 80, as they have forsaken (or more precisely have been robbed of) their independence – with exceptions, of course.

Werner told me the next day that the possum-lady stayed till well after 12 that night, and she came every evening to have dinner with her adopted family. The last night she arrived before dusk, which is very unusual and spent some time sleeping on the sofa. Werner and his family left Saturday, glowing with enthusiasm about their encounter and promised to send ‘THE VIDEO’ to me.

Unfortunately this story has a sad ending. Sunday, late afternoon, I went past the front door of the now empty flat and found the possum dead on the doorstep. She had five big, blue ticks on her which had most likely killed her. Her pouch was meticulously clean, with one dormant nipple, the other much larger, engorged. But she had lost her baby. Normally, when a possum allows me, I check and remove any tick, but, because in her case we did not want to disturb her ‘miracle of birth’, I hadn’t had the heart to give her a body search. Maybe she had come for help in the first place?

Peter Kurz
A reprint from the ‘Mallacoota Mouth’
6 December 1991