Welcome to New Zealand, where killing small, furry animals is a sign of patriotism! Especially possums. Possums are evil, habitat-destroying, bird-eating, Australian bastards. If you see a possum on the road, you run the little f***er over. If you see one in the bush, you get your gun and you turn it into nipple warmers.
Possum fur nipple warmers are a big thing in New Zealand. They’re in all the souvenir shops, along with possum fur scarves and gloves and the like. My little sister bought a cuddly possum made with real possum fur. (Not just a stuffed possum – that would be creepy, even for her.) She used to love stroking it.
Possum fur is unbelievably soft. I had a friend who’d go out hunting possums with his dad, and they used to get quite a bit of money from the fur. The trick, he told me, was to pull it all off whilst the body was still warm. They’d get bags of it. He asked me if I wanted to come along once. I declined. Not that I’m against hunting possums. If there’s such a thing as ethical fur, it’s possum fur.
Possums really are a menace to New Zealand’s native flora and fauna. Some European idiots brought them over from Australia in 1837, to establish a fur trade, and they quickly multiplied at the expense of the existing creatures. Not only do they eat the leaves, buds, fruit and bark of trees, decimating canopies and depriving endangered birds of food, they eat the eggs and chicks of those birds too.
New Zealand’s native birds evolved in an environment devoid of mammals. (The only native New Zealand land mammals are bats.) The introduction of possums and other mammals such as rats, stoats, dogs and cats was something they simply weren’t equipped to deal with. Possums have been seen actually flushing kiwi birds out of their burrows in order to feast on the contents of their nests.
It’s no wonder they’re so hated. In New Zealand, small, furry animals are bad; small, feathery animals are good. Still, the national enthusiasm for running possums over is one of the things that shocked me when I first arrived here, aged ten. I remember shaking my head, incredulous at the sheer number of flattened possums on the road into our town. People actually swerve to hit them.
The flattened possum with a tyre track across it is one of the many symbols of New Zealand. I have met one Kiwi, though, who couldn’t understand the possum-hate. (I’m talking about the human inhabitants of New Zealand now, not the iconic birds.) She was an old cat lady, only one of her cats… wasn’t a cat.
Now she was a lovely lady, and I fully walked into the conversation about all the cats she’d ever owned, having fully accepted the fact that I am, myself, a crazy cat lady and destined to die surrounded by them. I don’t think I’ll ever cover my entire lounge in pictures of them, however. I don’t think I’ll ever have cat cushions and cat throws and cat tea trays. It was like a cat cyclone!
The walls and mantelpiece were covered in pictures of long-dead cats and, as I sat stroking a live one, I noticed that one of the pictures was different. I had to ask her if it was real. Oh yes, she said, it was real. It had even appeared in the local paper back in – I think – the 1970’s. I asked if I could take a photo of the photo. She was happy to let me and this is that photo:
Just in case you don’t believe your eyes, that is a possum sitting in a highchair with a bib around its neck, eating its food from a bowl with a spoon like a human. She trained it to do that. It would sit on the couch like a human, too, when it wasn’t curled up on her lap like a cat. They make fantastic pets, she told me. She simply couldn’t see why people wanted to kill them.
Unfortunately, I’ve forgotten most of the details of the story, (I know – I should have written it down at the time!) but there’s one detail I’ll remember ’til I die: she castrated the possum herself. She sat him down on her lap, lulled him into a false sense of security and snap went the rubber band. At first he was too shocked to do anything, but then he began to shake and whimper.
I laughed in sympathy as the old woman did her impression of the traumatised possum. I wish I could do it for you now. Apparently, he didn’t run away; just sat there shaking and whimpering for a very long time. Imagine the awful, confused sense of betrayal he must have felt! He was completely fine afterwards, though.
I googled “pet possum New Zealand” earlier, but couldn’t find any trace of this woman’s story – it must be too old. Most of the results seemed to be along the lines of using possums as pet food. I did find this cute story, though: http://www.3news.co.nz/nznews/its-possible-to-love-a-possum-2015052518#axzz3mLKGmyXD… and this, uh, not so cute one:
I don’t know – is getting a load of children to dress up a series of dead possums really that bad? Is it any worse than turning them into pet food, nipple warmers and cuddly toy versions of themselves? Possums have been demonised in New Zealand, but for good reason. They’re not just pests; they threaten the very survival of what makes New Zealand environmentally unique.
Yet it’s not their fault.