by Crystal Dalison
I recently received a clipping from the Sydney Morning Herald in the mail. It reported on a study of the Australian brushtail possum population. A rare genetic disease that had previously been found only in Tasmanian possums had suddenly begun to appear within the populations of 5 of Australia’s 6 mainland states. Scientists were attempting to discern whether the gene which carried the disease had mutated independently in all of these regions, which is highly unlikely, or if a number of Tasmanian possums had successfully stowed away on ships bound for various ports. Much to my chagrin, I may be able to provide an explanation for this.
The thing you need to understand about Australian brushtail possums, or Trichosurus Vulpecula (meaning “little fox”), is that they look nothing like their creepy, rat-tailed American cousins. The possums in Australia are marsupials that resemble a chimeric cross between a red panda, a fox, and a house cat. In a country where damn near everything, including the butterflies, are capable of killing you, they come across as downright adorable. Especially the wee ones. At about five months of age baby brushtail possums grow too big to travel in their mothers’ pouches, so they switch to riding on their mothers’ backs like little monkeys until they reach maturity at around 8 months.
Whether it is because they are too dumb to know any better, or because they are clever enough to know how cute they are the Australian possums, as a species, lack the healthy aversion to humans that keeps their wild American brethren safe. They have no qualms about approaching people and are notorious pests, which makes them excellent candidates for participation in the fur industry. Their fluffy fur comes in a variety of colors – silver, brown, red, black, and gold – and is so soft and warm that it is more prized than Merino wool in some countries. High-quality possum fur can sell for as much as $50 per pound. I used to have a pair of possum socks that were my favorite, warmest pair.
I found Awesome the Possum one night while shambling home from the bar in Coles Bay to the house I shared with the other kayaking guides in Tasmania’s Freycinet National Park. He was clinging to a road pancake that was formally his mother, and making pitiful tisking noises that made him sound like a distraught little old lady. Maybe it was because I was drunk and obstinately oblivious to the consequences, or maybe it was because, in a country where over 22 percent of the population is descended from convicts, I felt a little moral laxity was justified. Either way, I broke my first rule of unpalatable wildlife – don’t interfere – and took the red baby possum home with me. I wrapped him in my sweater, made him a nest on the porch, and fed him a nice fruit salad.
In the beginning, Awesome was a welcomed, and highly entertaining, addition to guide housing. Everyone loved to let him climb up their clothes and ride around on their shoulders like a parrot. It was a cute behavior when he was little, and we witlessly encouraged it, but when he grew into a waddling 10 pound adolescent it became terrifying.
Sometimes my co-workers and I would be walking down to the docks in the early morning darkness, our bleary eyes full of sleep, to set out our gear for the sunrise paddling trip, when Awesome would ambush us. He would launch himself from his hiding spot in the brush to scale our bodies with his half-inch claws, perch on our shoulders, and say hello. “Hello,” in possum, is to sniff noses, and if the greeting warrants sufficient enthusiasm, bite them. It didn’t take long for Awesome to earn himself a few haters around town.
It became clear to me that I needed to rectify my mistake before one of the locals terminated my overly-amiable friend. As Awesome grew older, I let him forage for his own food more and more. Once he had proved capable that, and wasn’t relying on me for his meals anymore, I took him on a one-way kayaking trip. As we paddled out to sea, he rode on the bow, clinging to the grab handle of my kayak and grumbling at the water, like a fluffy little figurehead. I took him to the other side of the bay, and after a shared snack of granola bars and carrots, left him there.
Weeks passed, and I told myself that Awesome had successfully reintegrated himself into the wild, and was now happily biting the noses of wallabies. Then rumors of late-night possum “attacks” started circulating around town. My little buddy had made a 20 mile journey over the Hazards Mountains, and around Freycinet Bay, to return home. I didn’t have the heart to abandon him again, so I trained Awesome to ride on top of my backpack, and got him accustomed to sleeping in a carrier bag. When the time came for me to leave Tasmania, I took him with me on the ferry and smuggled him into Victoria. He spent the voyage asleep in his bag, which I carried over my shoulder, as was to become his daily habit for the rest of our time together.
When I woke up on my third morning on the mainland, the possum was gone. Being nocturnal, he would often wander off to forage at night and not come back until mid-morning, so I didn’t think too much of it. My hosts lived on the outskirts of a small town, and their house was surrounded by woods, so when he was still gone by lunch time, I assumed that he was sleeping the day away in bush nearby. When he didn’t return that evening, however, I started worrying that Awesome had been poisoned, run over, or shot by a possum trapper that destined him to become someone’s favorite pair of socks. I found this last possibility most disturbing.
To my relief, the possum came waddling back early the next morning. Before the sun had fully risen, I had awoken to the sound of him scrambling up onto the porch where I slept in my hammock, and clawing his way into his carrier bag to sleep it off. He stayed passed out in his bag all day and didn’t stir while I carried him with me into the back seat of a car that was bound for Darwin, 2,000 miles away.
Awesome took off marauding several more times along the way, but he always came back the next day. He was still with me three months, several road trips, and tens of thousands of miles later when my visa expired and I had to leave Australia. The day I flew out of Brisbane, I built Awesome the possum a nest in a friend’s parent’s garden, and bequeathed him my old sweater, three apples, two carrots, and a mango. He still lives there to this day, and the family has since adopted him as one of their own. They have even planted fruit trees for him. The newspaper clipping my friend sent me had been accompanied by a photo of a handsome, immensely rotund, red possum inspecting a newly transplanted pawpaw tree. I say handsome because, apparently, he has sired many children.
Crystal is a slightly feral, outdoors-oriented, bibliophile seeking a bachelor’s degree. She enjoys adventures, stories, and being wild in the wilds in wild weather. She dislikes concrete, structured environments, and wearing shoes.