Monday, 21 January 2013

Passing Opossums ~ I stop and go back ~

In New Zealand opossums are generally referred to as possums, although to me this is a fairly recent abbreviation: when I was a girl we called them opossums, and since this is the more inclusive term that is what I use here. 

According to the New Zealand encyclopaedia, Te Ara, these animals were deliberately introduced to this country from Australia in 1837 to form the basis of a fur industry, but introduction was not successful until 1858. 

Sad to say they have since become a terrible pest.  The Encyclopaedia goes on to say that the estimated population is now in the region of 66 million.  In their native Australia, where they have predators and harsh conditions to contend with, they are not pests at all;  here, in contrast, they have no natural predators other than ourselves, and a lush leafy landscape with moderate climate has enabled them to breed and thrive relatively unchecked.  The effect on ecosystems here has been dire, especially on native bush and forested areas, but also on native insects and bird life.

This is not the fault of the opossums: they are simply living out their lives doing what they are designed to do; they are intelligent creatures with the full range of senses as well as emotions; and it is also worth bearing in mind that no other creature on the planet has ever been as destructive as our own species, a point which I am pleased to see recognised in the Te Ara encyclopaedia reference listed at the foot of this article, and yes, let's remind ourselves that it was humans who deliberately brought them here.  So when we are faced with their deaths, either by accident or from hunting and trapping, it's important to be as humane as possible and to show respect for the lives that are lost, for sentience snuffed out.    

An opossum seen on the road is often a dead opossum - or about to become so: the front ends of cars, and indeed all motor vehicles travelling at any speed, show no mercy. 

I drive a car myself, and often when I'm out and about I stop to check on people, birds and animals that look as if they may possibly be in need of help.  As a result I have some interesting stories to tell: often they are just fine; sometimes they are not; and from time to time they are very clearly dead, but I stop anyway, as was the case with this opossum this morning.  Why?  Because the way that I look at it there are few behaviours more indicative of human indifference than the driving over of fresh wildlife carcasses. 

This morning as I drove to town along a country road I noticed this animal lying with the stillness of the dead, and when I came back it still lay there apparently untouched.  I pulled over.  Fortunately I had an old jacket in the car: I put my hands into the sleeves, went over to the little corpse and carefully picked it up.  Its little body had stiffened as it lay, but its eyes were still clear and bright.  I climbed down the nearby bank and laid down in long grass under a shrub.  It could lie there peacefully - better by far than on the unforgiving road and the grinding wheels of passing traffic.

After I had laid it down I stroked it.  Opossum fur is very soft.  I admired its pretty face and apologised to it for its violent death, and for the stupidity of those who brought its kind to this country in the first place. 

Being interested in life in all its myriad forms I took some photographs.  It was a beautiful creature.  Opossums are both shy and nocturnal, so one doesn't often have the opportunity to look at them closely.  Seen from a short distance they look rather like cats, but a closer look reveals considerable differences.  You can see some of them in the photograph below, in the paw particularly:


Look at its interesting back feet.  From reading about them later I gather these are somewhat different from the front ones.  I didn't think to look at the front ones more closely at the time.


These back feet have an opposing digit, like a thumb, which is without a claw.  These help them to climb in trees.  You can see it in the foot at the left below, although not all that clearly as it is folded over the sole of the foot.  Those long claws, unlike cats claws, are not retractable!


The underside of an opossum's tail is bare of fur, and curls over at the tip.  Opossums spend a lot of time in trees where this muscular tail provides the animal with stability and additional grip, although it is not strong enough for it to swing by:


I lifted the tail back to get a better photograph.  That bare strip extends along the length of the tail. 


Then, having taken my photographs, and blessed the little animal in my own private way, I clambered up the bank, got back in the car and continued on my way home.  

I felt pensive and a little disoriented.  So I cheered myself up by baking a mulberry shortcake.  I'll share that recipe with you when I've finished writing this one.  

Another opossum I encountered when out driving, again in a largely rural area, was alive although injured: 
Driving along minding my own business, I observed what I thought was probably a cat, sitting near the side of the road cleaning itself.  It seemed an odd place for a cat to sit, or indeed for any animal to do such a thing, so close to the traffic.  I slowed down, pulled over, then turned the car around and drove back.  I got out of the car.  Was it a cat?  Or was it an opossum?  I really wasn't sure.  If was a dark charcoal grey all over, almost black, from nose to tail, and not unlike my fluffy little cat, Louisa. 

When approaching any bird or animal I have found it helpful to do so in a way which reduces the impression of threat: moving slowly, indirectly, and very importantly allowing them to have a good look at me from each side - bearing in mind that for most of them their eyes are positioned more on the sides of their heads than ours; and then I slowly lower myself closer to their level.

The little animal showed no fear at all, but then it was mostly occupied with attending to its paw, which it licked and licked, although it paused to take me in.  I couldn't see any injury, but it was clearly very painful or the animal would not continue to sit so close to the traffic, or to me either, come to that.  I talked to it quietly.  Very slowly and carefully I gently stroked the back of its neck.  A closer look at its paws helped me clarify that it was indeed an opossum, and the long strip of bare skin along the underneath of its tail which was revealed by its squatting posture made it doubly clear. I had never been so close to an opossum before and was a little shocked at the similarities and differences between them and cats. 

I wondered what on earth to do.  There was no way I could put it into the car or transport it, and it was unlikely to be welcomed by a vet; I am not a hunter or trapper and so was not willing to enter into anything in that direction...  Looking around me I saw that we were directly in front of a small house and its garden which offered no sanctuary for one such as this, but some few yards distant there was an empty fenced field with a lot of long grass and a few macrocarpa trees.  If I left the opossum by the road it would very likely get hit by another car; and the field was at quite a distance for someone with such a painful foot; and if it got that far it would still have to get through the fence...

I weighed up the odds involved with carrying it there and lifting it over into the long grass - and possibility of getting clawed and or dropping it.  I decided to do it anyway - very carefully.  I've handled birds and animals quite a bit and hold to Cesar Millan's well-tested belief that when you act calmly and assertively they commonly sense this and relax.  So I picked it up from behind holding it very firmly under its little armpits, and held it well away from me.  After hanging limp for a moment it swung its back legs to find support for itself, but not high enough to scrape my wrists!  I stayed calm and headed briskly to the fence line and carefully lowered it into the long grass, and set it down on its rear.  It gave a brief scream as it attempted to right itself and then resumed licking the sore paw.  I couldn't do anything more for it, so having seen it to relative safety went back to my car and drove on home.  I was glad I had stopped - it was a fellow creature and in pain.

The next day when I drove down that stretch of road I stopped the car so that I could look over the fence.  There was no sign of it.  Well, at least it hadn't been left to be hit by another car.  I had done what I could - and learnt a lot in the process.  

I'll share some more of my 'stopping to check' stories another time.  

Note: I wash my hands carefully after handling animals and birds, especially wild ones.  Opossums can carry tuberculosis. 

You can read more about opossums via these links:

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