Pests or Pets? Why Some New Zealanders Are Raising Possums

Australian possums have attracted plenty of negative press since they were introduced to Aotearoa, but multispecies justice scholar Philip McKibbin argues that these gentle creatures don’t deserve the vitriol.

Rescued Brushtail Possum, image by Vanessa Kiermeier via Shutterstock, ID:1221107317.

Maurice likes to stay up all night. When he finally settles down at 5am, he makes sure everyone knows he’s there – then he curls up and sleeps all day.

“When he’s ready to go to bed, he gives us a good face wash to say ‘hi,’” Jo Little* says, laughing. “He’s got really, really cold feet, and he puts them all over your head. He licks every area of your face!”

Maurice is a brushtail possum. His mother was hit by a car when he was just a joey, but he survived. Little and her daughter Mary* rescued him, and since then they have been raising him at their home in North Canterbury. The marsupials are protected in their native Australia, but in Aotearoa New Zealand they are widely considered to be pests. They were first released in the nineteenth century, so that they could be hunted for their fur.

Labelled ‘predators’ due to the dubious belief that they habitually prey on birds and their eggs, possums have been linked to defoliation and die-back. As ‘reservoirs’ – or potential carriers – of bovine tuberculosis, they are also seen as a threat to New Zealand’s agriculture industries. Now, they are targets of Predator Free 2050, a state-sponsored campaign to eradicate possums, stoats, and rats by the middle of this century.

Despite this, compassionate New Zealanders across the country are caring for injured and orphaned possums. Relying on each other for advice, as well as sympathetic vets who will desex the possums, they share their lives with these animals.

Maurice, image courtesy of his owner.

Claire Dixon*, who lives in Auckland, considers her rescue possum part of the family. “I call him my son,” she says. “I also have two daughters.” She believes possums are special animals. “The relationship that you have with them is so unlike any other pet, because it’s like you have a pouch, and they treat you like you’re their parent,” she explains. “As they get older, they still treat jumping down your top as their safe place, and they’ll go in there and cuddle you for hours.”

Eddie shares the house with other rescue animals – Dixon currently looks after cats, chickens, pigeons, and a very sick hedgehog. In order to ensure he has everything he needs, she sold her family jewellery to pay for a fully-equipped enclosure. There are restrictions on keeping possums as companion animals in Aotearoa. The Department of Conservation says that anyone who wishes to keep one must obtain permission, but they do not actively pursue people who fail to do so.

Rules around keeping possums also vary from region to region. Dr Imogen Bassett, Biosecurity Principal Advisor for Auckland Council, says possums cannot be kept as pets in Auckland, because they are ‘pests’ under the Auckland Regional Pest Management Plan, which is prepared under the Biosecurity Act. “Although people shouldn’t keep pet possums at all, the most critical thing is to not breed or release possums into the wild,” she says.

Emily Major is a PhD candidate in the NZ Centre for Human-Animal Studies at the University of Canterbury, and her research focuses on possums. She believes that nowhere in the world is an animal species as demonised as possums are in Aotearoa.

New Zealanders have been misled about these animals, she says. “A lot of the ‘facts’ that are being reported are not reflective of what possums actually eat.” For example, many New Zealanders believe possums prey on native birds and their eggs – but there is little evidence that these form a significant part of their diets. The Oxford Handbook of New Zealand Mammals says they are “best described as opportunistic herbivores, feeding mainly on leaves.” Dixon’s experience backs this up. Eddie has been raised around chickens. “He’s seen chicken eggs,” she says. “No interest whatsoever.” What he really likes to eat are mesclun salad, carrots, kūmara, sweetcorn, cashews, and mealworms.

Eddie, image courtesy of his owner.

Major believes that humans blame possums for environmental destruction in order to avoid taking responsibility for our actions. “What humans are doing is completely destroying New Zealand. In order to placate ourselves and make humans feel better for what we’re doing to the environment, we are scapegoating possums,” she says. Dixon agrees. “People get it in their heads that possums are angry, nasty, yucky little animals.” The real cause of environmental degradation, she says, is farming – which is responsible for deforestation, and among the leading causes of pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. “We all know exactly the damage that all of that does.”

“In order to placate ourselves and make humans feel better for what we’re doing to the environment [in Aotearoa], we are scapegoating possums.”

Major argues that possums are victims of colonisation, as they were brought here by Pākehā (NZ Europeans) to be exploited. She says that by trapping, poisoning, and shooting possums, Pākehā are trying to justify their own place in a country their ancestors colonised – a process that was disastrous for native species, the natural environment, and Māori. “It’s like, ‘I belong here; I don’t deserve to leave. They deserve to leave.’” The hatred directed at possums doesn’t actually have much to do with the animals, she says. “It has everything to do with human understandings of belonging here in New Zealand.”

Little and her daughter wish everyone could meet a possum. Even people who view them as ‘pests’ change their minds when they meet Maurice. “They’ve got so much personality and character,” Little says. Mary agrees. “They’re great pets!”

*Names have been changed to protect anonymity.

An edited version of this article was published in the Guardian.

Philip McKibbin is a New Zealand writer of Pākehā (NZ European) and Māori (Ngāi Tahu) descent. He is a PhD candidate in Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Sydney, exploring multispecies justice. His book, Love Notes: for a Politics of Love, is published in New York by Lantern.