MELBOURNE, Australia – After a night of noisy sex, heavy breathing, snarling spats and much scampering to and fro, the couple upstairs settles into a sunrise slumber as our bleary-eyed homeowner is roused from a fitful sleep by a smell that isn’t fresh-brewed coffee.
Enough already! It’s time to call Peter the Possum Man, a point guard in Melbourne’s ongoing marsupial mayhem. But Peter’s six trucks are already out this morning, responding to other complaints. Competitors, including Paul the Possum Catcher, Shield Pest & Weed Control’s “Possum. Removal Specialists,” and an outfit called Possoff, are also at work.
Demographers say that Australia is the least densely populated and most highly urbanized nation on earth. Contrary to movies, and myth, few of its 17 million people are at home in the Outback, the continent’s vast, dry, empty interior. Nearly nine of 10 of them cluster in coastal cities, worlds away from the dingoes, dunnies and didgeridoos of the bush. Forget those wild dogs, outhouses and aboriginal wind instruments. Forget “Crocodile Dundee” Paul Hogan, the actor who plays him in the movies, grew up in a Sydney suburb. Consider television’s Dame Edna “Hellooo Possums” Everage. Barry Humphries, the actor who plays her in drag as, in his words, a “silly, bigoted, ignorant, self satisfied Melbourne housewife,” grew up in Melbourne’s suburbs, loathing the burbs.
Real possums, on the other hand, love Aussie suburbia, thriving at four or five times the density they do in the bush. Probably nowhere in the world do so many people and possums dwell in such propinquity as they do in the leafy house and garden suburbs of Melbourne, on Australia’s verdant south coast. What runaway deer populations are to America’s Eastern suburbs, stay at home possums are to Melbourne. Residents, who number 3.2 million, either loathe them or love them. Tourists are crazy about them.
Possums-the most common are brush-tails and ringtails prefer dwelling in hollows in big, old trees. But such holes are rare in town except in parks. So any hole in a roof that is as big as a tennis ball is an open invitation for possums to take up residence. And once ensconced, they rearrange the insulation, chew up wiring, stain walls and stink up the place with their foul-smelling urine. Being nocturnal, they eat and boogie at night.
What’s more, the law is on their side. Australia has about two dozen species of possums. Ranging from cat size to coon size, they are furrier and cuter than their hairy American cousins, named opossums by Indians in Virginia and described in 1612 by Capt. John Smith as having “a head like a swine and a tail like a rat.” Aussie possums are protected by Australia’s Wildlife Act of 1975. No trapping or eradicating is allowed without a license. And such permits are increasingly hard to come by because, here in the state of Victoria, the Department of Conservation and Environment has adopted a people-possum coexistence policy and has begun a “Living With Possums” campaign.
“Possum wise, I reckon we now get around 80 calls a week,” says Brian W. Adams, general manager of Peter the Possum Man, which isn’t a real person but rather a 25 year old subsidiary of Adams Pest Control Pty. Ltd. Callers inevitably begin, “Hello, Peter?”
“A lot of Johnny come latelies have gotten into the business,” he says. “Most just catch possums and take them away. Any fool can do that.” The talent, he says, is in finding their holes and possum proofing the roof. He guarantees it for a year.
Enter possum sleuth Bob Turra. In his ninth year of spotting possum holes and estimating remedy costs for Peter the Possum Man, he guides a visitor across the tin roof of a house in Footscray, a working class suburb. Its underside is riddled with access holes and stains.”See that greasy stuff it’s body oil,” he says. “That’s where they’re getting in. See over here. Rats. And look at that hair. Cats, too. She’s got quite a menagerie up here. No wonder it’s noisy.” He estimates trapping, repair and follow up at $350. The homeowner, insulted about the rats, decides against it.
Until last fall, professional possum catchers could turn their catches over to animal shelters for relocation. They did so at the rate of more than 5,000 annually. Do it yourselfers could borrow cages from townships and do likewise.
Dying In the Wild
Then Ian Temby became Victoria’s wildlife damage control officer and found, he says, that “over 90% of the relocated possums died in a matter of hours or a few days from predators and “Stress.” Soft suburban possums simply couldn’t hack it in the bush.
So Mr. Temby is trying to phase out the practice. He has written letters to town ships urging them to stop lending out cages. He wrote a book called “Living With Wildlife,” and he started the “Living With Possums” campaign. The idea, he says, is for residents to build possum housing in their trees that looks like over sized birdhouses.
Peter the Possum Man sells possum apartments for $65. But Mr. Adams notes that it isn’t easy to talk a client into buying a house for an animal that has trashed his own. But, writes Mr. Temby, “relocation of a possum from its territory simply creates a vacant territory that is likely soon to be occupied by another possum.”
Besides, goes the current ecological thinking, possums were here first. For about 65 million years before man arrived. Australia was one vast Jurassic Park for possums and other marsupials, including kangaroos, wombats, koalas, bandicoots, wallabies and 100 or so other species (not to mention two monotremes, “the platypus and the spiny anteater, which lay eggs). Marsupials are primitive mammals that raise their premature young in belly pouches (in contrast to placental mammals, which raise fetuses in wombs).
Isolated by oceans from landmasses where heartier placental mammals evolved and eliminated most marsupials, Australian marsupials thrived and diversified. About 30,000 years ago, aboriginal humans arrived, bringing a placental carnivore, the dingo. Beginning in the 18th century, Europeans brought their sheep, cattle, cats, rats, foxes and rabbits. Marsupials were slaughtered to make way. In 1906, some four million Australian possum skins were exported to London and New York. In 1932, a million possum pelts were marketed as “Adelaide chinchilla.” Eight years ago, possum skins brought $1 million to licensed hunters in the state of Tasmania. In 1990, they got only $150,000.
The 1975 wildlife law was a godsend for marsupials and other native animals. But some Aussies have been nurturing them since long before it was adopted. For example, Graham Cochran, a 77 year old pensioner who lives alone, has been feed¬ing the possums in Yarra Park near the Melbourne Cricket Ground nightly for 35 years. He figures he has missed only about 20 feedings in all that time.
Each afternoon around 5:30, he gets 22 loaves of leftover bread from an Italian bakery near his apartment and strips off the hard crust (because, as a boy, he didn’t like crust) and wets the bread into doughy balls. At about 8:30, he drives his battered old Holden sedan to the park and wheels a shopping cartload of bread from tree to tree, feeding dozens of possums. They know to expect him.
“I named this one Stubby,” Mr. Cochran says, feeding some bread to an eager possum with shortened brush tail. “He’s me mate.”