House a possum, not a cat
Posted by Dave Bath on 2011-05-01
It is good to see the use of possum-boxes advocated in "The Possum Wars" (The Sunday Age, 2011-05-01), but it didn’t push the point that there should be a war on the far more noisy and destructive mammal in our cities – the cat.
Cats, for their massacre of native fauna, could be called "furry cane toads" – but that would be unkind to cane toads which at least don’t impose a significant cost to human health (see "Kill cats – save humans and the health budget" – 2009-06-09).
Possums might be a little annoying with their kxkxxxx noises during the mating season, but they don’t make noises all damn year, and don’t mimic the sound of a human baby crying. That sound gets deep down, reaches into even my sleep, and wakes me up, having grabbed at my basic human instincts to attend to a distressed infant.
Possums? They make good "wild buddies" for the famil – while you cannot establish the reciprocal affection you can with a magpie family, it’s pretty easy to develop some trust from them.
Personally, I think kids can learn as much, if not more, from a wild buddy than a pet.
All it takes to develop the trust of possums, or at least young and females (especially when pregnant) is a calm attitude, and something sweet like some juice or dried fruit (paw paw and mango spears work a treat).
The possum box to keep possums out of your ceiling space is a relatively unknown tactic. – even more unknown is that you should compete with your suburban neighbor to have the coolest possum nesting spot: with a territorial range of a few houses, an inhabited possum box in your back yard will definitely keep other possums from your roof, while you are less protected if your neighbor’s possum box is occupied first, as you won’t get your own resident protective possums.
While prevented from putting up possum boxes myself (rented homes), I’ve often had possums nesting in trees close by. They have been a source of joy, particularly when my daughter was little, going out with fruit late at night to have a female covered with clinging young eating from our hands. Those memories have stuck with her – and the fact she still delights in those memories from a couple of decades ago gives me joy, the joy of having given her memorable pleasure that many kids don’t get.
But cats? If you dislike possums for eating introduced trees, but love cats that kill native fauna, then you not only have problems performing a moral calculus, but downright un-Australian.
- The protests of cat lovers "Mine aren’t a threat and don’t have Toxoplasma gondii so people won’t get sick and unborn babies won’t get killed" are about as logical as people saying that speed limits, drink-driving laws and third-party rego aren’t necessary because they are careful drivers.
- Cats cause significant harm to human welfare, even to those innocents who detest cats, by dramatically increasing the rate of car accidents and triggering severe mental illnesses, even without the better known problem of killing unborn babies.
- There are some good instructions for buying or making possum boxes available from a range of government sites: e.g. Build-your-own from NSW (important: Do not use treated timber, toxic paints, chipboard or smelly glues), or get a list of suppliers in Victoria or email
- It’s not like our possums aren’t pretty. The kids of a US friend of my daughter, after getting a copy of "Possum Magic", kept asking her mum "Why are our opossums so ugly and the Australian ones are so cute? Why can’t we have cute possums?"
- While I think we should encourage urban possums here in Oz, I think it is totally justifiable for the New Zealand government to try and exterminate them from cities and countryside.
- "Kill cats, save humans (and the health budget)" 2009-06-09 has lots of links to scientific papers so you can assess the tax burden imposed on us all from allowing cats in Australia – or at least, by not forcing them to be chipped, registered, killing any that aren’t registered, and fining the hell out of owners who let their cats wander. It’s not just a problem cats cause for humans – the effects are significant for economically important animals like sheep and cattle when infected during pregnancy. It’s based on the fact that T.gondii wants to get back into the cat for the next stage of its life cycle, so affects the infected host’s behaviour, changing the brain chemistry to decrease IQ, decrease vision and motor tone, while increasing risky behaviour and diminishing aversion to the smell of cats, so the unfortunate mammal gets caught and eaten by the next cat (if you are a mouse, or historically for us humans, something like a lion or sabre-tooth tiger).