Oh-possums!

Behold:

singing opossums

Now that I have hopefully intrigued and possibly worried you, read on to answer your burning questions!

New Zealand has a opossum problem.  It has a problems with lots of invasives, actually, but I have excellent photos of stuffed opossums and a topical link, so let’s start here.

This is my concise understanding of the problem:  Soon after the primordial ooze dried up into the world, New Zealand said ‘Cheers!’ in a hilarious accent to Pangea and floated off alone.  It spent the next whatever billion years developing an eco-system free of most mammals.  Maybe all land mammals, actually, and only occasionally swim-bys from whales.  But definitely no rats, stoats, weasels, opossums, whatever creepy little things you can think of, or bears or other large scary things*.  The animals left got used to not being hunted- the kiwi is flightless, as are a couple other native birds, because who needs to fly when there’s nothing after you or your eggs?

Anywho people got there, and brought bunches of other mammals with them, some by accident, some on purpose to make the place more ‘home-y’.  And since then, it’s been open season on the unsuspecting indigenous animals.

But why are opossums so bad?  They eat eggs, and procreate quickly, and travel.  They’ve helped wipe out bird populations all over New Zealand.  They’re widely hunted- and drivers are encouraged to aim for them when you see one on the road, opossum roadkill being a sort of public service- but their populations keep growing.

Let’s add another wrinkle (NZ is a very wrinkly country): NZ is pretty concerned about it’s environment.  Active government agencies and task forces figuring it out, cleaning it up, keeping it nice for the tourists and hugely influential agriculture industry and sometimes even to fulfill promises to the tangata whenua.  Environmental debates more closely impact more of the population than here in the US, and it was my impression that they tended to be more active and spirited than they are here (Kiwis, care to comment?  I wasn’t there long and the headlines in the NZ Herald could be misleading me).

So, opossums are a problem (I think they also spread cattle diseases so farmers are all upset about them), hunting’s not enough, and the government has decided to deal with it by still dropping poison all over the landscape from airplanes.  What?  This does not sound caring and thoughtful.  At first!

Their risk analysis shows the destruction done by opossums is more than that done by the poison, referred to as ‘1080’, so they’re going to keep using it despite protests from staff who don’t want to be exposed to all the poisons and other people who, well, don’t want poison all over.  Kills more innocent animals and such who get in it, gets into streams.  The stuff they use does degrade, but it’s pretty potent for a few days.  More info on it is here.

Pretty interesting debate.  Check out all the comments at the NZ Herald on the practice– both for and against, from people much more informed and in-tune with the country’s needs than I am.  I am curious about why they use aerial spraying, though- is it simply more efficient than spreading it in a more localized fashion?  Would local drops raise fewer safety issues?  Or, since the animals need to ingest the poison for it to work, does it have to be coating everything to be effective and so spraying just makes sense all sorts of ways?

Ponder away, if you like, or check out a more entertaining way to get rid of opossums- by selling their carcasses to tourists.  I visited Opossum World in Napier, NZ, in order to see what is billed as their “amazing static display”.  They have a diorama of taxidermy opossums eating the eggs of taxidermy birds- with a system to play the songs of the native birds the opossum endangers, and some other stuffed exhibits on the opossum life cycle, how they’ve killed (lots of old poison cans in that display), and a display of a opossum hunter skinning one while another fiddles on his roof.  Also a quintet of singing opossums on a car (see, brought it back for you).  Not all of it is strictly factual.  But it is certainly amazing: check out my pictures here.  (There are other less dead-opossums related things to do in Napier, too.  Just putting that out there.  You should go.)

In the same shop, you can get all sorts of opossum gifts- they’re commodifying the dead animals by making their fur into yarn for some very warm knits, hats, computer dusters…you name it, they make it from opossum for you.  They even made a moa.  And the opossum/merino blends are in stores all over the country, too, so the more you get your friends and family, the more you help rid the island of a pest.  Except the 1080 helps even more than that.  But it’s a start, and my new mittens are prettier than accidental poisonings.

*I double checked and they had two kinds of mammals, both of which are bats, and despite that Calvin and Hobbes sequence about them not being bugs I had no idea they were really mammals.  Didn’t Susie even say that? Ah, youth.

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4 Responses to “Oh-possums!”


  1. 1 Kenneth Moore August 11, 2009 at 12:33 am

    Oh. My. Gods. I don’t really know what to say to that! “LOL” comes to mind.

    The human toxicity levels of fluoroacetate is actually pretty high. A lot of weeds have toxins that are much more potent (and, according to the Wikipedias, fluoroacetate is just that–a naturally occurring herbivore deterrent).

    Spraying ensures that a large area gets coated with the compound–laying out poisoned food means much more concentrated poison over a much smaller area, with no ensurance that the opossums will eat it and die and a larger likelihood that something else will definitely die. With the assumption being that this compound basically affects mammals pretty much the same, since it blocks the metabolic pathway we all use for energy, then the larger the mammal, the higher the dose needed to be affected–since opossums are smallish, they would need a much lower dose than would seriously harm cattle, sheep, or humans.

    My bet is that as long as peeps or cattle aren’t sprayed directly, they’ll be fine-ish. I’m sure the government has targeted certain high-opossum-population areas–hopefully they would look at the weather and water infrastructure, too, to make certain that rainfall won’t wash the spray into any drinking-water reservoir.

    I think it’s not the most horrible option available. But, this is like one of those shitty questions like “Would you kill a child to save a village?” I think that’s what’s happening here. Either way, it’s crappy, but what’s the least-damaging solution? Spraying is scary, and I don’t know the situation all that well–but invasive sometimes-carnivorous beasts running rampant are scary too. Did you ever see the movie “Ben“?

    • 2 Kenneth Moore August 11, 2009 at 12:43 am

      whoops–by “human toxicity levels are actually pretty high” I meant to say “the amount of toxin needed to harm a human is pretty high” in comparison to some other compounds.

      Botulinin, for example, the botulism toxin. It has an LD 50 of 1 to 4 ng/kg (by inhalation). Granted, it’s an amazingly nasty compound, but even so. There are deadlier things out there.

      (By the way, solanine, the toxic compound in potatoes, tomatoes, and deadly nightshade, has an ingested LD 50 of 590 mg/kg in rats–I thought it would be higher.)

  2. 3 apteryx hastyi August 11, 2009 at 7:07 am

    Research into new control techniques is on-going (e.g., immunocontracpetion), but 1080 is still an effective option. And it’s probably instructive to know that the Green Party endorses 1080 as one of a suite of tools. I don’t think the vociferous opponents of 1080 fully appreciate the threats to the native flora/fauna from our four-legged foreigners. But hey, what’s new?

  3. 4 dolphinblueinc August 11, 2009 at 10:42 pm

    Beautiful! Maybe it did just need to be left alone. 🙂


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