Exclusive post: Possum Wars – Raising brushtail possums

Hi there, my name is Chris and I am a wildlife carer. I run a wildlife shelter with my partner Jodie, which means that the government wildlife department gives us a permit to handle and hold Australian native animals. Our shelter is unusual in that we live in an apartment close to the CBD. Luckily we have a big apartment! I do most of the rescuing, and tend to get calls mostly in the city or the North Western fringe from Carlton across to Port Melbourne. Jodie does a lot of the research into animal husbandry methods, which is important when raising orphaned babies as well as when we get injured animals. We are also registered with Wildlife Victoria, who operate a phone rescue service, and they call us whenever members of public find animals who require our assistance. This is the story of two brushtail possums who we rescued and who we raised up to adulthood. Their story is being featured on the upcoming documentary “Possum Wars” on the ABC on 15th December.

In September 2012 I got called out to the Carlton Gardens near the Exhibition Building, where a member of public had found a baby male brushtail possum beneath one of the magnificent fig trees. Baby possums of all varieties often get separated from their mothers during “baby season”, often during attack from predators. The brushtail possum was very cold when I got him from the man who had found him below the tree. Hypothermia can be fatal for all babies, so as I drove home I had him in my hand and blowing warm air on him. He was small enough to fit in one of my hands so he must have only been 150 grams. When I got him home I kept warming him and gave him some milk formula. I then noticed some objects in his mouth and when I looked in there found some small sticks! He had been crawling around in the dirt beneath the tree and had some got a mouthful of dirt and sticks. I cleaned this out and he got the name “Stix”.

Of course, since he had just lost him mum he was very sad.

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Next up, we got a call to go to a house in Fitzroy, where a couple had heard the sounds of scratching behind their kitchen rangehood. After breaking through the back of it, they found a small baby female brushtail who had fallen down the shute and got trapped there. We then tried to reunite this baby (who we later renamed “Beatle”) with her mother. Reuniting mothers and babies sometimes works with possums, but you need to find the right mother and then you almost hand the baby to her when she comes to investigate the calls of her baby. On this occasion, although other possums came forward to see why Beatle was calling, none seemed to be the mother. So we had to take her home with us.

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We always pair up orphaned possums so that they have a friend to grow up with and learn how to socialise. So Beatle and Stix became brother and sister. Because they were so small they were placed in a pink Rio basket with a heat pad. The possums sleep in small knitted pouches which we place on top of the heat pad. The Rio basket is then placed inside a small cage with branches to climb on. Although very small, we like to encourage them to learn to climb as early as they can, although they often need some supervision as they are very wobbly.

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Of course there are always some close calls when you are learning to climb. Especially if you are an adventurous brushtail possum like Stix.

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When the brushtails are very young and still missing their mums, a little bit of time needs to be spent with them each day giving them a little reassurance, at least until they are old enough to look after each other.

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One of the biggest things to learn is good eating habits, especially eating your greens! Although some flowers are offered to the brushtails, we try to ensure that a large part of their diet consists of native leaves such as eucalyptus and wattle.

In the first picture below you can see Beatle, and the next shot is of Stix. You can see how important their hands are for picking up their food. Ringtails similarly pick up their food with their front feet. Their tails are important to help anchor them while they are eating. Notice also that they have moved up to the next size in cages, which allows them to do more climbing given they are now probably over 400 grams in weight in these pictures.

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It should be noted that collecting the possum food every night is my job. I have a number of trees around the local area that I prune on a daily basis to ensure the freshest food. We have to put this up around their cages so that they get used to browsing. Picking the foliage and putting it up in the cages takes over one hour every night.

Although eating solids at this stage, they are still given their milk formula each day to ensure they keep putting on weight. At this stage of life, if they were with their mother they would still spend time in her pouch and still get milk from her. The milk formula (which is specially formulated for marsupials) gives them protein and assists the healthy development of their bodies. When small they are given milk bottles, but as they get older they are encouraged to lap. Once they have learned to lap we can then just put the milk out for them around the cage and they can drink themselves. Here is a photo of some “training laps”.

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Another thing that happens when the brushtails become young juveniles is that they are moved into their final large cage and put in a possum box. They sleep in the possum box now instead of their pouch, and when they are taken to be released will be taken with their box so they have a familiar home to go with them when taken to a new environment.

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This is a picture of Stix just before he was taken to his new home.

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Being orphans, Stix and Beatle essentially had no territory. It might be possible to take them back to where they come from if this is appropriate, but we generally don’t return orphaned babies back to any of the inner city gardens, due to the fact that these are usually quite crowded in terms of possums and there is usually no supply of native foods in those parks. In addition, we like to do a slow release with hand-reared possums, as they have no experience of being in the wild and need to develop their skills and confidence slowly. This usually involves keeping them in an outside aviary for several weeks, getting them used to eating the local foliage, and then leaving the door open so they can come and go until they no longer require the outside aviary, either for the shelter it provides or the supplementary food that is provided until they seem to have left permanently. Such a release strategy is not possible in the inner city gardens, nor is it generally possible in most people’s backyards, even if they agree to us bringing back a juvenile possum to put in their garden! The other option is a hard release, where you simply stick the possum up a tree in their possum box and hope for the best. We feel certain that such a strategy will have poor outcomes in terms of the possum’s long-term survival prospects.

In this case, we decided to release Beatle and Stix at a friend’s property outside of Melbourne. Our friend’s property is 100 acres, and there are some other possums there but plenty of room to accommodate a couple more. It is helpful to release the males particularly when they are juveniles as other males do not find them a threat to their territory. This gives the males a better chance to make their way in a foreign territory without getting into fights. It must be remembered that possums are very territorial. This is another reason against returning orphans to where they came from, as it is likely they will be forced to fight with other possums for territory.

The car trip out to their new home can be somewhat stressful for the possums, as they generally haven’t been in a car since we picked them up as babies. You can see Stix is somewhat upset here.

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Here we can see the new release aviary for Beatle and Stix. Their possum box is placed inside the cage to remind them of home. They seem to settle down quickly. You can see the ABC cameraman in the shot.

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Here you can see the property where Beatle and Stix now live, with the huge release aviary off to the right. They get moved to this aviary after adjusting to the smaller aviary first, where the woman managing the property (Kate) can keep a better eye on them and ensure they are doing well. Kate (in red) and Jodie can be seen in the foreground of this picture too.

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Kangaroos also use the property.

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Here is some of the foliage that is collected from the local area each day for Beatle and Stix to eat. They need to get used to this as this is what they will find when the go out on their own.

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Here is one of the last shots of Beatle and Stix that we took. Beatle is on the right. We went and visited them a few weeks and they were both doing well. We were there when the aviary door was left open and although it took a few days, they eventually left the safety of their aviary. They did hang around for a couple of weeks before moving on to possum boxes around the property.

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Beatle and Stix one year later

What is fantastic about a slow release on a friend’s property is that you get reports of your “babies”, and in this case, your baby’s babies! One year later, Beatle spends her time moving around possum boxes around the area, and Kate often finds her in one of these. Then she noticed one day that Beatle had a baby!

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We think given the timing that the father of the baby was probably Stix! Therefore we called the baby “Bix”. You can see Bix is yellow-coloured, just like Beatle was when she was a baby.

Unlike hand-reared orphans, babies in the wild grow up very quickly! Bix was soon sighted away from his mother, feeding on his own, although still not even a juvenile – you can see why they get separated from their mothers in the city, they are very independent! Kate found him a month later looking very big already and in his own box. He was somewhat wilder than the hand-reared possums and didn’t appreciate the intrusion.

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Over the last month, however, Kate has not sighted Beatle or Bix, so they have likely moved further afield into the deeper forest where there are more brushtails.

As for Stix, he moved into an old disused wooden shed several hundred metres away from his release aviary. There are possum boxes in the shed and Stix lives in one of these. Kate still gives him almonds now and again, although he is quite wild now so you cannot touch him. We don’t know if he and Beatle still see each other around the property, but it is likely.

So hopefully that is a bit of an insight into the story of Beatle and Stix, and now Bix, and some of the toils and rewards of caring for wildlife. It takes great commitment but hopefully we are giving these native animals a chance to lead a wild existence. Check out the story of Beatle and Stix in the upcoming ABC documentary on 15th December at 7.30pm. Here is a link to the show: www.abc.net.au/tv/programs/possum-wars/

Easter bilbies!

Bilby road sign

In Australia we are very lucky to have all sorts of cool and unusual animals, many of which you won’t find anywhere else in the world.

This month we are focusing on one of these animals: the bilby. It’s a cute, fluffy little marsupial that is unfortunately in a bit of trouble as a species.

Read on to find out more about the bilby, including what you can do to help make sure these endearing little creature have a place in our future.

 Fast bilby facts*

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The greater bilby (scientific name macrotis lagotis):

  • Is a nocturnal marsupial and the largest member of the bandicoot family.
  • Is an omnivore, meaning it eats plants and animals – bulbs, fruit, seeds, fungi, insects, worms, termites, small lizards and spiders.
  • Lives in a burrow, which can be up to two metres deep.
  • Has a very short gestation period – the female will be pregnant for only 12–14 days and, like a kangaroo, will initially keep the young in her pouch, where it will stay for about 75–80 days.
  • Used to have a sister species – the lesser bilby. However, the lesser bilby is now believed to be extinct (it’s hard to be completely sure in such a big country).

Issues facing the bilby

The main issue facing bilbies is thought to be non-native species, in particular feral cats and foxes. Bilbies need a few million years of evolution to be able to cope with the honed skills of these extremely efficient hunters and that’s just not an option.

Additionally, rabbits (another introduced species) are moving into areas that used to be occupied only by bilbies. Because rabbits breed so quickly, they are competing for food and burrowing space with the native bilbies.

The bilby could once be found all over Australia but today its population has dropped so much it is classed as a vulnerable species by the federal government. (To find out more about what that actually means, read our previous blog post about threatened species in Australia). Very sad news indeed.

Don’t feel helpless, you can make a difference

Now at Cool To Be Kind To Animals we’re not all about doom and gloom!  We also want to make sure we show you the positive things people are doing to help and even how you can do your bit.

1. The Save The Bilby Fund

The Save The Bilby Fund is a really cool organisation that is absolutely determined to save the bilby. They run bilby education and breeding programs and have also created a large predator-free area for bilbies in Currawinya National Park, Queensland. Learn more about their great work on their website. (Check out their cool fridge magnets too.)

2. Buy chocolate (no really!)

Pink Lady Chocolates has stepped up to fill the boots of Darrell Lea and is producing this year’s chocolate bilbies. (We’ve heard they are even tastier.) What a great way to celebrate this Easter AND help support the valuable work of the Save The Bilby Foundation. Click here for stockists.

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3. Get your cat neutered

We love kitties, but feral cats are a real problem for bilbies. There are millions of feral cats in Australia and we really need to make sure that as responsible cat owners we aren’t adding to this problem (for the sake of cats as well as bilbies). So, one thing you can do is make sure your cat is neutered as this will help to stop the creation of stray and unwanted litters and the spread of feral cats across Australia.

Additionally, if you have a cat and live in an area with a known bilby population, wildlife organisations suggest that you keep your cats inside, particularly at night, as this is the time they are most likely to harm the little creatures. If your cat does go outside, they also recommended that you put a bell on its collar as this can help warn bilbies they are coming.

Get involved with CTBK

Like what you read? The Cool To Be Kind To Animals project needs your help to grow into a successful animal care educational movement. Please share this article to raise awareness of the plight of bilbies and the project.

You can also follow us via this blog, as well as on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

Take care – of all animals! The Cool To Be Kind To Animals team

*Source: Save The Bilby Fund. Chocolate Bilbies are Back image © Save The Bilby Fund