A common Australian ringtail possum

How does a quick trip to the shops end with me returning home two hours late, covered in possum excrement and having had my brand new phone stolen? Welcome to the wacky world of Lyndal Cairns, professional bleeding heart and occasional wildlife rescuer.

Two nights ago, I was walking up my street when I saw a ring-tailed possum on the road, flipping and rolling. I’ve seen this before – it happened once when I hit a possum with my car – so I picked the poor thing up and wrapped it in my scarf. I was simultaneously trying to call Wildlife Victoria and open the door to my local pizza joint to ask them to find me a 24-hour vet when the possum got spooked and did a runner, leaping out of my arms, spraying me in defense and bolting towards a busy main road.

I immediately dropped my phone on the alfresco table and leapt after the poor thing, by which time it had realized freedom was not to be found in the peak hour traffic, and I was able to corner it. It responded by running up my skirt and staying put until I knocked on the window and got the attention of a patron, who proceeded to help haul the possum out of my skirt and wrap it up. In the ensuing three minutes, someone swiped my brand new mobile phone from the table. Yep, I am that unlucky.

The poor little guy was safety contained until I got him to the vet. They kept him for two days but he is not badly injured and they plan to release him tomorrow.

It was not until I got home, showered and changed all of my app passwords that I realized how often bad things happen to me when I am trying to help people. For example, the only time my car has ever been broken into was when I was volunteering for a project to divert local young people from petty crime. #Irony

Heartbreak on the hustings

Flying fox

A much-maligned flying fox. Image: Daniel Vianna (Mr.Rocks), creative commons.

I’ll admit, it gets me down. And I often wonder whether it’s worth it. When I lived in Brisbane, I volunteered to help with public relations for the bat care group; and there aren’t too many things more consistently maligned in Queensland than bats are. Here we were, saving baby bats from being entangled in fruit tree netting, or fallen 10m from powerlines after their mum had been zapped; and in other parts of the state, farmers were allowed to shoot them.

Anyone who has spent any time on Australian roads will tell you the sight of dead animals is very common. On my first road trip around the heavily deforested southern isle of Tasmania, a friend warned me Tassie roads were “shit and covered in roadkill”. Indeed, the red-brown smears every 400m do get you down after a while and in a country where most drivers don’t even bother moving corpses off the road, it’s easy to get complacent. Many vets will put down injured wildlife because they cannot justify the money to save it. So why bother rescuing at all?

Because Australian wildlife gets a terrible deal and we should all know how to do our bit.

When presented with a freshly dead possum in the bush but especially on the road, I will often check the mum for babies because baby possums are sometimes viable even if mum isn’t. To do this, you find the v-shaped entrance to the pouch and gently open it. If you can see the top two teats and there are no littleuns hanging off them, you can give the mum as dignified a burial as possible and move on. It’s a 90-second job to check pouches, and it could save the life of a baby possum.

My father sums it up in his inimitable way: “If doing right was easy, everyone would do it. And there’d be no need for Captain Underpants.”

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r1kkbSwFA7Q?feature=player_embedded]

One night, some years ago, I was coming home from a bar, reasonably inebriated, and I saw a dead possum in the gutter in the dark. I turned her over, found the v-shape but could not for the life of me find the pouch entrance. I was getting increasingly confused when a car rounded the bend, illuminated my work and I realized what had happened. The possum was, in fact, a boy but during the car impact, he had sucked his testicles up into his body. What I thought was the entrance to a pouch was in fact a dead male possum’s concave ballsack, which I had been fondling for some time.

So I sat for a moment in the gutter, at 2am, next to the dead possum I had sexually assaulted, and thought to myself: how did my life come to this?

But the best (or worst) possum-related story I have comes from when I was a teenager and lived with a strange hippy of a lass who at one stage adopted a feral cat. She was hardly the poster child for responsible pet ownership and so refused to desex, de-flea, collar, microchip or put a bell on the little fella so he would bring her “presents” of lizards and birds, leaving them out for her. Charming.

One day, this cat hauled in a brushtail possum larger than he was and left it dead on the doorstep with gizzards hanging out. My housemate’s thought process was thus: “The bins were just collected yesterday so it would stink if I put it in the wheelie bin, so I’m going to have to freeze it”. That’s right – she didn’t think to bury it or dispose of it far away – she froze it until the next bin day, alongside our food.

Much of this blog was originally posted on Facebook. Many thanks to those people who supported me in messages after the trauma of this week’s rescue.

Main image: Glen Fergus, creative commons.