good-bye cocoa

Cocoa's mother, Ginger, was known to us simply as The Possum until the day we glimpsed her baby's tiny white fist extending out of the pouch and opening up, reaching up as if determined already at that stage of her young life to take all she could from the experience of living. The Possum was eating chocolate cake at the time, and GK immediately thought of the name Cocoa for her baby.

Before that time, we had been reluctant to name her mother. I guess we weren't really sure how far our involvement with the wild animals in the area should go. At the time we committed to a name for Cocoa, we had 'crossed over to the other side', and realized we were more attached to The Possum and her baby than we had expected to be. Since we gave the baby a food name, it seemed fitting to give the mother a food name, too. Our involvement with The Possum had developed at Christmastime of 2004, when The Possum had been strongly attracted to the smell of a gingerbread house GK had made for me as a present (hence the name Ginger).

We knew that possum lives were tough and unpredictable. All along we realized that we might lose either of the possums at any time. When Cocoa was at the age of independence, we realized that we may never see her again, as it was time for her to find her own territory.

We didn't see her for approximately 3 weeks. And then, suddenly, she appeared. She started coming around regularly, and several months later, Ginger left and we wondered if Ginger had left her territory to Cocoa.

Cocoa was a very curious little possum, and was always getting into trouble of some kind. When she was still with Ginger, she fell off the roof onto the balcony one night, and GK helped her to get back onto the roof. On her own, she showed up covered in foul-smelling tar on three separate occasions, and we cut it out of her fur for her. One time, she had an eye infection, which cleared up after GK squirted warm tea into it.

And then there was the draggling of her ear. One night, Cocoa showed up severely injured. Her ear was badly damaged and she had a large wound on one of her legs. She seemed very frightened. After that, there were other incidents, like when she was harassed by birds in the daylight, looking unkempt and distressed. We were worried that she had been weakened by the attack that had damaged her ear, that she had lost confidence and would hereafter be a target.

She came around to the house very frequently at that time, and she sometimes slept in one of our nestboxes. (The day she was caught out in daylight, Cococa finally made it to one of the nestboxes, and then slept for a full 25 hours before emerging again.) We fed her, and spent time with her while she sat in the trees in the yard. Before long, it seemed her confidence returned, and she was her old curious fierce self.

We were not sure Cocoa was the kind of possum who would make a good mother. We were surprised by how responsible and tolerant she turned out to be. Her babies, Queek, Švejk and Kwila, seemed well- cared for, and seemed quite capable and good-natured little possums.

In the beginning, possums were a novelty, and we wanted to know what foods they liked. Possums do like to try new things and it is quite amusing to note their preferences and quirks. However, over time we became more and more conscious that it was better to limit the 'treats' and focus mainly on giving them foods that were healthier for possums.

The night Cocoa died, we were eating Indian takeaway. Indian food was one of Cocoa's favourite treats, and we were looking forward to giving her a little bit. Possums like to eat, but when they find something particularly delicious, their eyes will open wide, and they will eat very rapidly.

GK's property is probably something like a piece of state forest sandwiched inbetween more typical suburban gardens. This is why we witness such variety and abundance of wildlife, but it probably makes us far from ideal neighbours.

Neighbours have a legal right to chop off branches that protrude into their gardens. Also, we could have made efforts to trim these branches back, but did not. With some of the taller trees, though, it would have been impossible for us to do this ourselves. There are several large gum trees on this property, one of which is probaby over 25m high. Possums and sugar gliders particularly like these types of trees.

It could very well be that Cocoa and Kwila fell into the neighbour's yard when a tree branch broke, and that the neighbour's dog stood between them and the only tree they could climb to escape. Maybe things like this happen all the time to possums, and it comes down to timing and luck. Eg, on another night or at a different time, the dog might not have been outside.

The next day, GK trimmed back all the branches he could reach on his own. This has been a difficult lesson. However, even if you do everything 'right' in life, while you may lessen the odds of tragic occurrences, you can't completely eliminate unexpected pain from entering your life. Possums have a high mortality rate. They also have a high birth rate.

It had all happened so fast. It was a normal Friday night, and we were waiting to see what possums would visit that night. We had no idea that soon we'd be rushing Cocoa to a vet, or that that evening it would be necessary to put an end to her suffering as quickly as possible.

Is anybody every really prepared for that moment of realization that a beloved person or pet will never return, that you will never see them again?

We all know that such things could happen at any moment, but we go about our lives.

We didn't realize just how attached we were until we knew she was gone and not coming back. The sick feeling and the heavy sadness seem likely to linger for a considerable time yet.

All of this calls to mind questions of human interference, questions of personal responsibility and what is best for wildlife. Is it always a bad idea to feed the wildlife?

We don't know what happened to Ginger, and we don't know what has become of Cocoa's other babies, Queek and Švejk, or Ginger's second baby, Kulfi, or to others who have stopped by briefly, Olaf and Leopold. It is normal for young male possums to go off to seek their own territories when they reach the age of independence. We realize that we have to accept the unpredictablity of possum life, and the high mortality rate of possums, as well as the uncertainty as to what has become of particular possums we have had contact with.

As for Kwila, we very much hope that she will take over Cocoa's territory. We hope that she is able to protect herself and survive in this difficult time. She is young to be without a mother. It seems likely that while the dog was preoccupied with Cocoa, Kwila was able to scurry up a small tree and escape.

The sadness of the evening was at least somewhat lifted by the appearance later on of Kwila in one of our nestboxes. It would have been quite a long and difficult journey for such a young possum without a mother, but somehow Kwila made it. We were thankful for that, and are hopeful regarding Kwila.

Cocoa is the most-photographed possum to date, and the one who visited us most frequently. Her floppy ear made her appearance distinctive among brushtails. She could be very gentle and sweet-natured, but she was also a very fierce possum when the situation called for it, and when Cocoa entered the house out of curiosity, she always looked like a wild thing.

To say that she will be missed, and that she made a difference in our lives, is to severely understate the matter. Many possums are born and many possums die every year, and they all may be as special as Cocoa in their own individual ways, but Cocoa was a member of our family.