to feed or not to feed

Is it always a bad idea to feed the wildlife?

My impression is that Australians are respectful of wildlife and that it is generally accepted it is best not to interfere too much with the wildlife - it is best to let animals stay wild, natural. Many people believe that feeding wild animals makes them dependent upon human food, which will ultimately lead them to starve during winter or times when humans forget about them.

However, I wonder if adaptation to humans might benefit some species in the long term. Our area continues to become more urban. If trees disappear, what do possums do? Would it be helpful if possums see humans as a potential source of dietary supplementation?

Chopping down trees is the worst threat to possums and certain other species. When trees are taken down to make room for new houses or developments of various kinds (as is currently the case here), there is less food for animals to eat, and there are fewer places for animals to sleep. Possums are territorial creatures, and when their homes are chopped down, they face the stress of possibly having to fight other possums for new territory. In addition, if there is an animal sleeping in a tree at the time it is cut down, that animal could be injured or killed.

For a very long time I have approached all relationships with an awareness that I need to be careful, that I need to make sure I do as little damage as possible. Usually, I have decided that it is best not to inflict my problems or myself on others at all. I have always liked animals, but I did not want to damage any potential pets. I knew I couldn't make a long-term commitment to pets.

The possums somehow got past my barriers.

You can't expect a possum to show affection. Mostly, you just get to observe their cuteness, and the main source of interaction is in feeding. I like to think they would miss me if I wasn't here, but not so much that they would starve, or that they would get depressed.

This issue partly relates to the Possum TV site, and how I'm not sure what stance wildlife professionals and sympathizers would take regarding the relationship GK and I have with the possums in GK's yard. GK's sister trained as a vet, worked as a vet for many years, and she herself hasn't seemed to have any problem with it - she has commented on the apparent health of the possums, or seemed to suggest that there is a good balance between wildness and tameness in our particular possums.

However, I am not sure that my involvement with possums is good for them, and I can see specific areas in which I am doing the very thing I wanted to avoid: causing harm or damage to other creatures - affecting the world around me with my own problems. Eg, the fact that I don't participate in gardening at the house I live in could have contributed to the accident that befell Cocoa, and could have contributed to the suffering of other possums and animals.

Sometimes humans form unlikely bonds with animal species. When this occurs, maybe it helps us to learn about parts of life that are normally hidden from everyday awareness.

Possums are nocturnal. To develop a regular relationship with possums, you would have to be a person who is awake late, or around the house and looking out for possums in the evening.

Not everyone who once feeds a possum will bond permanently with a possum. After feeding a possum once or twice, many people may lose interest, and the possum will go back to its usual way of life.

Perhaps GK and I are learning things about possums that even those who have studied Australian wildlife don't know yet.

As for the general public, I think it is natural to assume that possum populations may increase if possums are encouraged by feeding, however, our personal experience has been that over time, the overall balance or usual situation is that we have one main female possum (Cocoa for the last couple of years) and one main male (Blackbeard - we think that he is at least 6 years old). Cocoa visited much more frequently than Blackbeard. Twice a year, more males came around, possibly to attempt to mate with Cocoa. Twice a year there is a new baby possum. But the overall balance seems to be that there is one adult female and one adult male brushtail. Occasionally a young possum or a dispossessed possum might stop by - to use one of our 'possum hotels' and stop by for snacks, but this may help the possum to rest for a moment, and build up its strength and confidence before continuing on to find its own territory.

We have noticed that when a possum is injured, it tends to come to the house more frequently, as if it thinks of it as a safe place, or possum hospital, and then as the possum heals, it stops coming around as frequently.

We are very careful when it comes to feeding ringtail possums, as we have heard that their digestive systems are much more delicate than those of brushtails.

When it comes to the possums here, I don't think that either Cocoa would have starved or Blackbeard would starve if we didn't feed them - they both seem/ed to have pretty good possum skills. Cocoa was the most frequent or regular visitor, and even she disappeared off for days at a time, and didn't always appear at the same time every night. Blackbeard usually stops by about once a week, but sometimes he visits a few extra days in the week.

Part of the issue is that we feel a responsibility to the possums that live here, and it is unlikely we will suddenly become unconcerned for their welfare or unobservant of what is going on with them. If I move out or die, I know that as long as GK lives in this house, he will continue to watch for possums. He owns his house and is 'settled' here.

Possum lives are tough and unpredictable, and possums with a more varied diet may actually fare better in the possum kingdom. Our possums -look- more healthy than many of the ones we've encountered out in the wild. Cocoa's babies so far seem to go off on their own. The survival rate of possums, especially young possums, is not high, but it may be that the ones who start off here have a special edge through both having extra nutritional options (maybe they are slightly bigger or stronger than other possums of similar age), and the fact that Cocoa was an especially dominant and fierce female might mean that she passed on/taught techniques for dealing with other threatening animals.

The more foods a baby is introduced to, perhaps the more adaptable it will be to whatever food it can find.

What I have written may be a poor excuse or self-justification. However, a connection has been made with these creatures. The grief experienced through Cocoa's death has been intense, and it is likely it will take time for us to adjust to/recover from this loss. Cocoa was very much a member of our family. At no time have we wished we had never had contact with possums. We feel lucky to have had Cocoa and all the others around for the time we did/do, and will continue to be open to interaction with the possums who venture near.