Thursday 2 January 2014

Give Peace a Chance (a review of Possum Wars)

I've recently seen the documentary Possum Wars and I thought I'd post a review on it.

Curtain Square Park

Possum Wars mainly revolves around a conflict in Curtain* Square in Melbourne, where a "plague" of possums is said to be "destroying the trees".

[*That's "Curtain", as in window covering; nothing to do with former prime minister John Curtin.]

Before I get into discussing how the documentary deals with this, I think it's helpful to have some background on the actual situation in this park.

Curtain Square park is a very old park in central Melbourne. Trees were first planted there in 1876, with additional plantings in 1884. Some of these original trees are probably still standing today; in any case there are a number of trees in excess of 100 years old. Significant trees include Moreton Bay Figs, Elms, Oaks and Grey Poplars. There were also some Camphor Laurels which have now been removed. None of the trees are native to the area. Many of these trees are old enough to contain a large number of hollows big enough to accommodate possums. This is first-class possum accommodation and much better than ceilings and possums boxes.

One of the main determinants of the population density of possums in an area is the availability of nesting sites. Obviously other factors play a part, but the availability of nesting sites is critical. Possums can live for long periods with very little food, but can't survive for long without shelter during the day.

Anyway, the consequence of this is that the population density of possums in this park is considerably greater (supposedly around three times) than in other Melbourne parks.

The number of possums in the park fluctuates over the years. Surveys by Ecology Australia have recorded the following numbers:
  • Sept 1999 - 51
  • Dec 2000 - 50
  • Sept 2002 - 29
  • April 2004 - 29
  • Feb 2010 - 60
  • Jan 2011 - 60
So while at last count the population was at a high ebb, it is by no means exceptionally high nor is it increasing. [In fact, as of April 2013, there is a claim  that the population has fallen to around 46.]

The trees in the park had been coping perfectly well with the possums and were doing fine until January 2009. At that time, Victoria suffered its worse heatwave ever, culminating in the devastating Black Saturday bushfires. Melbourne experienced three consecutive days above 43°C, with the temperature peaking at over 45°C. Non-native trees in the city were heavily affected by the combination of extreme heat and the water restrictions that were in place at the time.

Many of the trees in the park were badly affected, with a total of six "historically significant" trees (probably elms) being of particular concern.

Reading the 2011 council report on the situation, it seems that the concern is that trees in the park consist almost exclusively of ones over 100 years old and ones under 10 years old, with virtually none in between. If the old trees are allowed to die off, it will be a long time before the young ones will be able to adequately replace them. Therefore, the idea is to protect the old trees for as long as possible.

Better irrigation, more extensive mulching, and control of Elm Leaf Beetle were all recommended as solutions, however, browsing by the large number of possums was also thought to be contributing to the problem and measures were proposed to control their impact.

Annoyingly, the actual level of damage being done to the trees by the possums was never quantified. Often it's the case that the presence of possums can be beneficial to trees since, despite eating buds and leaves, they also clean up parasitic insects and plants (e.g. mistletoes) living on the tree. Given that the trees had coped perfectly well with the presence of possums for the previous 130 years, I would have thought that it would have been a priority to determine whether the overall damage, if any, being done by the possums was significant enough to warrant the expensive and problematic control measures proposed. But there's no evidence that any thought went into the matter.

The council report suggested two "solutions"; reducing the numbers of possums through fertility control (or culling/euthanasia if that didn't work) and tree banding.

Incidentally, culling was not rejected "because it is illegal to kill possums", as was stated in the film. In Victoria it is in fact legal to euthanize "problem" possums under some circumstances, but the council preferred not to take this path, probably due to public outcry.

It seems to me that population control is a naive solution. Reducing the number of possums in the park (by whatever means) will simply result in more possums from surrounding areas moving in to the vacant luxury accommodation in the park. Banding is also difficult to make work in practice. The trees at risk form a canopy and possums can also leap large distances between trees if they need to. They are very smart at getting around obstacles like this. Whenever I've seen banded trees, they've more often than not had possums in them. If a possum gets into a banded tree, the band can prevent them from descending to ground level to eat grass and food scraps and instead they are forced to browse more heavily on the tree than they would otherwise.

The council ended up deciding against fertility control as being too expensive, and ruling out culling as being inhumane. Instead, in July 2012, they introduced a ban on feeding possums. This seems to be either a frustratingly counterproductive bureaucratic compromise or an act of spitefulness intended to punish activists who had been feeding the possums.

I don't want to digress into a discussion on the rights and wrongs of possum feeding (that can be the subject of another blog post), so lets just briefly say that even in the unlikely event that this ban could be effectively enforced, it would not reduce the possum population, but instead would force the possums to browse more heavily on the trees.

It would actually be more logical to argue for increased feeding of the possums in order to reduce their dependence on the trees.

But back to the documentary...

Unfortunately, Possum Wars pretty much ignores the facts above and follows the too-frequent path of trivialising the facts and exaggerating the conflict. It states as an uncontested truth that possums are "in plague proportions" and that "their voracious appetites are killing the park’s historic trees". It presents the conflict as being a simplistic case of "we have to get rid of the possums to save the trees" versus "we have to save the possums".

The local council came across as being only interested in the trees and callous towards the possums, whereas the activists who opposed them came across as being naive. Neither gave a convincing argument in favour of their position. The central question of whether the possums are in fact damaging the trees was never examined.

Am I being a bit harsh? Probably. It's a well-made documentary and much of it is extremely good. I understand that you have to simplify some things a bit and make some attempt to attract an audience. In fact, given that the majority of Australians are at an intellectual level that allows them to vote in frightening specimens like Abbott and Newman, I suppose I should feel lucky that they didn't feel obliged to advocate the outright slaughter of all possums.

Nevertheless, I'm disappointed by how the conflict in the park was presented, and by some other parts where people's prejudices against possums were aired uncritically. I don't say the film was actually anti-possum, but there were some good opportunities to challenge some myths and misunderstandings here, and these opportunities were to a large extent passed up.

Clarendon Children's Centre

The operators of this preschool were demanding that the possums in their ceiling be removed and were complaining of possum poos on the ground, which, it was claimed, had to be swept up daily "or else the kids might eat them". A woman was then shown sweeping what appeared to be mostly leaf-litter off a path.

It was difficult to follow the logic. Firstly, evicting the possums from the ceiling is not going to prevent the poos from appearing. Regardless of whether they can sleep in the roof or not, the possums are still going to come into the trees at night and poo. Even if you got rid of the resident possums altogether, others would simply come into the area from outside. Secondly, it's a bit inconsistent to be terrified of kids picking up possum poo from the path, when their playground includes a garden area where the kids have access to all sorts of dirt and debris that most likely contains far worse things than possum poo.

It seemed to be promoting the idea that possums are "dirty animals" and that it is necessary for our health to keep them away from human habitation. This is a myth that the documentary should have challenged, but didn't.

Paul the Possum Catcher, who appeared a number of times in the documentary, was shown installing his specially developed Possum Chute (a one-way door) in the roof of the child care centre. The film did a reasonable job of showing how a "possum catcher" operates and what they are and are not allowed to do.

One thing I found a little upsetting is that when Paul couldn't find a suitable tree outside to install a possum box in, he simply shrugged his shoulders and went ahead with evicting the possums anyway, despite the fact that denying the possums access to their home could quite easily amount to a death sentence. It wasn't made clear why a possum box couldn't simply be fastened to the outside of the building; how could that be any worse than putting one in a nearby tree? Or how about sticking one on a pole in the playground? There was a sturdily constructed cubby house there that a pole could be fastened to quite easily. You could even make a feature of it and put in a box camera that the kids could watch.

I suppose this sort of situation is understandable but regrettable. Some people are unable to cope with the idea of a possum in their ceiling and want it gone by any means necessary. If a professional possum catcher isn't there to remove it, it's most likely going to be killed or relocated (which amounts to the same thing) illegally. If there's no suitable tree to put a possum box in and the home-owner objects to having one elsewhere, what can you do?

To me the real solution comes down to changing people's attitudes. Native wildlife is something we have a moral responsibility to look after and also something that adds interest and enjoyment to the our lives. It is not something of no value that has to be gotten rid of as quickly (and cheaply) as possible the moment it threatens to cause us the slightest inconvenience. Possum Wars would have done a big service if it had gone with this theme rather than merely reporting people's prejudices uncritically.


There was a short segment on ringtails. There was some very good camera work here showing a pair of ringtails vigorously foraging in a tree (it appears that pieces of banana had been wedged into forks in the branches to entice them close to the camera) and also of a male ringtail trying to sleep in a nest during a noisy day. But there were a few puzzling bits of footage; a ringtail was being offered a corn chip (I'm surprised to see a ringtail eating something like this), then there was a cut to some uncharacteristically fuzzy footage of a brushtail eating a banana and then a cut back to a ringtail eating what appeared to be a slice of apple while being watched by a cat held in someone's arms uncomfortably close by. What was that all about?

Also, if you are going to show a cat with a ringtail, it's probably worth using the opportunity to point out that the two are deadly enemies. Apparently the death rate of ringtails from a cat bite is close to 100% if untreated; ringtails are unable to cope with the aggressive bacteria that live in the mouth of a cat. The message should have been: Don't do this! Keep your cat away from ringtails!

Possum Carers

Two possum carers, Jodie and Chris, were shown looking after baby brushtails. They made an effort to explain that a mother possum is much better at looking after her young than a human is; not only does she keep it cleaner and healthier but also she teaches it necessary skills. They were shown trying to re-unite a lost baby with its mother.

I found this quite interesting. The baby was making quite loud and piercing distress calls. I have only ever heard babies making a very soft and muted version of this call. Is it that the babies increase the volume of their call when they are more scared?

The cries attracted the attention of a possum - this looked to me like a male and might have been footage edited in from elsewhere - but it went away and the mother was never located.

The baby was then shown being given a poo-milkshake (which is exactly what the name suggests) to correct a stomach upset.

Subsequently, the baby, along with another it had been buddied up with, was taken off to a wildlife shelter for soft release.

Although it was not mentioned in the documentary, both babies (Beatle and Stix) successfully integrated into the wild and were happy and healthy a year later, with Beatle having a back-riding baby of her own. Their story is here.

I particularly liked this segment. It was educational and interesting and there were lots of cute baby possums. There was nothing said that I would disagree with.


Scamp was the offspring of "Mumsy" - a (supposedly) 14 year old brushtail living in Curtain Square Park. Scamp was apparently forced to leave the park and her struggles to find a home in the outside world were shown. At the end of the film her fate was left in doubt with a presumably staged scene with some gentle possum puffing noises being followed by threats from an irate householder to "do something about that possum".

This segment is much more impressive than it seems at first sight and I would love to have more details on how it was done.

How did they managed to follow Scamp around? I've never heard of people tracking brushtails through an urban environment before. Tracking possums in general is (as far as I am aware) a difficult thing to do. Tracking by eye is difficult and laborious because it means staying up all night and it's easy to lose sight of a possum in a tree; they can hide really well if they want to. And how are you going to follow a possum through random people's yards in the middle of the night? Implantable microchips have far too short a range for tracking purposes. Scientific studies use radio collars, but these are very bulky and certainly weren't used in this documentary.

I would think that if you could follow an urban/suburban brushtail around continuously, it would be a major achievement. The footage would be of significant scientific interest and the adventures of an average brushtail would probably be interesting enough for a documentary in their own right.

How did they even know Scamp had left in the first place? Did they know that possums occasionally left the park, and then kept continuous watch until one did? That sounds like a great deal of work. They even had footage which was implied to be that of Scamp in the process of leaving the park; it's hard to imagine how they managed to obtain that. It's not like Scamp could have told them in advance that she was going to leave the park on a certain night.

Even if there was a certain amount of luck and a touch of creative editing involved, it's still an impressive achievement.

The footage of Scamp running over roofs and moving around inside someone's ceiling space was also of extremely high quality, despite the challenging filming conditions. I wish I could do a fraction as well with my possum cameras.

Other Comments

The camera work was extremely good throughout, with the exception of a few very short clips apparently taken from YouTube. The score was integrated into the scenes very effectively. In general, it was all very professionally put together.

The program was narrated by John Doyle. He did his job perfectly well, but I found his voice very distracting because I kept associating it with his comedy alter-ego Roy Slaven. I kept thinking he was being ironic and at any moment he'd come out with some outrageous statement (in his normal dead-pan voice) that made it clear that he was making fun of the whole thing.

I think this is most likely just a personal issue with me. I've kept away from the mainstream media for a long time now. I haven't seen any of John Doyle's more recent work and remember him only from Roy & HG on Triple J in the 1980s.

Finally, I'd like to say that the title of the documentary is an unfortunate commentary on the state of our society and has the effect of framing the discussion in the wrong terms. Our interactions with wildlife should not be a "War". If we look at things that way, everyone loses.

What we need is a Possum Peace.


  1. Great review - ours is half written but better we just link to you lolol.

    We agree with your comments. Now re the Scamp footage. Like you, those scenes really had us wondering, because we know how hard it would have been to film. We basically went into denial when "Scamp" found her new home in a roof. We stopped believing what we were seeing. It had to be a set up. So we went and did some research and found that "Scamp" was actually Esmeralda, who has "acted" in several docos / films, and is owned by the Moonlit Sanctuary Wildlife where Beatle and Stix were soft released.

    We tracked down a post on the Sanctuary's Facebook page where they talk about her role in Possum Wars. When a few people said they felt a bit cheated to find that the whole Scamp sequence was a set up the sanctuary responded "All wildlife documentaries are a mixture of wild shots and staged scenes. It would not ever be possible to produce them otherwise". Well, at least the Scamp sequences engaged a lot of people and made them aware of the whole possum issue. But still. See:

    1. Thank you very much for finding out the truth behind the story of Scamp.

      I had assumed they'd staged some of the scenes, but I'd hoped at least the basic story was true; that a possum had been found to have left the park and taken up residence in a nearby roof. Even that much would have been scientifically interesting and a significant achievement to have found out.

      Personally, I find it very annoying that the whole thing was faked.

      I mean, I understand that wildlife documentaries have to set up shots and edit together footage that doesn't really belong together and so on. Standing in a tame animal for a wild one is most likely standard practice. It's unavoidable. Even I have to edit out footage and compress time-lines to make YouTube videos, and I have only a small fraction of the constraints that a documentary maker has. I don't in principle have an objection to what could be considered to be fakery (although obviously the less of it the better).

      But it's one thing to re-create a scene to illustrate something that's known to be true, and it's quite another to fabricate a story about something that's poorly understood. You could easily be giving a wholly false impression about it. It might well be that possums never leave the park, or if they do, all of them get killed. In the specific case of the situation at Curtain Square park, this could even have real-world harmful effects, because people might base decisions on the assumption that possums can survive being chased out of the park.

      I suppose this is a bit of a personally issue for me because I've always really wanted to know what happens to possums when they leave the area. How many survive? How far do they disperse? How much do they move around? What happens to them when they are evicted from a roof? Do they return? It's annoying to be misled about this stuff.

    2. Again, we totally agree. We felt exactly the same about the implied assumption that possums were surviving leaving the park, when exactly the opposite is likely to be true because the roads are so busy and the park possums would have no experience at all with traffic.

      We think Possum Wars should have noted some scenes were staged in the end credits - it could easily have been done in a very gentle way via something like giving Esmeralda a credit.

      The other thing that bugged us a bit was the doco's logo - we assume they've made it's red evil looking possum look like an American opossum to attract an American audience.