When I was a young school boy, the best part of the day which I looked forward to the most, was the four kilometre walk to and from school in the morning and afternoon. For those with “eagle eyes”, there was always some hidden treasure to be found. It may have been a brightly coloured wing feather dislodged from a passing Rainbow Lorikeet, which had floated to the ground, or the iridescent shell of a dead Christmas beetle shrouded in dry leaves.
On one early, frosty morning as I was busily scouring the path ahead, I unfortunately stumbled across the lifeless little body of a Ringtail Possum, motionless on the side of the road. It had obviously been hit by a car the preceding night. As tears welled up in my eyes at the sight of the beautiful, tiny little corpse, I thought I imagined seeing a slight movement in the fur on its belly. Blinking away my tears I watched more intently and sure enough, it moved again. Now with great excitement, I inspected the mothers pouch and there inside was a tiny hairless Joey, still remarkably alive.
Carefully, I removed the miniscule little animal and wrapped it up in my hanky to keep it warm and now with a vastly more important priority ahead than going to school, I ran as fast as my legs could carry me back home. Luckily my mother was still there and just before she admonished me for missing school, I presented her with my precious, new baby who was still safely secreted in my hanky. For several moments we both just stared in awe. Then it was action stations.
Even though this was in the early 1960’s,well before wildlife shelters and fancy prepared milk formulas, my mother had an uncanny way in knowing how to raise various species of orphaned and injured animals and birds which I continually brought home. Mum mixed up one of her special formulas she had developed for marsupial babies and I fed my new little possum his first feed with an eye dropper. Almost instantly his little mouth started sucking and from that day onwards there was no turning back. My job was to feed him almost every hour through the day and good old mum would feed him all through the night while I soundly slept.
His home for the first couple of months was inside a pair of old thick woollen socks to keep warm, which I usually carried, strung around my neck under my jumper. Each day his little body had to be rubbed down with baby oil to keep it moist until he grew his fur. This would normally occur naturally in the mother’s pouch. Since becoming a member of our family, I thought he was due for a name, which became Pepi, after a favourite cartoon character of the time, Pepi La Pew; a skunk not a possum, the name did suit.
Little Pepi grew so quickly on his special home-grown milk formula, that it wasn’t long before he had outgrown his woollen sock bed and progressed into a woollen jumper lined pillow slip. Even to this day 50years later I don’t think my father ever realized what ever happened to his favourite woollen jumper! Pepi certainly appreciated it and even when fully grown wouldn’t give up his by now very worn old jumper. Over the following months, my little Possum grew into a real cheeky personality. Of course, being naturally nocturnal, Pepi liked to sleep all day and play all night.
He had now grown all his fur and his night-time escapades led him straight into the kitchen where he developed a taste for almost anything that was edible and within his reach. Even things outside his reach, he seemed to find a solution to gain their access. One particular case was a hanging fruit basket, which was suspended from a large bracket on the kitchen ceiling. Pepi ‘s solution to gain access to the bounty of assorted fruit was to climb up onto the back of a chair, then run along the kitchen bench and take a metre long leap of faith across to the swinging basket. There he was rewarded with an unlimited assortment of apples, oranges, bananas etc., which he casually took his time taking one bite full from each, never to eat a whole piece of fruit. I suppose he’d heard, when offered a smorgasbord, make the most of it.
To try and wear him out a bit at night, I would wake him up from his slumber in his pillowcase as soon as I arrived home from school and play rough and tumble games with him, which we both absolutely enjoyed. We’d play chasey through the rooms of our house and then I would hide and wait for him to find me. Invariably he always found me, to be rewarded with a handful of sultanas, which he would settle down with and delicately pick up individually with his tiny hands.
After our games were finished it was usually time for my dinner, so Pepi would sit next to me at the table with his bowl of fruit as I ate my food. With his nocturnal escapades ever increasing and keeping the whole family awake all night, we had to start confining him into an old cockatoo cage which we placed right next to my bed so at least he could see me at night and wasn’t alone. Needless to say he was not impressed with his new housing arrangements and protested vigorously for the first couple of weeks, keeping me awake, until early in the morning whenI would finally fall off to sleep. Pepi was then indirectly responsible for me on several occasions receiving a wrap across the knuckles with a ruler from my teacher at school the following morning, when I inadvertently would fall asleep at my desk.
For more tales of Pepi the Possum look forward to next month’s column,
‘Keep an eye out for all the incredible things Nature has to Show Us.’