Fly, my pretties

“How about bringing these ones back to life, eh, Perkins?”
“Give ’em mouth-to-mouth, Perkins!”
– The scene where bullies dump a load of dead possums on Rosie Perkins’s head as she is walking home from school, Possum Perkins, William Taylor (1987)

In their finery, some of the possums looked almost lovely. Cradled in the arms of a schoolgirl, the possum bride is like a 19th-century doll, handed down from a great-great-grandmother.

by Jonathan Cameron, via Stuff

The best-dressed possum competition was part of an inaugural fundraising pig-hunt competition at the tiny Uruti School, where wild pigs were strung up – “carcasses as far as the eye could see” – alongside magpies, rabbits, and goat heads. A 91.5-kilogram pig was the heaviest catch. But the beast’s thunder has been stolen.

The possums wore dresses. They wore bikinis and wigs. They rode scooters. They wore smocks and stood at easels. Skinned and muscular, they wore boxing gloves. “This is Uruti and how we do things,” said event organiser Mrs Lobb.

There is a traceable logic. A best-dressed-possum event would channel a national loathing for possums into something entertaining, creative, and funny. And no one in New Zealand would argue that a possum’s right to life should be respected. “The only good possum is a dead possum,” goes the saying; the event would mock a possum’s life and celebrate its death.

This is the kind of thing on which rural communities are built. Bizarre events are their lifeblood. (The biggest event in my hometown was the annual Muster, in which a few thousand sheep were unleashed to run through the town, not unlike the bulls of Pamplona; the celebrations culminated in an event called Midnight Madness where teams would race beds with wheels affixed to them down the main street.) And the clear argument is that, in New Zealand, possums are not loved animals. The possum to person ratio in New Zealand currently stands at 7.5:1. They eat native trees to death – pohutukawa, kowhai, kohekohe, rata, totara – and they devour the eggs and chicks of native birds. They push kiwis out of their burrows. They spread bovine tuberculosis. At night they screech, squeak, click, chatter, hiss, and grunt. They are basically vampires with tiny, tiny brains.

But when I think about whether, therefore, it’s fine to encourage kids to celebrate and laugh at their deaths, I can’t see an easy path to an answer.

New Zealand made the Independent, the Telegraph, Buzzfeed, and The Daily Mail with the story.

YOU ARE SICK PEOPLE! – Nick Potzayid, Montreal
Hey has anyone stopped and asked “Maybe that possum in life wanted to be a…….princess, a boxer, a painter?” Hell we just made their dreams come true and now they are famous!!! – Mama from the Hicks 
Imagine if we had dressed up the Nazi war criminals’ bodies after the Nuremberg trials. It would have been completely abhorrent. – Andy

In a rural town I guess it’s unusual to debate stuff like this. Death is like the road and the paddocks and the rugby – you grow up with it and learn to laugh at it.

Possum Perkins, William Taylor (1987)

In May this year, a dead cat named Orville was stuffed and propellers were mounted to his legs. Everywhere there were pictures of Orville, stretched and starfished, propellers on his paws, wobbling above the head of his Danish owner/creator Bart Jansen. “Soon to be flying with the birds,” wrote Jansen. “Oh, how he loved birds.” The artwork was designed to make people recoil, like something off South Park, and at the same time seemed to want to distract from the question of morality by making us laugh. I’ll admit I took the bait by both recoiling and laughing, before I tried to figure out what I thought about it.

Bart Jansen hasn’t been forthcoming about the Orvillecopter. The description on his website is brief: “It is a tanned hide, just like the shoes you’re wearing.” This explanation is a bit of a cop-out, for a few reasons. It assumes that we all agree that once dead, the body is a shell, a bit of material, to do with as we like. It also ignores the fact that this particular animal, unlike a factory cow whose hide “your shoes” were made from, was once a part of your life and (presumably) was loved. The dead cat has also not been used as if it were a tanned hide, to make something useful and/or utterly unlike its living state. It has been turned into a spectacle. It’s pretty much a cat’s worst nightmare. If Jansen had only wanted Orville to fly with the birds, he could have had him cremated and his ashes scattered in the trees on a windy day.

(If you imagine the cat without the rotors, you can almost see Bart affectionately stroking Orville as he stretches out towards him. Is this affection in his eyes? Or is he only assessing the airworthiness of his vehicle?)

Bart Jansen and the Orvillecopter, Cris Toala Olivares /Reuters via Guardian

It’s hard, especially in very small towns, to voice your doubts when you’re supposed to be joining in and laughing along. The worst thing is not only drawing attention to yourself, but disrupting the peace. You can see how the original report of the Uruti fundraising event, Monster pigs, pimped-up possums all for a good cause, doesn’t want trouble. It wants you to stand around in gumboots, telling jokes, eating a $1 sausage in bread with onions.

My primary school was also small – not as small as Uruti’s, with only 14 kids, but small enough that any dissenting voices were heard. Te Kuiti was a farming, hunting, home-killing town. Animal cruelty and mistreatment were also pretty routine. Kids did stuff to cats with firecrackers. A classmate gloated that he’d killed a duck by throwing rocks at it. On a school trip once, the bus passed the local meatworks: a cow was dangling high from a crane. The busload of kids howled with laughter. The formula: dead things are funny.

When my friend and I mounted an animal rights campaign at the school, we effectively threw ourselves to the wolves. We gave an anti-duck-shooting speech in front of the school at the onset of the duck-shooting season, we boycotted a bone-carving project while our classmates whittled and sanded meaty hunks into pendants, we stuck Meat Is Murder bumper stickers on our parents’ cars. We read Peter Singer. It was a high-profile time. It was the last time I would feel so sure of myself.

So I’m not sure about these costumed possums, or what it ultimately means for human compassion and respect for living things, or if it means anything. I can’t protest with conviction and nor can I accept the response that “this is how we do things.” What I like, though, is that people are disturbed. They’re asking questions. It’s important to turn your assumptions inside out sometimes, or to have to defend what you believe in, or to be suddenly unnerved by what you grew up with and once found comfort in.

Here are some teddy bears turned inside out.

(These are from a book called Bears by Kent Rogowski. More images here.)

About ashleighlou

Person, usually on bike
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8 Responses to Fly, my pretties

  1. Morgan says:

    Oh those wolves! The big ones were the worst! Interesting how a questioning child can freak the hell out of small town adults huh, even those in education? I still think the best thing was just how much we rattled them. Great post Eyelash. xx M


  2. David Geary says:

    O Possums! You must go to Opossum World in Napier. It features such cruel kitsch as a possum with crutches by a speeding car with the song “On The Road Again” playing. And tableaus of how the various traps deal out death. Selwyn Toogood once said he would cross the white line on the road to run over a possum in his car. I always imagined this would be how he died. I confess I was, inspired by Daniel Boone, to become a junior trapper myself, and can tell many gory stories, but my fave was from a vet I met in Ohope. He was catching live possums, de-clawing and de-stinkglanding them, then sending them to Japan as ‘Apple-Eating-Tree-Bears’. It was going to be his ‘Chinese Gooseberry to Kiwifruit’ re-branding genius, pest to pets. Unfortunately, being nocturnal they didn’t like the bright lights of Japan, weren’t very cuddly, and still managed to tear up places without the claws. I also loved how they called the merino wool / possum fur blend “SMINK” for a while. It does make lovely gloves. But, yes, the callous disregard for considering them sentient beings runs deep and comes early. I still recall my mother sobbing one morning when she found possums had stomped all over her beautiful vegetable garden. From then on no death was unwarranted. Then there was the one that got stuck in our chimney… Even in the USA there’s a similar expendability to them, as they turn up as roadkill in the opening credits to True Blood. Oh, and then there’s Ken Duncum’s wonderful story about how his brother failed the test of manhood when he fumbled and dropped the bullet when charged by his grandfather (a big man in the NZ Deerstalkers’ Association) to shoot the neighbour’s treed possum. It was held firm in the glare of his grandfather’s torch until he dropped the bullet. Grandad turned the torch aside for a second to help and the possum bolted. No kill, no manhood, and a rare win for the possums… But who turns teddybears inside out?!


    • Comment of the year goes to David Geary. Brilliant.
      But, I will never go to Opossum World unless someone gives me money for it. (Why the “O”? Opossums are different to the classic possums NZ has, aren’t they?)
      Their fur *is* incredibly soft. In Possum Perkins, there’s a real thing about Plum’s lovely soft fur. From memory, it’s described about 150 times. So I always think about Plum whenever I see possum fur. I was recently given a pair of possum fur socks (from my mother) and I can’t bring myself to wear them, dammit. They’re so soft.
      I also read recently that that book was branded with a health warning, re: cuddling possums, when it was released in Australia. Not sure if that’s right, but I wouldn’t be surprised.
      Oh, the “Apple Eating Tree Bears” is brilliant. It reminds me of that story a few years ago that Japanese people were sold sheep and told they were poodles.


      • David Geary says:

        … another Ken Duncum classic was that as kids he and his brother set up the Rotorua Fur Trading Company. When they finally caught one, and dealt to it, they had a bit of a struggle to skin it. They kept coming home from school each day and having another go at it. After the third day they gave up. They thing about them is that normally affable and caring people when confronted with a possum can just turn callous killer – lad a gun, set a gin trap, lay some cyanide, drop a cage into a trough. They bring out the Kiwi Psycho – Witness the girl smiling as she holds a dead animal pimped up in a dress.


  3. annasalts says:

    Love your post. It’s had me thinking all morning. Happily, I have no answers.


  4. Tim Upperton says:

    Just out of Whangarei there used to be – maybe there still is – the smallest meat processing plant in New Zealand, where possums were processed for export to Korea. They took possums from TB-free areas of forest, presumably so the Koreans wouldn’t start coughing up blood like nineteenth-century poets.


    • Gaaah! Possum meat! Did you ever read The Lake by Jack Lasenby? The scene with Ruth skinning and butchering the possum is masterful/horrible. The experimental possum meal she makes sounds … tough.


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