Perth Zoo has been forced to retract its remarks in the face of outrage from native animal lovers, who were appalled that the zoo referred to the possum an orangutan hurled across its enclosure as a "pest".
Speaking to Yahoo News Australia on Tuesday morning, a spokesperson for Perth Zoo said it was not their "intent" to cause offence almost 24 hours after it claimed that "it is impossible to eradicate all pests completely" and that "sometimes the orangutans evict the odd possum themselves".
While the spokesperson couldn't confirm on Monday what had happened to the marsupial that was flung from the top of the orangutan's tower over the weekend, they presumed that it did not survive the fall. "Obviously the loss of any living creature saddens us, but [it is] also nature playing out," they originally said.
The comments set off a wave of backlash from the public online. "Wow, nice comment from a spokesperson for a zoo that supposedly protects all living animals," one person wrote. "Captive animals is not nature playing out. How disgusting!"
"Unbelievable," another added. "Their spokesperson needs more education on how to address a non-native harming a native, and show a little more compassion for our natives, regardless of whether they feel they are a pest."
"Pests?" someone else questioned. "Are possums not native Australian marsupials?"
Perth Zoo backtracks
Responding to the criticism, the spokesperson for Perth Zoo confirmed that common brushtail possums are a local native species that are protected. "While they do pose a management challenge for us on site because of their large numbers, our outdoor environment, abundance of food and bedding, it is not appropriate to refer to them as a 'pest' in the same way we would consider introduced black rats as a pest," they said. "This was not our intent."
The spokesperson went on to explain what the possum had been doing in the enclosure. "Our animal experts have confirmed that the possum took advantage of the cosy warm orangutan nest during the cooler weather, and on this occasion, the orangutan was alarmed to find an unknown occupant in their bed," they said.
"Rest assured," the Perth Zoo rep added, "the possum was sighted scurrying off after being evicted from the nest. They are a very robust species [and] we love possums as much as we love orangutans."
'Pest' an unfortunate term
While you might not want possums in your roof, shed or orangutan enclosure, it's important to remember that the common brushtail possum is protected. Associate Professor Catherine Herbert from the University of Sydney said Perth Zoo's term "pest" was indeed a bit unfortunate.
"There are certainly some members of the community who see them as a pest, but I think in terms of traditional wildlife management in Australia, you probably more refer to them as a nuisance at times," she told Yahoo. "People do have issues with them nesting in roof spaces and eating ornamental plants and vegetables in the garden, but they are a protected species and many people are very fond of them in urban areas."
"I think they are an important part of our urban ecosystem. They just are troubling at times in terms of some of the things they like to do that annoy people."
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