“I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all the kinds of things you can't see from the center.” Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Possum Hunt

Oh, my dear reader, you are in for a REAL treat! Just an hour drive from Auckland, in a rural farming/ranching community of New Zealand, I found a truely unique experience! But first, be warned:

The following photographs show dead possums. There are a lot of possum.

The possum in New Zealand is a pest. They were introduced from Australia for a fur industry- their fur is really soft and warm, and it is woven with wool into luxurious yarns for sweaters, hats, scarves, etc. Unfortunately, becausethey have no predators, they have overrun the forests, eating and killing trees, especially the native trees. It is the duty of every New Zealand citizen, I'm told, to kill a possum if you see one. Hence, the Possum Hunt. This one was a fundraiser for a rural school. I found out about it through my NZnaturaldog yahoo group. Apparently, possum has an excellent nutritional profile for dog and cat food. Poison is a common method to knock down their population, and various types are widely used. Basically this means you must keep dogs out of areas treated with possum poisons. The poison will remain in the carcass and is toxic to dogs even after death. The possum hunt I attended was in an area untreated with poisons. I drove down to this event to collect some carcasses and see if my pets would eat possum.

The school raised funds by selling entries into the hunting competition, and offering prizes for the most killed. I met a member of my yahoo email group there, and she feeds the whole carass to her dogs. We donated some money to the school in hopes that we'll get alerted to the next hunt and hopefully support the non-poisoning landowners. The remaining carcasses were getting tossed into an offal pit. I took more than I could count, I think about 25, but I don't really want to know. This is because I needed to butcher them before
freezing, otherwise they would not fit in our freezer.

The butchering process was a learning experience. I learned that the skin only comes off easily if they are freshly killed (we got day old carcasses, but weather was cold). The possums have really sharp claws. I was told dogs can digest these, but I didn't want to take chances. Initially, I dissected them- removing head, tail, paws, and guts, saving the carcass with heart and liver. Their stomachs and guts were full of food. They smelled bad. They were not going to fit in the freezer whole, and I had a pile of dead possum to process, so I started saving only the arms and legs, and discarding the rest. To get through all of them took me 4 hours. I did it on the front porch, and a cold wind was blowing. I had to sharpen the butcher knife after each one was done. It was dark when I finished. Fortunately, the cats and dogs like to eat it. I can see from watching them that eating the possum is a bit of work. This makes the meal take longer, so I enjoy that Jazz is not immediately crying for more food after I feed him. The first time they tried it, the pets were unsure about the fur. Now they eat it all.
Regarding the fur, for some reason I don't quite understand, the possum carcasses had to be shaved along the back . The fur was collected (see photo).

A group of boys searched the possum pouches for joeys, which are baby possums. They found several still alive, and collected them in a sack. The eldest boy was very outgoing and friendly and helpful, picking out possums for me and putting them in my box. Everyone there was very nice, very genuine. Check out the picture of the boy standing next to the dead possums with bare feet. I think this is a great example of how laid back the Kiwis are.
The time and hard work it took to butcher all those dead possum was worth the experience, but I won't take so many next time. I feel good that the possums didn't go to waste (well, entirely). I was so glad to see the trash bags I'd set out on Sunday evening were still intact Monday morning. I'd had visions of a dog or cat getting into the bags of carcasses and spreading them across the road. Thank you very much to the trash men who picked it up next morning!
Update: The possum were shaved and the fur collected for sale. The proceeds of this sale went to the school. The price for possum fur is around $120 per kilo.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Food and food safety

I've written about food before in previous posts (here and here). But it really deserves its own post, because it is such an important part of life (to me, anyway). I have read several books about dangerous food (,Fast Food Nation, Mad Cowboy, Diet for a Dead Planet) and chemical residues in food (Fateful Harvest), and while to some degree they are alarmist, the problems are clearly real. A most recent example was evidenced by the thousands of dead and sickened pets in the huge pet food recall in the US. This was a crime for which I suspect no one will be punished. The source of the problem was traced to melamine contamination in ingredients sourced from China.
New Zealand gets a lot of food from Asia, and this concerns me because China has been repeatedly identified as poisoning people with their products (13 dead babies from fake milk powder, and at least 100 from cold medicine). Food production on a global scale depends on the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and antibiotics, and we know these residues can be in or on our food. The question I haven't been able to answer to my satisfaction is, "what happens to these chemicals in our body?" The answer to this depends upon which chemical we're talking about, I'm sure. Also, there's no point denying that plants and animals contain their own toxic chemical defenses which can harm us without our intervention (pufferfish, for example). Oh by the way, in that pufferfish link- China, again, at fault for mislabelling.
The New Zealand Food Safety Authority has loads of information on their website, here. I'm not yet familiar with all of it, so can't compare to the US systems. But so far I don't know of any food recalls on Chinese imports.
I had an extension course in Cancer Biology at UCSD and prepared a talk about cancer and food, examining the literature for and against various foods causing or preventing various types of cancer. Of most interest to me, selenium may have a role in thyroid cancer (low levels may predispose to getting it). Oxidizing agents (free radicals) contribute to the development of cancer, and selenium is a free radical scavenger/ antioxidant. However, there is a correlation between the amount of food you eat and your lifespan (thin=longer life) and cancer (lots of red meat=colon cancer). Of course age is correlated with cancer. Age is also correlated with death. It's easy to forget- everybody dies someday. But I digress. You know, all I really intended to do in this post was comlain that I can't easily get canned black beans, and they're $3 a can.
The FDA has recalled 5.7 million pounds of ground beef. E. coli contaminated meat sickened 14 people, who have recovered. As long as you cook it well, E. coli will not hurt you. It's the E. coli on spinach that scares me, because spinach is packaged and sold for fresh salads. No cooking means the bacteria can easily get into our bodies and sicken us. Bon appetit!

Tuesday, June 05, 2007


I've probably said it before, but the sky here is amazing. New Zealand is Aotearoa- land of the long white cloud.
This photo was taken from our back room, overlooking the yard and chicken coop, toward the west. I see more rainbows here than anywhere I've ever lived. This morning, driving to work, I saw a full, 180 degree rainbow, double on the ends. Only lasted a minute, but wow! The rain will fall in isolated areas, and we have a phenomenon I like to call "sunny rain". Rain will fall out of an apparently clear sky.
The air is so clear, the stars have this intensity. Last night I was out in the yard with Fargo, and the moonlight shone on the clouds, racing past the stars with the insistent wind. My eyes may water while sitting in traffic on the motorway, but the air comming from the west/Tasman ocean is as clean as it can be.
When the weather report is given, they say "sow-westerlies" (southwest) "freshening" (huh?). What does that mean? The wind seems to be trying to communicate. It blows strong for a couple minutes, then it stops. There must be a message in its pitch, its frequency, its strenth. I think it is saying, "here comes winter!"
We have been having a fire in the woodburner pretty much every evening and morning for the last week. People are telling me it's not cold yet. We do have an electric blanket on the matress. The $200 price made us shop around a bit to find the best deal, but I considered it necessary. This house has no central heating, and the temperature in our bedroom has been about 60F at night and early morning. I can live with this.
Check out the link here (Metvuw) for loads of great weather photos from around NZ. Also you can look at NZ weather forcast charts- go on, you know you want to!

This next photo is from the Titirangi market, held the last Sunday of each month. Titirangi is a western suburb south of Swanson. It's very hilly and forested and artsy. I had to resist the impulse to buy a handknit shawl, but did buy three gently used books, a jar of spicy plum chutney, and fresh smoked blue cod, which was a hostess gift for my new friend Misato, who lives in Titirangi and had us over for lunch. She is an amazing cook. This past weekend I attended the concert presented by her Japanese choral group, Sakura no Kai. They have amazing range and diversity of songs. Several of them play piano very well, including Misato.
This most recent weekend, we enjoyed the company of our friends Holly and Steve, who just spent a couple weeks in California (they are Americans). They brought me a funny t-shirt and my two requests: Emeril's steak rub and pure vanilla extract. They had a great group of people over to their home, everyone brought something yummy and we spent several hours eating and laughing. I need to host a party sometime soon. I like to entertain, but it means I have to clean the house- not an easy task for me. We just got big wood bookshelves, so we've been busy unpacking boxes of books. Oh, so many distractions!