JAN Pilgrim had to wait until her five children flew the coop before she could commit to her new, furry family.

She's the adoptive "mother" to 14 small marsupials, which she volunteers to look after in her Murwillumbah home for the Tweed Valley Wildlife Carers.

"I've always loved having animals and always wanted to do something like this, but I've never had the chance because I've always been so busy with my family," Ms Pilgrim explains.

However, the 62-year-old grandmother of three admits that round-the-clock care of 13 possums and one bandicoot is not unlike raising small children.

"It's quite similar to looking after the kids, except the possums and bandicoots are incredibly well behaved."

Baby possums are fed five times per day with possum milk formula.

"You don't get a lot of sleep and you must sterilise the bottles, and use a small syringe with a teat on the end to feed the possum while it's wrapped up pouch," Ms Pilgrim said.

"There's a lot to consider and plenty of washing.

"Sleep is always interrupted. Luckily the older possums only get fed once a day."

Ms Pilgrim has been small marsupial co-ordinator for the Tweed Valley Wildlife Carers for two years and has nursed a wide range of natives, including mountain brushtail, the most common possum in the northern rivers region.

"Their habitat is being destroyed and they will die out unless we look after them," she said.

Most of the animals end up in Ms Pilgrim's care after an injury.

"This week we had a possum that was handed in from Tumbulgum, where cats got to him.

"He was found on the ground by residents and carers were sent out to pick him up and take him to the Currumbin Wildlife Hospital, which we have a very close relationship with.

"They kept him in overnight and he had a really terrible time - he couldn't walk, he was twitching and he was only tiny, so he needed a lot of care.

"I looked after him for a week and he had a massive bleed and I was thinking 'oh no ...'."

Several days later the injured possum improved and began to walk and function as normal.

"Nurturing these rare native animals back to health is a responsibility I whole-heartedly embrace," Ms Pilgrim said.

"That moment when they heal is very rewarding. You can really make a difference and help them a lot.

"It's as much an intellectual experience as much as it is an emotional one.

"Helping to protect them gives you the feeling that you're doing something worthwhile and while you're looking after them you are learning all the time, through training and experience, more so than you could through any textbook or website."

Ms Pilgrim says releasing animals back into the wild from captivity is essential for the species to flourish naturally.

But it can be a heart-wrenching experience because the animals are intelligent and bond with their carers.

"It's awful to let go, you really have to bond to look after them and feed them and they treat you like their mother.

"It's a fine line to tread. It's very hard.

"And they each have their own character, they are very smart and they love you so much and they depend on you."

Possums are slowly released into the wild, so that they have time to adapt to being independent, but they can return to the release site.

"Possums are given an open cage from which they can leave and come back to at night. Eventually, when they don't return we take the release cage away. But, they do come back, because they are very territorial.

"They get stuck in vents, and in chimneys and have to be re-released. They are not domesticated and eventually they will become 'real' possums."

Tweed Valley Wildlife Carers are in urgent need of volunteers to help maintain the population of local native animals.

"It's hard to get volunteers because of the economic imperatives on us as a society, but people can help in different ways to suit their capabilities.

"We need people to assist with the slow release of animals, to answer the wildlife emergency phone line and we need people to transfer animals in their cars and help with fundraisers.

"These animals are amazingly cute and they need your help."

Get involved

Caring: Emergency or long-term care in your home.

Transport and rescue: taking the animal to a vet or a carer.

Wildlife hotline: attend the 24-hour phone.

Marketing: fundraising and newsletters.

Donations: money, towels and supplies are always appreciated.

Contact: Tweed Valley Wildlife Carers 02 6672 4789.



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