The mysterious case of the pastry eating possum

A photo of a fat possum guzzling pastries in a bakery has set Australian social media abuzz, but is it real? We investigate the true story behind Twitter’s favourite new critter.

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LATE UPDATES CAN BE FOUND AT THE BOTTOM OF THE STORY.

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Possum

Cute. Cuter when surrounded by pastries.

Have you heard the one about the greedy possum that broke into a bakery? If you’ve been on Twitter lately you can’t avoid it. The adorable photo above has spread like wildfire across social media over the last 48 hours with the accompanying description:

“Possum broke into the local bakery and ate so many pastries he couldnt (sic) move! This is how the bakery owners found him!”

Which bakery? No one knew. Was it real? No one knew, although everyone swore it was.

But it seems the true story behind the pastry-eating marsupial is as fuzzy as the possum itself.

The photo was actually posted two weeks ago on viral website Reddit with a claim it was taken at Sydney’s Taronga Zoo.

Reddit user “Magzy” posted the picture under the caption: “A friend who works at Taronga Zoo found this little possum who broke onto (sic) the cafe and ate so many pastries it couldn’t move”.

Magzy’s original post didn’t get much traction, but other users’ reposts of it certainly did, making the front page of the website and earning hundreds of likes and comments. Some users angrily claimed the photo was old, and had already been posted Reddit six months earlier.

Three days later the photo turned up on the Twitter feed of Sydney North Shore community newspaper The Hornsby Advocate, under the caption “Hungry possum busted with a gutful of pastries”:

The Hornsby Advocate's possum tweet

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Accompanying the photo was a link to a Facebook post which has since been deleted. As the Hornsby Advocate doesn’t have a Facebook page of its own, it seems the paper may have been linking to the photo on another Facebook user’s profile.

This doesn’t help us establish the veracity of the picture, but as no news story about the amazing pastry-eating possum or the astounded shop owners who found it ever appeared on the Advocate‘s news website, one might assume that perhaps there was no story to be had. (Either that, or the Advocate missed a really good yarn!)

On February 29 the possum picture swept through Reddit again, this time with the story that it had been taken in a “local bakery”. From there it spiralled into Twitter and Facebook, with some retweeters changing the story again to claim it was taken in New York (unlikely, as American Opossums look very different from the one in the photo).

But it wasn’t until Sydney Twitter user “Sarah Hoppy Hopkins” tweeted it on March 4 that it really went bananas. As per the most recent Reddit posts Taronga Zoo had again become “a bakery” (although no one seemed to know which one) and suddenly the photo was everywhere, being retweeted by high profile Tweeps like Ruby Rose, Magda Szubanski and Tracy Grimshaw.

The possum hits Twitter

@Hoppy_Jnr later claimed the possum had been picked up by wildlife rescue WIRES, but she couldn’t say where from.

It’s strange that the bakery was originally a zoo when the possum picture first appeared on the internet. It’s even stranger that @Hoppy_Jnr  could know the possum had been rescued by WIRES, yet have no idea from where it was rescued.

I’ve contacted the North Shore Advocate, @Hoppy_Jnr and WIRES about the photo but as yet have had no replies.

You might think: Who cares? It’s a cute photo, who cares who took it? Who cares what the story is?

Well, given the speed with which this photo whipped around the internet, shared around without a care in the world for its authenticity (including by me), I’d argue we should all care because it’s reflective of a dangerous trend in modern journalism.

This seemingly innocuous, jam-covered possum shows just how quickly news can spread on social media and potentially infiltrate our mainstream media without anyone bothering to check its source.

I’m not saying the photo isn’t real, or that @Hoppy_Jnr didn’t indeed take it herself or know the person who did. I am saying that taking things on face value is a dangerous practice, particularly when journalists start doing it.

Of course, one might also consider these points:

  • The possum appears unusually blurry in comparison to the surrounding pastries and box.
  • There are no crumbs anywhere, and none of the pastries in the box appear to have been nibbled (that’s one very neat possum, eh?).
  • Possums don’t typically eat pastry.
  • Maybe that’s not jam on its fur. (Think about it.).

>> Did you see the possum picture on social media? Do you think it’s real? What do you think about journalists gathering news stories from Twitter?

UPDATE 10am: The Hornsby Advocate has confirmed via Twitter they received the photo from “a reader”. They believe it is “several years old” and was taken at Taronga Zoo.

UPDATE 5pm: After some contact from journalists at the Herald Sun and Daily Telegraph, @Hoppy_Jnr has tweeted she did not take the photo, simply that she retweeted it “from Facebook”. She says she was later “told online” that the possum had been rescued by WIRES.  The mystery continues…

UPDATE MARCH 7, 11AM: Reddit user “Magzy”, who appears to be the first person to have posted the possum picture online on February 20, says he got it from a work colleague who told him it had been taken at the Taronga Centre in Sydney’s Taronga Zoo. Magzy says his colleague “was adamant at the time that he knew the person who took the picture”. Magzy says the phone number he has for this colleague no longer works so he can’t be reached for comment. Research continues…!

UPDATE MARCH 7, 4PM: I received the following emailed response from Taronga Zoo’s media manager Mark Williams:

“This photo has been doing the rounds. I’ve asked around and nothing like this has happened recently here, although staff often see possums in the grounds.

There’s anecdotal evidence that something like this happened two or three years ago, although the details are sketchy, and I can’t find anyone to corroborate the story. If it happened, the possum would have been checked by Zoo staff and released but our veterinary staff have no records of this going back even into last year.”

Are we at a dead end here, people?

  • Mia Walters

    Seriously? This is a story? It’s just a meme. Somebody put Angelina’s leg in there stat. Or Princess Beatrice’s hat.
    Come on Just B.

    • Petra @ JustB

      Hey Mia – I agree the picture itself is trivial, but I think it highlights a bigger, more serious issue that I’ve explained in my comment to Stace above. Thanks for reading.

      • gayle hannah

         I agree with you Petra – too many people do not pay attention to detail and context. If this had been labelled ” Dead possum in pastry box” would we get all the inane lols and cutes? This is animal cruelty – and worse – animal cruelty as a trophy – shared and re-shared. To me the poor thing is obviously dead – in or out of the box. I am constantly having to pull people up on the junk they recycle. This is animal cruelty – and worse – animal cruelty as a trophy – shared and re-shared. No wonder zombie are so popular in this age – too many walking dead online and elsewhere.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=786188938 Stace ‘Frailbeth’ Irving

    I do agree with your point: people, including journalists, are far too ready to believe and spread stories without confirming facts! This particular instance, as Mia Walters seems to be implying, is a bit trivial, but the phenomenon itself can be quite worrying. People act in good faith on the basis of misinformation.

    • Petra @ JustB

      That’s my point exactly Stace. As I said in my post the subject of this particular Internet phenom is lighthearted and not serious, but I think it highlights how quickly stories can spread, and change and infiltrate the media via Twitter, and how important it is to question things on the Internet, especially for journalists.

      • Melanie

        Thank you for this very interesting article, a reminder to always keep a keen eye and a sharp mind!

  • http://franklyfeisty.blogspot.com/ frankly feisty

    I saw and reposted it a couple of weeks ago, fully suspecting it was a fake. It has, quite clearly, been photoshopped, edited, put-together, created and is in my opinion, a fake.
    But, I loved it.
    Very clever and amusing.
    Just wish we could get to the original poster/creator and congratulate them!

    • Petra @ JustB

      I’m still on the fence, Feisty! I agree there’s a lot that points to it being Shopped, but I’m not entirely convinced yet. I’d love to get to the bottom of it!

  • Ransome C

    What about: if it’s real, is that possum ok? Doesn’t anyone care about how bloated the possum is? The fact that if it’s real, the possum probably died and all people can say is “lol do cute!!! Hehehehehehe!” people disgust me!

    • Petra @ JustB

      Good point, Ransome. If the photo IS real, I certainly hope the possum didn’t die! If I find out more info about this pic today I’ll update the post above.

    • Whitesonic

       They’re not saying “it’s cute in its misery”, they’re saying “it’s a cute possum”. Stop acting like you have a right to be offended. You probably look like a monster in someone else’s eyes for expressing your own opinion and you would never know.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Piotr-Nowotnik/100000529298178 Piotr Nowotnik

      First thing that came to my mind (just after “WTF! CUTE!”) was a concern if anyone is looking after his bloated belly and if he is released into the wild (to burn this damn pastry)… Apart from obvious cuteness, there is much more to this picture than catches the eye. I believe he/she is alive however – as much as I hate the notion of possum being considered pests in Australia – it might also mean than no sane Australian would put a dead possum next to human food…

      • Petra @ JustB

        Is it really worth the joke to ruin all those delicious looking pastries..?? ;)

  • http://twitter.com/bellyrumbles Belly Rumbles

    Having brush tails living around us, I notice that the leg and tail are strangely bloated.  My dog (when a puppy) had a field day in the kitchen when were out, ate a whole BBQ chicken, some muffins then finished of with some chicken.  Everything stayed in proportion except her stomach which looked like she had eaten a football (quite scary and I was panicked).  I have only seen an animal bloat like that, all over, when dead.

    It is a great example of how easily we can be fooled when not looking in to the facts, taking a second look and thinking about what we are seeing.

  • Aidan

    Good on you for trying to get to the bottom of this.

    It isn’t amusing unless it’s true. 

    • Petra @ JustB

      Not quite the point I was trying to make but thanks for the comment anyway!

  • http://twitter.com/onceateacher56 Janis Price

    When I was just a girl we were camping at Maria Island in Tasmania and we had a birthday cake in a cardboard box. Imagine our surprise when we opened the box to find the back eaten out and the cake gone! Possums do eat cake.

  • ShakinBoots

    Good article. I was one of the many who retweeted it from @Hoppy_Jnr. The story has sounded supicious (fake) throughout the current twitter frenzy. She’s posted as though she had personal info on the image, bakery, wires, etc. But it’s since become known that she just took the image off Facebook and has NO personal connection. Seems a bit decietful imo.

    Anyway, the most obvious sign that this was photoshopped is the supposed chewed through hole in the box. That is very clearly drawn in photoshop; solid black background is incorrect, an already opened box (no need to chew through it).

    Now that I look at it again, I’m feeling sick as that possum DOES appear to be dead and yes, what IS that red stuff on him :o !?

    Regarding news and social media: I have seen several examples of “professional news media” tweeting false info and then later having to correct themselves. If this were the case on TV news or print, someone would have to worry about losing their job. On twitter everyone wants to be THE FIRST to “report” something and they tweet before checking facts or having all the necessary preliminary info. People do this all the time, but now that I’m seeing previously reputable news sources do the same, it IS pretty disturbing.

    • Dikku

      It doesn’t look like a solid black background for the hole to me, it looks as though there is some paper or wall at the edge, and the box would cast a shadow as well. No idea if the little possum is dead or not, but one would think that if it created the hole in the back of the box, it would end up crawling inside and reasonably get jam all over itself.

    • Sera

      I thought the idea was that someone opened the box and maybe another took the photo, perhaps after hearing noises coming from it.
      That said, I have just had the pic posted on my wall and I felt dodgy about it immediately. I saw footage of possums being killed for their meat a few years ago.This was happening on white counters (making it easier to photoshop a possum out) and all I’ll say is that the possums were not dying quickly. When I saw this image it brought that (f horrid) imagery back. I just had a tiny sliver of dread someone may have used an image of a possum from such a sick event and tried to make a ‘funny photo’ out of it. Now I just hope this isn’t just world-weariness and skepticism speaking and this photo is legit. I was looking for confirmation this photo was real as represented and came across this article.
      As far as photoshopped or not I can’t tell. I’ve had my camera do all sorts or weird depths of field, distortions, etc. But yeah, hope it is legit, despite the fact it seems strange that it’s place of origin isn’t showing up.

  • Guest

    The reddish coloured markings on it’s chest and near it’s nose are actually consistent with a brush tailed possum. However they way it’s positioned and the way the right paw (on the left side in the photo) is just lying there palm up makes me think this animal is not alive. I do hope I’m wrong though. 

    • Jkirby

      It’s just playing possum

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  • Mfcmods

    Seen the comments in this post? Same people or different people…
    http://icanhascheezburger.com/2012/03/05/funny-pictures-the-possum-bakery-break-in/

  • sazzajay

    On Facebook as of Monday this place are claiming it’s from their “local bakery” in Margaret River. https://www.facebook.com/pages/Margaret-River-Guest-House/77917505997 who currently have 550 likes, 182 shares, and 137 comments because of it. I commented with a link to this article questioning if it was real and it already seems to have been deleted. I doubt I am the first to have questioned it either. Seems like a lazy way to get publicity for their page. 

  • MeCC

    Parts of this obviously have been photoshopped and “blurred”.  If you blow if up big you see sharp squares over most of it but the critter is blurred and the white space in the box is blurred and so is a spot on the black tarp.Has anybody identified the logo on the tarp?  It looks like an stick figure with a sword and shield.  Underneath there is some illegible name.  Is that a logo for a zoo or a bakery or what?  It has been carefully left sharp while the areas around it are blurred out.

    • Dr Ruth

      I, too, think a big clue is that logo on the tarp, or whatever it is rolled up next to the pastry box. Concentrate on that, Sherlock!

    • Pippidog

      It’s a common chefs knife roll, possibly aussiechef brand. Every other chef has one, so could be any commercial kitchen in Australia!

  • dA

    um… real or fake > did it not make you have a pastry moment inside? is this such an important article of affairs that journalists need to research it’s legitimacy?

  • Mary

    they actually LOVE grape jelly …. when we were setting a trap by the barn (humane trap) to catch skunks to re-locate (spraying all around the barn) .. i caught more possums with jam than anything else. I’m a Vegan, so no hurting them… let them loose, then tried different items. only thing i found these little dudes must not like was peanut butter. I wish we could find out if it IS dead or alive. 

  • Welly_eh

    It’s definitely a fake. Have a look at the pixels. The evidence is there, having seen a few ‘shops in my time.

  • Maximilian Clarke

    Hornsby Advocate: fairly sure that’s not a hungry possum!

  • Bianca

    bar humbug… its a funny picture.

  • Sera

    Kudos for the article, good points and well written. There is something a bit sinister about this photo. I think people automatically matching caption to image without question is indeed a dangerous practice. That said, I hate being so negative and skeptical and see that as a bad practice as well. I endeavored in a mission to find it’s origin for peace of mind but it has been fruitless and upon reading this article, it’s anonymity I’m afraid doesn’t bode well. I think it would make an incredible article and a world-wide wake up call if information on it’s fake origin were discovered and it was as sinister as some have suspected. Obviously I’d prefer by far to find it was real and the possum to be safe. I’m wondering if a google image search on – let’s say ‘compromised’ – possums might yield a breakthrough and show a matching possum image but I don’t think I can stomach that course of action and the chances are far too slim.

  • Jon

    Loving the silly yanky style conspiracy theory hahaha, and love that the writer states “possums dont usually eat pastry” LOL, well…….that’s because “they’re animals” dear lol…… but if pastry is available, they “will” eat it, they especially like cake, just like any other animal.

    • shayneo

      Yup. Possums are crazy hogs and will eat whatever they can get. Like a lot of marsupials they can be surprisingly unafraid of people too, being that they don’t have an awful lot of native predators, short of dingos and predatory birds AFAIK.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ItsCircles Circles Granville

    I think you people need to take this at face value. If it looks like a duck and sounds like a duck, it’s a duck. Theories that it is dead and photoshopped are wild, foolish and unfounded. You’re making issues where none exist.

  • Matt Cornwell

    Ok, now I’ve seen the original of this image I can confirm it is definitely a fake. If you’re unsure lok at the sharpness of the pastries and the text around the possum then look at the fur. I have a both ringtailed and brushtail possums frequenting my balcony all the time and I’ve photographed several. If they’re in focus the fur is sharp and the focal length of the camera in this shot SHOULD have the possum in focus.

    I work as a professional artist and retoucher and this is a pretty shoddy job although the basic premise is pretty amusing.
    Also, possums are incredibly skittish.

    My guys never eat enough to slow them down.

    A slow possum is a dead possum and they ALL seem to know it.

    I also tried them on jam donuts and they’re far more likely to go for apples, unsalted nuts and honey than for pastry and jam. I guess they just prefer natural sugars.