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