Yard Angels

We definitely get our share of opossums admitted to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport, NC, be it injured adults or orphaned babies. Although an adult opossum may be harder and heavier to handle, what’s not to love about a “Mickey-Mouse” baby possum? Recently, quite a number of sweet baby possums have made their way to the shelter in the arms of Good Samaritans. The Virginia Opossum, Didelphis Virginiana, is one of the more familiar and widespread mammals in the United States, found coast to coast, up into Canada and down into Costa Rica, in fields, thick forests, open woods, brushy wastelands, marshes, parks, residential areas and in the alleys of our large cities. They are generally lumped together in the public’s mind with raccoons, squirrels, rabbits and other wildlife, but an opossum is fundamentally a different breed of animal as singular in its evolutionary history as it is solitary in its habits. Opossums, which have been around since the dinosaur days, socialize only during breeding season.
The Virginia Opossum is the only marsupial (pouched mammal) found in the United States. They are commonly found in residential neighborhoods if cover is available. They are very adaptable and will homestead just about anywhere they find a food source. Omnivorous opossums eat a wide variety of foods, including: fruits, berries, insects, crayfish, small mammals, bird eggs, young birds, frogs, earthworms, snakes, lizards, mussels and tadpoles. Occasionally, they will raid poultry yards or gardens to feed on an egg or vegetables and fruits. However, they are more beneficial to humans than not because they feed on many types of yard nuisances, too, such as moles, voles, shrews, insects, snails, slugs and other invertebrates. Having a “Yard Angel” on your property, visiting your garden perhaps, shouldn’t be a problem. This non-aggressive and nondestructive animal will not dig up yards, attack or threaten pets or dig burrows. Opossums are opportunity eaters though, so accessible garbage, the spillover of pet food on your deck, or dead animals in the area will be gone by morning if your Yard Angel is on duty. The description of an opossum differs from person to person. Some perceive them as homely or ugly, but we wildlife rehabilitators at the shelter, think they’re beautiful, every last one of them! Regardless of personal perception, the physical facts cannot be debated or discounted. Virginia Opossums are medium-sized mammals, about the size of a large housecat, ranging from 6 to 13 lbs with a body length of 12-20 inches and a tail length up to 15 inches. They usually have whitish-gray fur, but sometimes can be blackish-gray. They have furless, black ears (hence, the “Mickey-Mouse” reference earlier) and a long naked tail. The opossum’s tail is prehensile, which means it can grab onto branches for balance and stability, but doesn’t usually hang by it. The head and throat of Virginia Opossums are white. They also have short legs, and the females have the pouch. Breeding season for opossums starts in late winter. Females will have two or three litters each year and each litter will be up to 13 young. Baby opossums are born much more quickly than other mammals. When they are born, they are about the size of a Honey Bee. Each embryonic baby will carefully crawl up its mother’s body to enter her pouch. Here, it will attach itself to a teat and feed. Baby opossums stay in their mother’s pouch for two months. Once they leave the pouch, they will stay awhile longer, clinging to her back as she wanders. A couple other descriptive factoids include their 50 very sharp teeth which is more than any land mammal, their unusual resistance to the venom of poisonous snakes, and they are extremely unlikely to acquire rabies.
The Opossum has many behavioral adaptations it uses to survive. They are most noted for feigning death or “playing possum” as a last resort when threatened. This reaction seems to be involuntary, and triggered by extreme fear. Opossums, when under serious threat, initially respond ferociously by hissing, screeching, growling, belching and showing its teeth. When those strategies don’t deter the threat they just fall over like a fainting goat and enter a near coma that can last up to four hours. It lies on its side, mouth and eyes open, tongue hanging out and emits a putrid, green fluid from its anus that effectively repels predators. Nasty, I know, but a possum’s gotta do what a possum’s gotta do! Despite these very effective survival methods, Opossums, like most marsupials, have unusually short life spans for their size and metabolic rate. The Virginia Opossum has a maximum life span in the wild of only about two years. Even in captivity, opossums live only about four years. So it’s very sad at the shelter when we lose one of our program possums due to longevity. They are environmentally beneficial and wonderful wildlife to get to know, and school children love to see our program opossum’s cute face, especially when eating grapes! Too cute!

Happy Fall, Everyone!!!

Linda Bergman-Althouse
Author of Save Them All

Tiny Dancer

Litters of orphaned opossums come and go at the shelter without much fanfare, just lots of feeding to get them up to weight and ensuring they eventually eat on their own before heading out into the wild with their siblings. The needs infant opossums have when attached to a teet in Mom’s pouch are very similar to a human baby growing in their Mother’s womb. They are not ready for the outside world until the critical time period elapses, allowing sufficient physical development to enable them to exist on the outside. When we get opossums (usually due to Mom being hit by a car, unfortunately) at thirty grams or more, although still premature births, their chances for survival with assistance from an attending wildlife rehabilitator are pretty darn good, barring any injuries sustained during the family trauma. SO, when opossums are brought in or picked up that weigh twenty grams or less and have injuries to boot, their odds of survival go way down. That’s what happened on Wednesday, April 7th. I got the call that a Momma Opossum was “down” in someone’s yard close to the Library and although, she had passed, there were survivors, four out of eight infants to be exact. The man handed them to me in a tiny box, which fit them perfectly, because they were tiny, too. The scale in my triage digitally flashed 20 grams for the first weigh in – then another at 20, and yet another at 20 and the last one, 22 grams. After warming them and cleaning all the debris and dried fluids from their fragile skin, they, all girls, evidenced serious bruising and a couple were missing digits on their back feet. It would take a miracle (or 2 grams) if any survived. You guessed it, the only one to make it in those first few days outside Mom’s pouch was the little girl weighing in at 22 grams with all digits intact, but her skin was so fragile and peeled constantly. What little hair she did have was falling out. Great pains were taken to provide enough humidity for her skin condition and mineral oil, as well as, lanolin was applied to her skin until finally, the flaking stopped and hair started growing in again. When the hair started growing, so did the rest of her. I couldn’t help but name her Tiny Dancer, although we wildlife rehabilitators try our best not to name any animal we will be releasing to the wild. Tiny Dancer was always moving, she’s never quit moving. It was like she was saying to me, “I can make it,” and the flailing of tiny legs while eating from a syringe was her unspoken message, “See, I’m strong, just give me your time, please.” Today, she is 218 grams (7.7 ounces) of fluff and attitude, and I couldn’t be more proud of her. She is the sole survivor of her litter and I’m not ashamed to say, “I love this possum,” but fortunately, she doesn’t love me back. She nips my fingers with her many tiny teeth, hisses occasionally and is always trying to get away from me, which is exactly the way this little marsupial should be. She still has quite a bit of growing to meet the two pound requirement for release, but she’s on her way! I’ve been waiting for another opossum to check into the wildlife shelter that is about her size, so she won’t be alone, but so far, they have been too small or too large. Until then, it’s Tiny Dancer and me!

(Tiny Dancer spends most of her time sleeping in the bandana hammock at the top of her cage.)

Linda Bergman-Althouse
author of
“Save Them All”