The cashier scanned my several cans of cat food.
“You must be a cat lover.”
“Me? Not really. It bothers me that cats massacre our native wildlife, especially fledgling songbirds. No, I’m buying this special dinner for my girlfriend.”
The cashier never saw that coming and I never let on that my “girlfriend” was an opossum. Cold, wet, and all alone, I found her at dawns early light, frantically scampering down the sidewalk in front of my house. I ignored the inner voice ordering me to not interfere with Mother Nature, but I wanted to keep this little tyke from becoming a traffic fatality, so I scooped her up and moved her slightly off course to the sanctuary of my fenced-in backyard, a microhabitat of trees, bushes, and a water feature. She fit in the palm of my hand and resembled a rat with her naked, prehensile tail and beady crossed eyes. This tiny creature received protected status in my backyard. I gave her a belly full of milk and bread to boost her chance of survival. A scrub bucket served as a temporary den site.
Before going to work, I fashioned a nest of soft grasses and dry leaves around her and left the bucket on its side by the back porch.
I thought about my quasi-adopted friend off and on all day and allowed myself to look forward to seeing her. No such luck. When I came home, my little buddy was gone. So too were the morsels of milk-soaked bread. I felt down and wondered why she abandoned her new-found refuge. On the other hand, I wished her well.
Like an over-anxious parent, I worried about her. For several nights I put out a few random samples of cat food. By morning, it was gone. Was it my opossum? Was she ok? A week passed with no opossum in sight. Then, when least expected, in the eve of night, I saw a small opossum in my backyard. She looked around, caught a glimpse of me, and scampered off. What a relief it was to see that she had put her wild instincts in gear and survived. I slept well that night, knowing she was healthy and surviving on her own now. As a wild animal, she needed to develop foraging skills to survive independently.
It was a rough winter with prolonged subzero temperatures prevailing much of the time. Opossums, unlike some mammals, are not true hibernators. Mammals such as groundhogs go into a torpid state where the heart rate, respiration rate, and body temperature are significantly reduced to subnormal. Though opossums do not hibernate, they do hunker down in their dens during severe weather to conserve energy. It was a long stretch since I had seen my opossum. I was beginning to worry again that something may have happened to her. Then one cold spring night with snow still on the ground, she suddenly appeared by my water feature for a drink, but wait! Was I seeing double? Apparently she brought a friend with her. The other opossum appeared bigger and had a crooked tail that looked like it had been broken at one time and ears that were ragged around the edges, perhaps from a previous frostbite event.
A ritualized event took place, cat-like grooming by licking the paws, legs, and face. There was something different this time. My girlfriend was self-examining her pouch. Opossums give birth to young that are not fully developed and are still in the embryonic stage of development. Each baby is about the size of a dime when born. Blind and nearly helpless after birth, they must make their journey to the mother’s pouch and find a nipple if they are to survive. As part of the survival plan, opossums have large litters. When they outgrow the mothers pouch, the immature joeys migrate and become passengers, riding on the mother’s back.
Another week of not seeing my opossum friends went by. Then one morning I looked out of my kitchen window and saw my neighbor walking to collect her morning newspaper from her lawn. It was odd seeing her walking backwards as she made a quick retreat back to her front porch. Then I saw a familiar crooked tail squeezing through the fence from the neighbor’s yard.
What fate awaits these creatures and other lowly urban dwellers? A message taken from Facebook, derived from www.noahsark.org, gives voice to the opossum:
“You are wrong about me.” I mean no harm. I’m not fast. I’m not mean. No one has chosen me as their sports team mascot. When I’m in trouble, I try to look tough, show my teeth, hiss and drool but less than ten of us have tested positive for rabies in over 150 years. Practice what you teach your children. Don’t be mean to me just because you think I’m ugly."
Consider the role of the opossum in providing valuable community custodial services. Fallen apples from a neighbor’s tree left to rot on the ground attract rats. Opossums not only eat apples but also raid rat nests. Opossums even eat ticks. It is true that the incidence of rabies is so low in opossums, that it is considered almost nonexistent. The normal body temperature of the opossum too low to allow incubation of the rabies virus.
One concept; “Think global, but act local,” is a good starting point in thinking about wildlife conservation. Showing good stewardship by taking ownership of our native wildlife and protecting their needs can start in our own back yard. Man has been given a precious natural resource and we have forgotten how to care for it.
In the words of Walt Kelly, an iconic cartoonist and creator of the fictitious character “Pogo,” an opossum that lived in the Okefenokee Swamp: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
Written by Thomas Hayes
Thomas Hayes is a wildlife consultant living in Pittsburgh, PA.
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