Every spring and summer at Humboldt Wildlife Care, we admit dozens of baby Opossums (Didelphis virginiana) for care. As with all of our patients, none arrive by pleasant means. Each of these youngsters is an orphan, their mothers killed. Cars and dogs are the two worst threats, it seems, for Opossum mothers.
The name Opossum is derived from the Algonquian word, Wapathemwa, or “white animal.”(1) Opossums are the only marsupial found in North America. Like Kangaroos, Koalas, Wombats and others, female Opossums have a separate pouch where their young continue their development after a short pregnancy. Born tiny (10 grams!), pink, and nearly helpless they crawl into their mother’s pouch to nurse and there they reman for the next 7-10 weeks.(2) A litter of twelve is not uncommon!
Of course, when a dog or a car kills a female Opossum, she may be a mother with babies in her pouch. At HWCC we take these babies in when they are found. Providing a good diet (which includes a specially prepared Opossum milk replacer) warmth, safety and as they age, an increasingly challenging environment to offer both mental and physical education.
Adept at living around farms, roadways, industry, and cities, Opossums find shelter and food easily, but are exposed to the risk that all wild animals who live near civilization face. Excellent climbers, Opossums have a prehensile tail. While it’s not true that Opossums can hang by their tail (ouch!), they do use it to grasp branches, fence posts, and sometimes, the beltloops of their care-providers!
As their common name suggests, Virginia Opossums are not native to California or the west, but were introduced in the late 19th century by immigrants from eastern states. Unlike many non-native species, Opossums have little negative impact on the ecosystem they now call home.
Opossums are opportunivores! They eat whatever they can find. We are careful to present orphans with a wide variety of natural foods: insects, fruit and vegetables, rodents, fish make up their diet. Not only do their meals sustain them, but they also must continue to teach. “What’s this?” each item asks… the answer: It’s Opossum food.
Yet still, these gentle, unobtrusive animals are persecuted. Opossums are frequently hit by cars and sadly, sometimes this is intentional. (Want to see how normal it is to disrespect an Opossum family? Click here for an LA Times story from 1994.) Routinely trapped, killed, even tortured, Opossums face myriad threats in their daily lives. Opossums are reckoned to live not much more than two years.
Berries and mealworms buried in a tray of potting soil await discovery! Each orphan we raise must have basic survival skills. Our housing is our most effective tool to help these little ones learn. This is the sad reality of orphans of any species, what your mom and dad would have taught you you have to pick up elsewhere, with varying degrees of success..
If an Opossum is being a so-called nuisance, you can be sure that something is attracting that animal. Feeding pets outdoors and failing to secure garbage are the most common practices that draw wildlife into conflict with humans. For far too many wild neighbors these conflicts end with death. Perceived as disease-ridden by people whose connection with nature was damaged or severed long ago, even in our laws it is hard to find any but the most vague anti-cruelty ordinances that protect Opossums. (The 20 year old news story linked above is still relevant. Click here to see how poorly the University of California addresses conflicts with Opossums.)
HWCC treats injured and orphaned Opossums all year – adults and babies. We encourage everyone to say a good word about Opossums, who live their short, mysterious lives to the fullest and teach lessons in how to love the ‘blaze of reality’ that burns through us all.
Your donation supports the care of these and all wild neighbors who need help. Thank you for making the North Coast and beyond a nicer place to be wild and free.
Opossum: rhymes with awesome. Coincidence? We think not.
All photos Laura Corsiglia/BAX
1. https://www.princeton.edu/~achaney/tmve/wiki100k/docs/Virginia_Opossum.html accessed 16:32 29 Aug 2014
2. http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/accounts/Didelphis_virginiana/ accessed 17:23 29 Aug 2014