Baby Possums Five minute cute stage.

The most difficult part of releasing possums back into the wild is actually releasing them. It’s not that they are so cute that I can’t bear to let them go. It is definitely the opposite. They are NOT cute when they are ready to go, they are, well, possums. My nephew calls them “Grinners”. It has to do with that open mouth stare they give you as they sway back and forth in the best threatening manner they can muster. They make a sound like a heard of angry bumblebees and if you try to pick them up, they immediately poop all over you. Possum poop sticks. Possum poop stinks. Nope, nothing cute or endearing there. You are more ready to have them running about the woods and sitting in the middle of the road than they are.
No, the most difficult part of releasing them is keeping them in the cage long enough to do it. Possums are escape artists. They let themselves go as often as possible. It begins when they are very young, soon after they open their eyes. This, I might add is the five minute cute stage in their entire lives.
Let’s back up to some opossum facts. Few people realize that they are not born dead in the middle of the road. I know it seems that way to most people, as that is the only place that they are commonly seen. It is a true testament to the persistence and efficiency of nature that we have not run out of possums. I’ve never quite figured out why they seemingly commit suicide by sitting in the road, but they do. Each time I am raising a batch, my son will shake his head and say, “Mom, WHY are you raising roadkill? You know that as soon as you release them, they will just head for the nearest highway.”
He’s probably right, but back to the interesting facts.
Possums are born before they are fully developed. The mother never even realizes that she is giving birth; she just goes on nonchalantly about her business. (Hopefully not in the road) The blind embryonic babies are about the size of a lima bean. In fact they look a lot like little pink lima beans. The first project as they emerge from womb to light, is to crawl to their mother’s pouch and attach to one of the thin little teats inside. Many are born, but there are only a dozen teats. It’s first come, first served, survival of the fittest, the fastest and the luckiest.
Once inside the soft warm pouch, the mother, like most marsupials will tuck her head inside to clean them . That’s about all she has to do with them for the first month or so. At about 6 to 8 weeks , the youngsters, who now have fur and look much like mice, open their eyes and start to peek out at the world. Now considering that a mature female possum is about the size of a housecat with very short legs, you can imagine that it’s getting crowded in there and she is walking on tiptoe to prevent her belly from dragging on the ground. It is at this point that she will seek relief by letting the babies ride on her back. It’s a pretty amusing sight sight, seeing a mother possum lumbering along with a batch of babies clinging to her for dear life.
And it is for dear life that they cling. A possum this size cannot survive in the world alone. Even being on her back is no guarantee, crows will attack from above and occasionally one will lose its grip and fall off or drown as she is crossing a stream. As they grow, she will allow them to roam around a bit on their own, but if danger arises she will call them back with clicks and hisses to the safety of her pouch. By the time they are the size of a large gerbil, the only way she can comfortably nurse them all, is to lay on her back and let them argue about who gets to the milk bar first.
By the time they are the size of small rats, they are devouring anything they come across. I have yet to find a food that a possum will not eat. Bugs, birdseed, vegetables, dead things (oh they love dead things), eggs…you name it, they eat it. They are a threat to anyone who keep chickens or birds. I have discovered however, that apparently, their very favorite food is fried chicken. Perhaps this offers some explanation as to why so many are killed on the roads, they are looking for takeout chicken.
A possum does not “play” dead as is the popular belief. Their first line of defense is the evil grin with mouth wide open and needle like teeth exposed. They posture, they hiss, they growl. It’s mostly for show though; I have rarely been bitten by a possum. If the threats fail, they panic and well, faint. It’s not just any average faint. They roll over on their back or curl into an unnatural position, their lips draw back and they foam at the mouth. Then in a coup de gras, they fart. A foul, greasy, possum fart. Trust me, it is a fart like no other. It would disgust a grizzly bear. Come to think of it, that may explain why the automobile is its main predator.
The possum lies unconscious, for anywhere between ten minutes to a couple of hours. Totally oblivious to what is going on around them; they can even be picked up and moved. Several times, people have called me saying that they have picked up a dead possum with babies in her pouch, only to have it wake up on the way here. I don’t think I’d want to be in a car with an angry, stinking possum loose in the back seat.
Possums are not hibernators, though they will hunker down and sleep through major snowstorms if they can. Being nocturnal, they look for dark placed to hide during the day. Not being the ambitious sort, they expend little effort build warm nests or burrows. They would rather camp out under the eaves of a barn or in a pile of old lumber, if they can find it, they’ll happily occupy a burrow of another animal, even if they have to eat the present, hibernating occupant. At night, the possum roams about the countryside, finding and eating whatever is in their path that is not still moving or fighting back. This brings about one of the bains of a possum’s life…frostbite. Having no fur on their ears, tails or toes and lacking numerous competent brain cells, the poor little idiots have no idea that they will literally freeze their arses off. You can usually tell an old possum, by how short and misshapen his tail and ears are.
An opossum in the wild normally lives only about 3 to 4 years. I don’t blame them for sitting in the road.
Ok factoids aside, back to the story. I normally get several batches of possums a season, if they are of the age that they have fur and their eyes are about to open, they have a very good chance of survival under my care. Homely little buggers, they “chuff” (a sound much like a frog sneezing) in distress. It means they are hungry and since they usually come in groups of eight to twelve, it takes time to bottle feed each one. Being used to the tiny teat of their mother’s pouch, they are loath to take a rubber nipple in their mouth and will clamp down so firmly with their jaws that the milk cannot get through. I usually end up with a syringe and formula dribbling all over my hand. Thankfully, they can be taught to eat from a dish very early. Every feeding time I walk in and see the mass of gray and white and wonder why AM I working so hard to raise roadkill. Then in one unexpected instant, they get cute. No, they get adorable. The noses are pink, the faces white with little dark widow’s peaks at their foreheads. Their tiny hand like paws have a white fur line that looks like they are wearing opera gloves. They curl that pink, prehensile tail around your finger and you are in love. You carry them out to show everyone. You tuck them in your pockets to snuggle, you just can’t get enough of looking at them. Then, after a day or two, you walk in and there they are, grinning manically, hissing, swaying and threatening to chew your finger off. Sigh, they will remain thus till the day you release them….or they release themselves.
The current batch of possums came to me via a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Now, I have nothing against the people who worship in this manner. In fact I admire their commitment to their faith and in their attempt to convert the world, one door at a time. I do have a problem to people sermonizing in my own home. Even after explaining that I was Buddhist and did not choose to “Pray for the animals of Jehovah’s kingdom”, they would not give up. Finally, I more than gently guided them out the door.
This could be trouble. I was going to have to convert this possums before they could be released. I don’t really care if they share my belief in Buddhism or not, but I certainly don’t want them knocking on doors with bibles in their pouches. Some are taking it better than others. Just last night one put his paw on my hand and asked if I knew where I was going when I died. I replied, that hopefully it would not be in the middle of the road like so many of his brethren.
As I mentioned before (and several times after) Possums are a bit hard to contain. You can put them in the tightest cage and someone will find a way out. I had Jehovah’s possums in a large glass aquarium tank with a tight reptile cover and a brick weighting it down. I thought that it was as secure as you can get. One night I went in to feed them and thought “huh, wasn’t there ten of these? “ I couldn’t believe that one could escape this maximum security, so I figured I’d miscounted and went to bed. The next morning I went into the kitchen to make coffee without my glasses on and scurrying across the floor was a RAT! After the initial shock wore off and I let go of the ceiling fan, I grabbed my glasses. Nope. No rat. Baby possum. I still don’t know how he got out. Someone must have snuck him a glass cutter while I wasn’t looking.
By now they were big enough to be put out in the big squirrel cage outside. I had just released a batch of possums a few weeks ago from this cage, so I was convinced that it would hold them. Not these guys. They were on a mission. The first day all was well. I would go out to feed them and they would all be snug with their fuzzy blankie and hot rock. Then I went out and counted eight. Hmmm, maybe they were just hiding in the straw. Two days later I did a nose count and it was six. What? Were they eating each other? Was someone letting them out at night? I checked the cage over yet again, even feeling through the poop littered soil in the bottom to find a gap in the buried wire. Nope, no tunnels. I eyed them with suspicion for the next twenty four hours. I did another nose count. Still six, and six it has remained.
I still don’t trust them though. I’ve put leg shackles on them till they are ready to release in a few more weeks. Then they will go far away from my chickens and ducks and any paved road. The squirrels and bunnies will just have to put up with their sermonizing.  It will take them years to find the take out chicken.

Leave a Reply