You want fries with THAT?!?
An opossum walks into McDonald’s. That’s it. There is no punchline. This is not a joke. Especially for the staff and customers at a local McDonald’s fast food restaurant recently when they noticed an adult Virginia opossum in the dining room. Charlotte County Animal Control officer Brad Finkbeiner got the call to pick up the wayward marsupial. She came along peacefully and was transported to Peace River Wildlife Center where she spent a couple nights in the hoosegow.
The opossum had a small abrasion on the side of her face, probably the result of having been sideswiped by a car. After a few days of observation, we determined that other than her questionable choice of eateries, she was healthy and was released to the general area from which she had been rescued. Obviously not in the McDonald’s dining room. Everyone knows opossums belong in the kitchen. Just kidding. We took her to a remote area far away from those addictive salty French fries and sweet delicious tea. Although no one wants a wild animal in their home or restaurant, opossums are actually very beneficial neighbors.
The lifespan of an opossum is two years in the wild and only up to four years in captivity. It is thought that since it lacks natural defense against predators, the opossum never successfully adapted genes for longer life. It is amazingly resistant to rabies and many of the other diseases that plaque most mammals, due in part to the fact that its body temperature is too low to form a hospitable environment for viruses and other pathogens. The opossum not only doesn’t serve as a reservoir for Lyme’s disease, it actually limits the spread of this disease by eating most of the disease-spreading ticks that harbour the infectious bacteria.
When approached, an opossum will bear a mouth impossibly full of pointy teeth and hiss. And then… well, nothing. That’s pretty much all its got. It won’t normally lunge at you, throw quills in your face, spit venom across the room to blind you, or crack your ribs by whipping its tail at you. The most action you will generally see if you persist in disturbing an opossum is that it will roll onto its side and fake death. Hence the term “playing possum”, which can last up to four hours. Oh, and there is the green anal discharge that helps sell the whole “dead” act by making the “carcass” smell like it has started to rot.
The Virginia opossum is sometimes simply called the possum, although technically possums are completely different species of animals in Australia and Asia. The opossum is North America’s only marsupial. The babies are “born” a mere two weeks after conception and are the size of a bumblebee. They crawl up into the mother’s pouch, where they latch on to one of her 13 nipples and stay attached for the next two to three months. After that time, they crawl on to mom’s back for another month or so and cling to her fur as she travels around looking for food. This way she doesn’t have to waste time going back to a nest to care for her young, since they are always with her.
A normal litter is six or seven. We sometimes receive orphaned pouch young (babies that were still attached to mother’s nipples) at Peace River Wildlife Center and if we have a lactating female on hand, we will place the orphans in the foster mother’s pouch and she will raise the new babies as her own. If the babies are older, from about 30 days on, we can raise them on formula. Since the baby is a marsupial, it does not have a suckling instinct and we have to tube feed the formula straight into the baby’s stomach.
The opossum is one of the oldest living mammals, dating back as far as 70 million years. It has a very small brain—the raccoon’s brain is five times larger although the animals are roughly the same size. This comes in handy to make more room for teeth, of which the opossum has 50—more than any other North American mammal. It has opposable thumbs on the rear feet and a prehensile tail that can help steady it while climbing and carry small objects. Opossums do not hang by their tails and it is not advisable to hold one up by its tail.
The opossum is an omnivore—it eats anything and everything. It will eat grubs, bugs, plants, fruit, and especially carrion. It is this habit that often gets the slow moving opossum in trouble. It finds dead animals on or near the road and gets hit by a passing car while eating. This is why it is imperative that if you see a dead or injured opossum, roll it over using gloves or a towel, and check to see if it is a female and if there are any babies in the pouch. Ideally, if mom is dead, remove the babies from the pouch, keep them warm, and bring them to PRWC as soon as possible. If mom is still alive or you are unable to remove the babies, bring the whole family to PRWC quickly. The pouch young can get septic (a life-threatening body-wide infection) if they continue to feed on a dead mother. If you find a small furry older baby near or on a dead mother’s body, please check the pouch but also look around the area for siblings, as the older baby may have wandered off a short distance.
Most opossum rescues are done by children, often boys. I suppose their innate curiosity gets the better of them. The next largest group of rescuers is women. Their nurturing spirits extend to all forms of life. Men, for some reason, always seem to have the same response when the subject of opossums comes up: Eewww. Except for Officer Finkbeiner, who is always up for a rescue of anything, from an opossum to a great horned owl. PRWC will miss him dearly as he is leaving to pursue other avenues of adventure. Good luck, Brad.
by–Robin Jenkins, DVM