Opossums, Road Runners and Bears (not really), oh my!

A trip this week—not down Memory Lane but Burnt Store Road—brought up a few thought-provoking matters.  Driving south from Punta Gorda the first thing I noticed was the preponderance of road kill along the sides of the roadway.  Oddly enough most of it was where the speed limit is preternaturally low (more on that later!)  The portion of Burnt Store Road that has been repaved as a four-lane just south of Notre Dame Blvd has tall curbs that make it difficult for small animals to get over and impossible for turtles and tortoises to get out of traffic once they have spilled off the curb on to the road.


Thankfully the newer construction further south does not appear to be using that deathtrap curbing.  Don’t get me wrong; I am grateful they are widening that road.  For those of you who are not fortunate enough to travel that particular nightmare on a routine basis, allow me to describe it to you.  It’s a twisting, winding, two-lane road, barely wide enough for two Smart cars to pass abreast, much less two trucks hauling boat trailers.  There are absolutely no shoulders on these narrow lanes.  And the posted speed limit is 55 miles per hour, which we all know means you can “safely” drive 70, right? 


Years into the multiple phases of this construction project, there are sections of Burnt Store Road that are now complete, or nearly so.  The fun fact is that on the sections where there are four lanes, wide shoulders and sidewalks for bikes and pedestrians, the speed limit is 35 or 45.  My personal opinion is that one could easily do at least 90 on those stretches.  (Purely hypothetical!  I’m not admitting to anything here.)


Back to the purpose of my trip down good old B.S. Road…Some concerned citizens had found an opossum on a side street in their neighborhood.  They were savvy enough to gently check to see if she was still alive (she was not), if she was indeed a “she” (she was), and did she have babies in her pouch (she did.)  They called Peace River Wildlife Center for assistance, but that was as far as their willing involvement went.  They had other obligations that precluded them bringing the babies to us, as we normally recommend. 


When anyone sees an injured or dead opossum, please check for a pouch with young.  Ideally, removed them from a dead mother immediately, or if that is not possible, bring the entire ensemble to PRWC—the mother’s body and all attached babies—to PRWC.  It is vital that we get the babies off of the mother as soon as possible, because they do not stop nursing off of her and will get quite ill.


North America’s only marsupial, the Virginia opossum is a fascinating creature.  When the babies are born after a gestation period of only two weeks, they are the size of a bee.  Each blind baby will use its well-formed front feet to drag itself into the mother’s pouch, where it attaches to one of her thirteen long skinny teats and remain there for two to three months. 


As the baby matures enough to leave the pouch, he will cling to the fur of her back as she travels around, looking for food.  At this stage, the baby will duck back into the pouch periodically to nurse for another month until eventually dropping off to begin foraging on his own.  This nomadic life style allows the family to go wherever they can find food instead of being tied to a nest site.


Since the baby latches on to a teat in the mother’s pouch and stays attached for up to two months, they have no nursing reflex like most mammals.  When an orphaned opossum baby comes into PRWC for rehab, we have to tube-feed it.  We make a special formula that meets all of its nutritional needs and introduce it directly into the baby’s stomach with a feeding tube.  Since this must be done every few hours, the baby is placed with a home care volunteer to take care of the baby until it is weaned.  Then it is returned to PRWC and prepared for release.


Another unique aspect of the marsupial is its immune system.  The fetus of a placental mammal (dogs, cats, rats, bats, you, me, etc.) receives passive immunity from the mother before birth.  This serves to help protect the newborn until it is old enough for its own immune system to begin working. 


But the baby opossum, like all marsupials, is born without any immunity.  It will eventually have the mother’s immunity transferred to it via milk while nursing, but if that connection is broken early, the baby is highly susceptible to infection.  In addition to feeding the baby a special formula every few hours, the rehabber must also give the baby medications to support the immature immune system until the baby is old enough for its own system to kick in.


Next week we will discuss more fascinating facts about the Virginia opossum and why they are an invaluable addition to our Southwest Florida landscape.  What do they eat?  Where did they come from?  Do they really hang by their tails like they do in cartoons?  Cartoons can’t possibly be wrong, can they?!?  I have based my entire life on lessons learned from Bugs Bunny.  Except for my driving skills, which obviously emanated from the Road Runner. Meep, meep.  Look out Mr. Magoo!

by- Robin Jenkins