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Wildlife Center's Plea for Possums

Sandy Hausman/Radio IQ

This month the Wildlife Center of Virginia marked a milestone  -- caring for its 800-thousandth patient – a possum.  In years passed, rabbits have been the most common animals cared for at the clinic in Waynesboro, but today it’s possums that claims the title. 

Posey is a two-year-old possum who works for the Wildlife Center of Virginia – serving as a goodwill ambassador to schools and other public places.  She’s sitting with outreach coordinator AlexWehring – chowing down on her favorite foods.

“That would be – it looks to me like half of a dead mouse," he says. " That seems to be the first thing she goes for.  Either that or the hard boiled egg.”

Also in the mix, fruit, vegetables and softened dog food.

“Delicious!” Wehring concludes.

Possums are easy when it comes to food.  They’ll eat almost anything, including dead critters.

“They are essentially nature’s clean up crew. They also eat a lot of parasitic species like ticks.  They can eat venomous snakes.  They’re immune to rattle snake venom.”

Alex is holding Posey in his lap – knowing possums are not generally vicious, but he’s wearing long leather gloves to prevent accidental injury.

“The possums have I believe the most teeth out of any land mammal in the world.  They have 50 – 5-0 teeth, and they’re all really sharp, and they have a really powerful bite force, so Pose right now could cause some pretty serious damage.”

Credit RadioIQ
Wildlife rehabilitator Shannon Mazurowski is a fierce defender of the possum.

But for the most part it seems, the teeth, it seems, are largely a matter of show.

“When they feel threatened or scared or sense they might be in danger, they will quite literally 0play dead, and they’re really convincing actors too.  They’ll flop over on their side, their mouths open, their tongues hanging out.  Their little feet ball up into fists, and they can even excrete a pretty smell substance from a gland on their rear end, which makes most predators say, ‘No thank you.  That’s not a meal for me.’ Unfortunately it does not work well on cars.”

Nor does the act fool certain dogs.

“We get in a lot of opposums that have been caught and shaken by dogs and badly injured,” says Peach Van Wick, DVM,  a research fellow at the center.  She regrets that some people hurt possums on purpose, trap them for fur or for food.

“I am from Mississippi, and so I have found several people to have eaten possum before, but in my opinion if you are going to hunt something for fur, you might as well use that whole animal.”

As a veterinarian, she likes the challenge of treating a marsupial – a relative of the kangaroo – with a body temperature and metabolism that’s lower than other mammals. Wildlife Rehabilitator Shannon Mazurowki loves caring for their tiny babies.

“They’re about the size of a honey bee when they’re born," she says. "Mom will help them crawl into her pouch, and then they stay in the pouch for about two months, and then it gets a little bit crowded in there, and so they’ll start riding on her back.”

She adds that they can be eaten by foxes, coyotes, owls and hawks.

“They’re pretty defenseless.  They run very slowly.  I want to say their max running speed is maybe 7-8 miles per hour.” 

But because possum mothers can have three litters a year with up to 13 babies in each, the animals are prevalent – and they can live almost anywhere. If you’d rather not have them under your deck, beneath the front porch or inside your garage, Shannon counsels patience.

“Just kind of let it be.  They’re nomadic, and they don’t tend to stay in one place for very long, so if he’s under your deck I would just kind of give it space, let it do its thing, and then eventually they’ll just move on.”

You can encourage the neighborhood possum to relocate by tightly closing trash cans and feeding pets inside.  If that doesn’t work – or if you see an injured critter – you can also call the Wildlife Center of Virginia in Waynesboro – or animal control. 

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief
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