A Travellerspoint blog

Opossum—Oh, Possum

and More Solvable Mysteries of North America’s Only Marsupial (More from the Emma Files)


It seems an unlikely travel topic—the opossum—but, with my animal-loving wife at the helm of blog requests, all bets are off. This week hosted a little tragedy in our life when children at the Oxford school found “a rat” helpless on the ground. Unexcited by another mainstream rodent, mostly likely deceased, Emma did not drop what she was doing to check it out.


It was until later, when school principal and sometimes animal handler Bryant Hand came chugging around the corner holding the thing by the tail, that Emma found out it was a whole new animal she was dealing with: a baby opossum. Soon, calls were made to try to locate an organization to take on the little tyke, and with minimal success by mid-day, she left unaware but concerned about the fate of the animal—the first of this type she’d ever seen.

My experience of the opossum as a species is a shaky one. I’ve only seen a few in my life and remember them mostly for needle-like mouthfuls of teeth, weapons that were bared with convincing intent when my flashlight hit them. Near a garbage can, alongside road kill—they were never exactly an animal I wanted in my house, temporarily or permanently. However, upon hearing about the Oxford opossum over lunch, I was fairly certain that would soon happen.

I arrived at school and discovered that this thing had been boxed up and put on the counter in reception. When I peeked through the slits in the side of the box (unwilling to open it), there was but a tuft of fur and a few squeaks to suggest anything more than being your common box full of sticks and grass. I worked on as usual. Then, Bryant started snickering regularly, telling me that Emma had emailed him another link about opossums.


They were coming in rapid-fire. I’ve been on the receiving end of the inbox when my wife gets fired up about something, and let’s just say she’s no stranger to the search engine. Information comes in abundance and with varying focus. And, there is little to stop her when the fate--a mercy death or nursed to health turn of events--of an animal is in the balance. She’d only sent me one email that afternoon, asking if she should come and get the opossum.

When I left the office at around five, Bryant was poised to deliver the opossum to our house that evening. When Emma got home, she’d bought canned dog food for it, was thrilled to be providing me with facts like the opossum can drink soy milk but not cow milk, and had been to a pharmacy to buy a something from which to nurse this thing, recounting how she felt like a junkie when the pharmacist had delivered her a syringe instead of a pipette she was trying to ask for. And, she added, “I’m not an idiot. I know we can't keep it.” That, however, didn’t mean we weren’t going to help it.

Funny idea she presented me with as we went to work preparing dinner and awaiting Bryant’s arrival: Once people touched the animal, “letting nature take its course” was out the window (which is yet another argument for me to proffer on the "don't touch the opossum" websites). By interfering, the course of nature had already been disrupted. Smelling human on the baby, a mother wouldn't accept the thing back anyway, which meant in some sense, one I found myself wholly agreeing with (as is often the case when Emma rationalizes about wildlife), we—the people aware of what was happening—had a responsibility to this animal.

Within a span of about twenty-thirty minutes, I went from feeling as though this was not a task for us to looking forward to watching my wife at work. Bryant arrived in a slight drizzle, donning a six pack of beer and a box of opossum, which he set on our bed. Emma immediately noticed the opossum wasn’t doing as well as it had been earlier in the day. She asked for permission to use one of my t-shirts to wrap around it, completely moved by my consent to do so with a pit-stained three-year-old work shirt, and she took the little baby in the bathroom for closer examination. Unfortunately, the examination revealed why things had gone down hill.


Suffice to say, not all animal rescues end happily. There was only what was humane left to do, and I was glad Bryant was there to take the reins on that one. Over a few tears late that night, I agreed to dedicate a blog to the little guy, and to make Emma’s effort to become knowledgeable about opossums a little more rewarding, I’ll now provide you all with a few fun facts about this wondrous specimen of nature. (Truthfully, the baby was pretty cute.)


  • Mothers nurse the young for two to three months after which they carry the toddlers on their backs, not in the pouches, for an additional month or two. This is how many babies end up in rescue situations: Mothers drop them and don’t notice (Litters are often a dozen or more babies).
  • Contrary to popular belief and cartoon lore, opossums do not hang upside-down by their tails. They do, however, use them for stability while climbing.
  • These suckers are omnivores all-the-way. Not only will they feast on carcasses and road kill (one of the leading causes of opossum deaths is by car while eating road kill), but they also snack on berries, leaves, grass, overly mature fruit, and the occasional snake or egg.
  • I was very surprised to learn that most opossums in the wild don’t live beyond one year, well below their natural possibilities. The large majority perish at the claws of predators or grills of cars. In captivity, they have been known to last up to ten years in some cases.
  • We humans are often cocky about our opposable thumbs, as if no other animal has the right, but we have nothing on opossums. While there front feet don’t have them, the two back feet are equipped opposable digits to help with grabbing, climbing, and clicking the space bar while they type.



  • Never feed an opossum milk from cows or goats. Instead use ESBILAC powder, the formula for weaning puppies. The proper mixture is one part ESBILAC to three parts water.
  • While on the subject of drinking, Gatorade, regular or clear flavors, whichever you generally fancy, can be used to safely rehydrate thirsty opossums.
  • After all of this drinking, both urination and defecation must be stimulated from the babies. This is done by stroking the genital area with damp cotton balls or tissue. Umm…I’m sorry to have seen the little guy go, but I’m glad I didn’t have watch that.
  • Rescued opossum youth will interact socially with pet cats and dogs and, hypothetically, that would be fairly cute. However, it’s a bad idea because, once released back into the wild, an opossum’s survival depends on the fear of these types of animals.
  • Lastly, should the next rescue be so lucky, opossums can be released at 20-22 weeks old but should live in an outdoor cage two weeks prior to release so that they can acclimate to the weather.


Visit my website, Jonathon Engels: A Life Abroad, for the latest publications and blog backlogs from Russia and Guatemala. And, by all means, while you are following links, lend a like to the Jonathon Engels: A Life Abroad Facebook page--I'm but 21 likes away from 200 and would love to exceed it.


Posted by jonathonengels 07:31 Archived in Guatemala

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