I have taken a lot of flak for missing a couple deadlines recently. (Un)fortunately (depending on your opinion) I have been busy working on my autobiography. Not writing it, mind you, but living it! While I am no further along in the writing process of that tome than I am in keeping up with WaterLine deadlines, I have decided on a title: Sticky With Mouse Urine.
Peace River Wildlife Center has been operated out of a 20-plus-year-old facility that has been cobbled together over the years as needs changed and increased. The old wooden building that houses our office and hospital is getting dangerously decrepit. A shed was added at some point to serve as our surgery facility. Then another as a maintenance shed, and yet another for laundry and storage.
Fast forward (slowly) 20 years, and all these buildings have become little more than mouse fodder. All the bubble gum and duct tape in the world can’t keep the little rodents out. We greet each morning with a sticky layer of mouse urine atop every horizontal surface, as well as a generous smattering of what appear to be but I suspect are not actually miniature chocolate chips.
And so, it is with great relief that we have finally moved our rehabilitation into our new hospital at MLK Boulevard in Punta Gorda. None too soon, since we have just gotten in under the wire of baby season. April is our busiest month for intakes, and one of the most well-represented species is the Virginia opossum. Of our 323 intakes in April, 63 of them were opossums (most of them babies.)
The Virginia opossum is sometimes simply called the possum, although technically possums are completely different species of animals in Australia and New Guinea. The opossum is North America’s only marsupial, although South America has about 100 opossum species.
Baby opossums 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. 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. Baby marsupials don’t 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. For example, a 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.
Although light on brains, the opossum is highly agile. It has opposable thumbs on the rear feet and a prehensile tail that can help steady it while climbing and carry small objects. Despite popular artwork, opossums do not hang by their tails, and it is not advisable to hold one up by its tail as this can cause spinal injuries.
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’s a healthy life, though. Opossums are amazingly resistant to rabies and many of the other diseases that plague most mammals, due in part to the fact that their body temperature is too low to be a hospitable environment for viruses and other pathogens. The opossum not only doesn’t serve as a reservoir for Lyme disease, it actually limits the spread by killing most of the disease-spreading ticks that harbor the infectious bacteria.
The opossum is true 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 then gets hit by a passing car while eating.
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. 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 but 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 babies may have wandered off a short distance.
If you find injured or orphaned wildlife, please bring it as quickly as possible to our new hospital location at 223 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Punta Gorda. That location is staffed from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., 365 days a year.
PRWC’s educational exhibits remain at the previous location in Ponce de Leon Park, although they are not open to the public at this time due to the COVID-19 virus. Follow us on Facebook for updates regarding when we’ll be open to the public there.
Peace River Wildlife Center is a nonprofit organization, dedicated to the care, preservation and protection of Charlotte County’s native wildlife since 1978. They are open seven days a week year-round, including holidays. Tours are offered from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. PRWC receives no government funding and relies entirely on private donations. For more info, visit PRWildlife.org, email PeaceRiverWildlife@yahoo.com or call 941-637-3830.