The three opossum orphans were soft as chick down. Each was about the length of my finger, if you didn’t count their pink, snake-like tails. They all had that dazed, faraway look on their slender faces—that look that all of us get when our lives have been suddenly, violently altered.
These three babies were in their mother’s pouch when she was struck and killed by a car on a moonless, wet night when the rain poured down like ocean waves and the trees cracked and groaned in the wind. The possum babies were in good physical shape, it seemed, for all their trauma. Just stunned and unnerved.
I’d never fostered baby possums before. Greta, WildCare’s possum team leader, gave me a sheet of feeding instructions and a bag possum formula frozen into ice-cubes, and sent us on our way. Before I’d gotten home, I’d named the two girls Lily and Sage, and the little boy Red.
“They look like striped rats,” Carter observed when I held them up for his inspection. I suppose it was true. They did have a rodent-like look to them, and there were those pink ratty tails. I cringed at the thought. Rats hold such a low, low place on the ladder of human tolerance. At the humane society where I’d worked, people often called about the “huge rat” at their cat’s outside food dish, and asked us to please some take the creepy thing away. The cats never seemed to mind dining with the possums, but their people just could not bear it. Too ugly. Too creepy. Probably disease riddled and rabid, to boot.
I placed my charges in a small cage lined with fleece blanketing, and placed half their cage on a heating pad turned low. They sniffed and shuffled about when I set them on the blankets, looking up at my face with their eyes big and black and a little bit bulging. I sighed and slipped them all down the warm confines of my sweatshirt, where they gathered in a ball at the small of my back and went to sleep.
Two things in particular fascinate me about possums. First, their marsupialness: They are our only native pouched creatures, born naked and embryonic. Only the size of a honeybee at birth, they crawl into their mother’s warm and humid incubator, latch on to a nipple, and hang there for weeks as nutrient-rich milk drips down their throats. They have no sucking reflex. They just swallow and dangle there for a long time while mama possum goes about her ratty-looking (sigh) business. My three tiny car-wreck survivors were already nearly three months old.
For a creature that will eat just about anything as it gets older (worms, road kill, leaves, bugs, dirt, garbage, yogurt, cat food…) possums are remarkably food-fragile at birth, requiring special formulas of carefully brewed, home-made “milk” that must be tubed into their tiny bellies. Formula is a contested topic on possum rehabber forums. Possums’ bodies are not forgiving about formulas. Any nutrient missing—or wrongly added—can kill or cripple a young joey, as baby possums are called.
And this leads me to the second thing that so fascinates me about opossums: For all their fragile, fussy beginnings, they are survivors. In their little brains is a collective memory of having walked among dinosaurs. Can you imagine? Some scientists refer to possums as living fossils, creatures that have changed very, very little from the ancient days when they scuttled past the toes of triceratops and tyrannosaurus rex.
I warmed up a thimble of possum formula and sucked it into a feeding tube and syringe. I’d tube-fed baby mammals a long time ago, but I looked up possum feeding videos on Google to refresh my memory. Armed with formula and new knowledge, I tenderly pulled one of the possums from the small of my back. It was Lily, the littlest. I held her up in my hand, just like the video showed, and gently slid a length of feeding tube down her throat and into her stomach. Good start!
In the video, the small possum dangled quietly in the caretaker’s hand while she niftily pressed the plunger on the syringe. Bingo! One possum fed, just like that! Lily, of course, had not seen the video. She reached up, wrapped her pink hands around the tube, and pulled it out of her mouth like she was playing tug-of-war. It went the same with Red and Sage. I watched the video again, and decided that the video possum was either on drugs, or playing possum.
My babies believed that tubing time was rodeo time. I struggled with my little cowboys longer than I care to admit before I grabbed Carter and borrowed his hands. He corralled them, I inserted the tubes, and that was that. Voila!
By the end of their second day with me, the possums had established their individuality. Sage was the gypsy, wandering giddily over my lap, arms, and legs, exploring new territory with her white, quivering nose and twitching whiskers.
Lily was the alligator, exploring her world with her mouth. I’m used to baby animals nibbling on me as a way of getting acquainted with new things, but Lily was in her own league as far as nibbling went. Nibbling was far too subtle for her. Although possums look rodent-like to many people, the comparison ends at their mouths. Possums have 50 pointed teeth in their long, tapered jaws. Lily used her teeth and jaws like an alligator: Open wide, clamp down, and hold on. I know she meant no harm, but I pondered changing her name to Knawbone.
Red was the sweet but sickly one. The girls were gaining ground almost immediately, but nothing ever seemed to go right for little Red. I spent my evenings with Red on my lap snuggled between my cupped hands. Unlike his sisters, Red didn’t go exploring. He used his alligator mouth for yawning, mostly, and spent his time grooming himself from tip to toe. He was fastidious, using his hands as washcloth and comb. First, he would lick his tiny fist. Then, he would cup that wet hand like a claw, and rake his fingers through each and ever hair on his body. It went something like this: Lick lick lick, comb comb comb, lick lick lick, comb comb…ect.
My affection matched the depth of my worry for Red. Yet no amount of worry would fix my little guy. I’d had him home for a week before we finally diagnosed him with congenital heart disease. When he began failing, we euthanized him. In my heart’s eye, I see him, sitting up like a kitten in my lap, preening his soft and weak little body with gusto.
Lily and Sage began going into the garden with me in the mornings. I’d prop my legs apart like a playpen. They didn’t wander, not even my gypsy girl. They seemed to know to stay near or attached to the gigantic mom who brought them smashed bananas every day.
One morning, I found a garden worm and put it in front of Lily’s nose. Instantly, her inner alligator took over. I didn’t know she could move that fast. She pounced at the worm, shoved it into her mouth, and I could hear her chewing. Gypsy heard it, too. She hurried over to investigate, grabbed the vanishing tail of the worm, and began a bloody tug of war with her sister. Quickly, I dug more worms. Just as quickly, they grabbed them fast and chomped them down with loud, smacking noises.
After the feast, in which everyone ate too much, there was nothing to do but clean up. Lily climbed into my lap, Sage followed, and the washing began. Meticulously, they washed their faces. They washed their tails. Then, they started washing each other. When the cleansing was complete, they curled up and went to sleep. Lily had one hand draped over her forehead. Sage was holding her nose with both of hers.
I watched their petal-soft ears twitch, and wondered if they heard the calls of pterodactyls and mastodons in their dreams.