July 22, 2013

Opossums! – a guest post by Sarah


I should mention first thing that while I do technically live in Los Angeles, I am on the very inner edge of it, within flirting distance of the Angeles National Forest.  This is extremely handy for my photography, as I have a wealth of beautiful nature within easy driving distance*.  The only downside to the location is it means my husband has a nasty commute to his city job#, but it’s brought us so many delightful new things.  Like squirrels who live in trees in my yard, who are so fat and lazy they are almost tame, unending streams of birds coming to feast at the feeders^, fresher air, a quieter pace and just less of that scummy, grimy Los Angeles feel.+

A few days ago I was in my yard when I noticed that my neighbor’s dog Gus seemed extremely focused on something.  I followed his gaze and realized there were two opossums walking along the fence.  After an experience when I was 14 with rescuing an abandoned baby opossum and finding a rehabilitater to take him, I have LOVED the little creatures.  I would love to keep one as a pet, as some do, but in the US it’s illegal to keep any wildlife as pets without special permits, even if you come across foundling babies through completely honest means.  Because of this, when I see opossums, I light up and want to watch them as long as possible.  Gus, naturally, did not share this view.  He charged the fence, and while they were out of his reach, they knew they’d been seen and were terrified… which meant they held absolutely, perfectly still. But in the process of him trying to eat them, he’d managed to knock a plank of wood out of the fence, which meant there was now there was a hole the fence as well as opossums on top.  Not good.

Spotted!   I'll just freeze here forever

Spotted! I’ll just freeze here forever

My neighbor, Donna, and I took all the dogs into the house, hoping the opossums would leave once the threat went away, and then Gus would have no reason to push more boards out.  That part isn’t his fault, the fence along that stretch is old and really quite rotted.  A strong breeze could probably push a board out.  After a while, the opossums were still there, and I decided to walk to the other side of the fence and see what repairing it would look like.  As I did, I looked up at the pair and noticed one seemed quite fat… but there were tiny little tails wrapped around her belly.  She wasn’t fat, she was carrying babies!

Not fat, just carrying a ton of babies.

Not fat, just carrying a ton of babies.

While I was on the outside of the fence, something happened in the yard, out of my field of vision.  I’m still not entirely sure what occurred, but suddenly Gus was at the fence, barking and jumping… and he either finally managed to grab the female, or she fell, and I saw his jaws close around her torso.

I screamed, and shouted at him to stop, which he did, amazingly.  That’s a WHOLE lot of instinct being overcome right there.  I tore around the fence as fast as I could, to see Gus standing bewilderedly over the opossum’s prone body, and, oh sweet heavens, babies were scattering everywhere.  There seemed to be a hundred of them, all crawling as quick as their little legs could carry them, and all in different directions.  Frantically, I tore off the hoodie I’d been wearing, started grabbing babies and piling them inside it.  Mercifully, it turns out that they make a noise… kind of a chirping noise for lack of a better word, although it honestly sounds more like a soft sneeze.  But they all started making it when they found themselves suddenly not attached to mom anymore; I assume they do this so their mom can locate them more easily.  In this case, it helped me locate them.

It felt like forever, but I managed to gather all the babies I saw or heard into my hoodie, which I was clutching to my chest.  I checked on the mom, who was still lying corpse-like on the ground… but her nostrils were moving.  She was literally playing ‘possum.  There didn’t seem to be any puncture marks or blood, so I hoped that she would come around soon.  As I was doing this, I noticed that after a brief shifting around of bodies when each new sibling was stuffed into my hoodie, the babies were all quiet.  None of them were crying, trying to escape, or hardly even moving.  I tentatively lifted a corner of the hoodie to look in on them, and they looked absolutely peaceful and content.  Apparently being clutched in a hoodie to a human chest is enough like a pouch that they all felt safe.**  At that point I had to just stand still for a few minutes and let my incredibly high adrenaline levels lower a bit.  While I tried to slow my heart down, I noticed that the male opossum was still sitting exactly where he had been on the fence, except now he was wearing an expression of horror.

Donna had heard the commotion, so she came out and I explained what had happened.  While we were talking, I saw the mother opossum crawling out through the new hole Gus had made in the fence.  My first thought, “Yay, mom is still alive!” was followed very quickly by, “Oh no, now I don’t know where mom is and I have all her babies.”  It had seemed like an awful lot of babies when I was racing around madly trying to grab them, but even when I took a count in a much calmer frame of mind, I was still seeing seven or eight heads.  They all kind of flow into each other, like a pile of noodles; it’s hard to get an accurate count.  These were certainly not newborns, they had fur and little nubs that would probably be teeth very soon, but they were clearly not old enough to be on their own yet.  They needed their mom.

I clung to the babies (loving them more and more every second, and cursing the laws that make it illegal to keep them), while Donne fixed the hole in the fence## and we decided what to do with them.  Obviously, getting them back to mom would be best.  We knew she was alive, or at least had been very recently, but there was no way of knowing where she had gone.  But the male was still there.  Eventually we reluctantly decided to set them on the ground, still in the hoodie so they’d hopefully stay together and not just wander off, and hope that either the male would take them, or at least alert the mother.  There are some thick bushes between the outside of our fence and the street, but there are a lot of cars that drive by, not to mention the host of animals who would enjoy a tasty baby opossum snack.  But it seemed like that was the only hope of getting them back to mom, so I set them down, though my heart was in my throat.  One of the babies started wandering off as soon as I set them down.  I watched and listened to him, thinking I’d put him back in the pile if he went too far.  But then he turned some magic corner into the brush… and completely disappeared.  He wasn’t even chirping.  I searched a long time in the area I’d last seen him, but he was gone.  I told myself that he’d probably just found a cozy, pouch-resembling little spot and was happily waiting for him mother’s return.  I really, really hoped that.

Very, very reluctantly I finally went back into the house, since I knew the mother definitely wouldn’t come back if I was hanging around.  All the dogs were on lockdown inside the house.  And while I waited, I googled.  I found a local Humane Society, confirmed they accept baby opossums, and would rehabilitate and release them; they would not be euthanized.  And I also consulted the internet on the likelihood of the mother coming back.  The internet was not hopeful that she would.

I gave the mother an hour, then went back to check on my bundle of babies.  The male was still there, looking at the pile but doing nothing.  The mother was nowhere to be seen.  I lifted a corner of the hoodie and the babies were still inside, making small noises of protest to having been disturbed.  But there was one still missing.  I looked for him again, but again, I couldn’t find him.  I hoped I’d merely miscounted the number of babies the first time I’d counted; that there were only ever seven, not eight, and that the last one had gone back in with his siblings.  Either way, I had to take care of the ones still there.

So I scooped them up again, and again they settled in right away and seemed to sigh with contentment in their makeshift pouch. And, I’ll be honest, I loved carrying that fuzzy bundle around.  Donna found a cat carrier of hers to lend me, so I put the babies, still wrapped up, inside and drove to the Humane Society.  The people at the Human Society were all extremely nice and caring, which made me feel better about turning the little creatures over.  Even though I’d known them for a very short time, I felt very bonded to them.  But I knew they’d be well taken care of, and eventually go on to live normal opossum lives.

My hands are REALLY small, so keep that in mind when imagining how small this baby is.

My hands are REALLY small, so keep that in mind when imagining how small this baby is.

I still worried that the one who had wandered off hadn’t found his way back and was still out there somewhere, but I didn’t know what else I could do about it, or even if he was actually missing.

Later that night, my husband came home, and we decided to eat dinner in the living room with the front door open since there was a nice breeze.  I was relating the whole opossum ordeal to him, and at the very moment when I was describing the chirping noise they make when they’re separated from their mom I heard it outside. Faint, but distinct.  I leaped up, grabbed a flashlight and tore out the door, honing in on the noise, and there he was.  Sitting alone in the middle of the yard, looking sorrier and more forlorn than any living creature ought to look.  I scooped him up immediately, and he gratefully burrowed into my arm, shoving his face in as far as it would go between my elbow and ribcage.

There were eight of them after all.
Luckily the Humane Society has emergency hours, so I was able to take the little guy over and reunite him with his brothers and sisters. They provided me with an ID number to call and check up on animals brought in, which I have since done, and all of them are doing VERY well. They’re happy, thriving and on track to be released back into the wild when they’re old enough. There is enough wilderness nearby that there will be no shortage of suitable places for them to be set free. I’m glad for them, although wistful, of course, about the little critters I fell in love with in a very short time.
And yes, I did think quite a bit about Jake and his dragon baby Lois as I was swaddling them against my chest, even if it was a tremendously less harrowing ordeal, I was not instantly in a great deal of legal trouble, and opossum babies don’t burn your skin. The two situations don’t really have all that much in common when you think about it, but Robin McKinley books don’t need a lot of encouragement to spring to my mind.
Now the neighbors are called me Saint Sarah of Assisi, a nickname I will be glad to wear.
* * *

*With ME, anything I plan on doing regularly has to be within easy driving distance.

#I truly feel bad that he has to drive through hell and back both ways every work day, but, as he says, it’s worth it to have such a wonderful place to come home to.

^Which my two cats LOVE.  The feeders are nicely situated directly outside the best cat perches, so it’s like kitty TV for them.  The only downside is HOW MUCH SEED they eat.  My word.

+While I realize intellectually that some people actually do enjoy living in the heart of LA, I cannot fathom what it would be like to be them.  We are from utterly different planets.

%There are two houses on my fenced-in lot, mine and my neighbors’. Between us all, we have four dogs and four cats, and we share the yard, so all the dogs get to play together.  It’s a pretty ideal situation.

~Gus: a beautiful specimen of  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Australian_Kelpie” .  He is a subset of the breed with a thicker, denser undercoat, giving him a fluffier appearance than you typically see.  There’s a name for his coat type, but for once, my memory and Google are both failing me.

##Donna has that how to fix things gene, which I did not receive.

* * *

Sarah Allegra is a fine art photographer and self portrait artist in Los Angeles, when she’s not busy aiding local wildlife and helping lost pets. If you don’t mind some occasional artistic nudity, you can read her blog here: http://sarahallegra.wordpress.com/



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