In case you missed Fashion Week in Paris, do not despair. It’s time for Couture Week at Peace River Wildlife Center. This week we will be hosting a “Who Wore It Better?” campaign. As seen on Facebook (the harbinger of fashion sense worldwide, as well as the People of Walmart) we will compare a few fabulous creatures wearing the same apparel and leave it up to you to decide who wore it better.
A few weeks ago, someone donated a pair of pillowcases in a pretty pastel coral colour with a ruffled edge. I mentioned that it looked like a skirt and everything went downhill from there. Maybe we are all getting a little punch-drunk from the 20 admissions per day. Maybe it’s the lack of sleep from taking care of all the baby mammals in home care. But every now and then you just have to take a step back and laugh at yourself (or your fellow coworker, as the case may be.)
I took one of the pillowcases home and turned it into a skirt, leaving the other behind as a cage liner as intended by the donor. As luck would have it, I happened to have a blouse that matched it quite well, both in colour and style. I was feeling pretty plucky, and so decided to challenge the patients at PRWC to see if they could wear said garment with the same panache that I did.
First up is a gallant gopher tortoise. She throws the shrug over her shoulders and poses like a prima donna. She was admitted after having been hit by a car and has a fracture on her carapace (upper shell.) She is recovering nicely from her physical wounds (but may need some serious counselling if her friends and family see these pictures.) Luckily, this tortoise will be released soon, but not all are so fortunate. If you see a tortoise crossing a busy roadway, stop only if you can do so safely. Help the tortoise to the side of the road it was headed toward and place it as far from the shoulder of the road as possible.
Don’t hate the beautiful opossum
Our next model is a young Virginia opossum. “Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful,” she emotes. Many people fear opossums, but these mild-mannered creatures are extremely beneficial to the environment. They eat disease-carrying ticks and venomous snakes without getting injured. Due to their low body temperature, they do not carry many of the viral diseases that most mammals can get. Being naturally docile creatures, their primary mode of defense is to roll over and play dead, looking and smelling the part. So, while she may look lovely in her couture, I’m fairly confident that I smell better at least.
Our final contender is a pair of eastern cottontails working their adorable magic. They snuggle into the pleats like they belong there, making them their own. These two neonates were found in the middle of a fenced dog yard, in a shallow divot with a few blades of grass, a couple tufts of hair, and no mother.
Cottontails snuggle into the pleats
While that may sound like an inappropriate place for a rabbit nest, it is a common scenario. Mother rabbit does little to construct her nest and places it where she can observe potential predators coming at her new family from a distance. She only visits her nest twice a day to feed her young, to lessen the chances of predators following her to her babies. Unless they look dehydrated or injured (or not well-dressed), leave the bunnies alone.
We’ve all seen Hillary in her vacuum cleaner bag and The Donald facing off against an ear of corn and a troll doll. Now you get to decide who you think makes the best fashion statement at PRWC. Because with everything that is wrong with this country and the world today, fashion faux pas are definitely the biggest issues to focus on.
by-Robin Jenkins, DVM
Dr Robin sports her pillowcase pleats
Last week’s column began the discussion on the Virginia opossum, friend or foe? I often receive questions about this particular species and am delighted to clear up a few misconceptions. Since early spring is the height of opossum breeding season here in southwest Florida (Peace River Wildlife Center took in 47 opossum babies in April of last year alone) it is a great time for everyone to get to know these wonderful little fuzz balls a bit better.
I think of the opossum as a ball of fluff and personality, but what most people see is a mouthful of teeth. It is true that the Virginia opossum has 50 teeth, the most of any land mammal. 50 needle-sharp pointy little teeth. North America’s only marsupial is not an aggressive animal, though. When startled or threatened, it will bare its teeth and snarl. When that doesn’t scare off the threat, it will promptly fall over and play dead.
Yes, it actually does play ‘possum. It falls onto its side, its heart rate and breathing slow way down, the body becomes stiff, the tongue hangs out and the eyes remain closed. A foul smelling excretion is emitted from the anal sacs to further the charade with the smell of death. Feigning death is often enough to make the opossum less desirable to the predator, who will lose interest and wander off in search of more challenging (and tasty) prey. An opossum can and will bite if provoked, but it will rarely go out of its way to initiate such an attack.
Although often called a “possum,” it is officially correct to pronounce the “o.” There is another completely different animal called a possum that hails from Australia and Asia. A true omnivore, our opossum eats a wide variety of foods—both plants and animals. It is immune to the rattlesnake’s venom and has been known to snack on them. It also consumes ticks that spread Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses, unaffected by those illnesses as well. It eats a wide variety of what we consider household pests, from palmetto bugs to mice. Its tendency to scavenge carcasses often leads to it becoming roadkill itself. It’s also what leads it to poorly secured trash cans.
The Virginia opossum has many other interesting traits. The opossum is used widely in medical research on gastrointestinal studies due to the similarity of its GI tract to that of humans. (But please do not take this as a suggestion to start eating rattlesnakes and roaches.) It is also used in aging studies because of its short life span, rarely living longer than two years. It does not get many of the viral diseases that plague other mammals, like rabies and distemper, due to its low body temperature. It has an opposable toe on both the front and rear feet, similar to our thumbs, that renders it particularly dexterous. Adding the prehensile tail into the equation, this species is very good at climbing.
But don’t confuse ability with genius. Brain size is usually thought of as a gauge for intelligence, and the opossum has the smallest brain size per body weight ratio of any mammal. A similarly sized raccoon has a brain six times larger than the opossum. In the words of Albert Einstein, if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life believing that it is stupid. Despite this, the opossum has done an amazing job at surviving where other species have struggled. Originally from South America, the opossum migrated north when Panama formed a land bridge between the two formerly separated continents of North and South America. Other than the armadillo and porcupine, most of the Southern species did not adjust to life in the north. The opossum shows an uncanny ability to continue to adapt in ever changing habitats as people encroach on more and more of their territory.
The Virginia opossum does not make a good pet. It is not affectionate and can be unpredictable. The young are quite cute and easy to handle for our home-care volunteers, but as the animal ages, it becomes reticent and prefers a solitary lifestyle. Once mature, it is not a social animal, one of the more endearing qualities that help dogs, cats, horses, ferrets, and other pet fit into our lives. The opossum can, however, be considered a friend for all of the wonderful services it provides—from pest control around the house, to roadside clean-up, to medical services. Add that to the list of things you never knew you never knew. So while you might not find your pet goldfish in a tree, you can find an opossum up there, taking care of the business of being an opossum.
by-Robin Jenkins, DVM
fish climb tree
A trip this week—not down Memory Lane but Burnt Store Road—brought up a few thought-provoking matters. Driving south from Punta Gorda the first thing I noticed was the preponderance of road kill along the sides of the roadway. Oddly enough most of it was where the speed limit is preternaturally low (more on that later!) The portion of Burnt Store Road that has been repaved as a four-lane just south of Notre Dame Blvd has tall curbs that make it difficult for small animals to get over and impossible for turtles and tortoises to get out of traffic once they have spilled off the curb on to the road.
Thankfully the newer construction further south does not appear to be using that deathtrap curbing. Don’t get me wrong; I am grateful they are widening that road. For those of you who are not fortunate enough to travel that particular nightmare on a routine basis, allow me to describe it to you. It’s a twisting, winding, two-lane road, barely wide enough for two Smart cars to pass abreast, much less two trucks hauling boat trailers. There are absolutely no shoulders on these narrow lanes. And the posted speed limit is 55 miles per hour, which we all know means you can “safely” drive 70, right?
Years into the multiple phases of this construction project, there are sections of Burnt Store Road that are now complete, or nearly so. The fun fact is that on the sections where there are four lanes, wide shoulders and sidewalks for bikes and pedestrians, the speed limit is 35 or 45. My personal opinion is that one could easily do at least 90 on those stretches. (Purely hypothetical! I’m not admitting to anything here.)
Back to the purpose of my trip down good old B.S. Road…Some concerned citizens had found an opossum on a side street in their neighborhood. They were savvy enough to gently check to see if she was still alive (she was not), if she was indeed a “she” (she was), and did she have babies in her pouch (she did.) They called Peace River Wildlife Center for assistance, but that was as far as their willing involvement went. They had other obligations that precluded them bringing the babies to us, as we normally recommend.
When anyone sees an injured or dead opossum, please check for a pouch with young. Ideally, removed them from a dead mother immediately, or if that is not possible, bring the entire ensemble to PRWC—the mother’s body and all attached babies—to PRWC. It is vital that we get the babies off of the mother as soon as possible, because they do not stop nursing off of her and will get quite ill.
North America’s only marsupial, the Virginia opossum is a fascinating creature. When the babies are born after a gestation period of only two weeks, they are the size of a bee. Each blind baby will use its well-formed front feet to drag itself into the mother’s pouch, where it attaches to one of her thirteen long skinny teats and remain there for two to three months.
As the baby matures enough to leave the pouch, he will cling to the fur of her back as she travels around, looking for food. At this stage, the baby will duck back into the pouch periodically to nurse for another month until eventually dropping off to begin foraging on his own. This nomadic life style allows the family to go wherever they can find food instead of being tied to a nest site.
Since the baby latches on to a teat in the mother’s pouch and stays attached for up to two months, they have no nursing reflex like most mammals. When an orphaned opossum baby comes into PRWC for rehab, we have to tube-feed it. We make a special formula that meets all of its nutritional needs and introduce it directly into the baby’s stomach with a feeding tube. Since this must be done every few hours, the baby is placed with a home care volunteer to take care of the baby until it is weaned. Then it is returned to PRWC and prepared for release.
Another unique aspect of the marsupial is its immune system. The fetus of a placental mammal (dogs, cats, rats, bats, you, me, etc.) receives passive immunity from the mother before birth. This serves to help protect the newborn until it is old enough for its own immune system to begin working.
But the baby opossum, like all marsupials, is born without any immunity. It will eventually have the mother’s immunity transferred to it via milk while nursing, but if that connection is broken early, the baby is highly susceptible to infection. In addition to feeding the baby a special formula every few hours, the rehabber must also give the baby medications to support the immature immune system until the baby is old enough for its own system to kick in.
Next week we will discuss more fascinating facts about the Virginia opossum and why they are an invaluable addition to our Southwest Florida landscape. What do they eat? Where did they come from? Do they really hang by their tails like they do in cartoons? Cartoons can’t possibly be wrong, can they?!? I have based my entire life on lessons learned from Bugs Bunny. Except for my driving skills, which obviously emanated from the Road Runner. Meep, meep. Look out Mr. Magoo!
by- Robin Jenkins
A recent recovery mission turned into a surprise rescue. At Peace River Wildlife Center we often get calls about injured wildlife that we are pretty sure there is no hope of saving. We got just such a call a few days ago. A lady found a Virginia opossum at the end of her driveway. She assumed it had been hit by a car, but was afraid to touch it to further assess its injuries. Apparently she does not read my columns or she would know the proper way to deal with an injured animal—especially since the previous week’s article would have assured her that opossums are to be appreciated, not abhorred. Since the scene of the crime was mere blocks away, I ran over to assess the damages in person.
Pulling into her driveway, at first I didn’t even see the little guy. Then I noticed the juvenile opossum lying at the end of the driveway right at the edge of the the street. He was not moving and did not appear to be alive, but as a professional wildlife rehabilitator, I have been fooled by those little buggers “playing possum” before and I was not about to “call him” prematurely. When I picked him up to place him in the carrier, he made a weak movement and I could see his chest rise and fall with a shallow breath.
Tripod opossum plays peek-a-boo
Upon my arrival back at PRWC I had an emergency to deal with. A raccoon had been picked up at the landfill with a Coke can stuck on her leg. We see this a few times each year and it rarely has a good outcome. By the time we are able to catch the raccoon, the foot has swollen and is not able to be saved. This is one of the reasons it is vital to rinse and crush your trash and recyclables before disposing of them, to lessen the temptation of wildlife looking for a tasty treat.
After cutting the can off of the raccoon’s leg, I picked up the opossum’s kennel, expected him to have passed by then. I was surprised to see he was still alive. A brief exam showed no immediately life-threatening injuries. He was barely conscious, obviously suffering from head trauma. He had some minor abrasions on his tail, behind one ear and along his one side. It took me a minute to figure out what was wrong when I was trying to flip him over to examine his belly. I made a grab for the right rear leg, inexplicably missing it. Then I grabbed for it again. Looking closely at the little ball of fluff, I finally realized I wasn’t the only one missing that leg. It simply wasn’t there.
The stump was not a fresh injury, the juvenile male opossum was either born that way or more likely suffered an injury as a baby. He was thin, but had obviously been getting around fairly well on three legs until he couldn’t quite get out of the way of a speeding car fast enough. I hadn’t the heart to euthanize him if he was such a fighter, so we decided to give him some time and see what might happen.
Eating neatly is not one of his priorities
After a few days he started to come around a bit more. He was still groggy, but he had a voracious appetite, eating everything we put in his dish. Now, over a week into his recovery, he is still getting stronger and more agile. He still has some balance issues, whether from the head trauma or because he is missing a leg or a combination of the two, we are unsure. He has a great appetite and a docile manner—he likes to be scratched behind his ears. He is currently in home care, but will likely be added to our permanent resident cadre if he continues to do well. Now the only thing he is missing (except for the obvious leg) is a name.
by-Robin Jenkins, DVM
An opossum walks into McDonald’s. That’s it. There is no punchline. This is not a joke. Especially for the staff and customers at a local McDonald’s fast food restaurant recently when they noticed an adult Virginia opossum in the dining room. Charlotte County Animal Control officer Brad Finkbeiner got the call to pick up the wayward marsupial. She came along peacefully and was transported to Peace River Wildlife Center where she spent a couple nights in the hoosegow.
The opossum had a small abrasion on the side of her face, probably the result of having been sideswiped by a car. After a few days of observation, we determined that other than her questionable choice of eateries, she was healthy and was released to the general area from which she had been rescued. Obviously not in the McDonald’s dining room. Everyone knows opossums belong in the kitchen. Just kidding. We took her to a remote area far away from those addictive salty French fries and sweet delicious tea. Although no one wants a wild animal in their home or restaurant, opossums are actually very beneficial neighbors.
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 is amazingly resistant to rabies and many of the other diseases that plaque most mammals, due in part to the fact that its body temperature is too low to form a hospitable environment for viruses and other pathogens. The opossum not only doesn’t serve as a reservoir for Lyme’s disease, it actually limits the spread of this disease by eating most of the disease-spreading ticks that harbour the infectious bacteria.
When approached, an opossum will bear a mouth impossibly full of pointy teeth and hiss. And then… well, nothing. That’s pretty much all its got. It won’t normally lunge at you, throw quills in your face, spit venom across the room to blind you, or crack your ribs by whipping its tail at you. The most action you will generally see if you persist in disturbing an opossum is that it will roll onto its side and fake death. Hence the term “playing possum”, which can last up to four hours. Oh, and there is the green anal discharge that helps sell the whole “dead” act by making the “carcass” smell like it has started to rot.
The Virginia opossum is sometimes simply called the possum, although technically possums are completely different species of animals in Australia and Asia. The opossum is North America’s only marsupial. The babies 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. This way 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. Since the baby is a marsupial, it does not 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—the 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. It has opposable thumbs on the rear feet and a prehensile tail that can help steady it while climbing and carry small objects. Opossums do not hang by their tails and it is not advisable to hold one up by its tail.
The opossum is an 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 gets hit by a passing car while eating. This is why it is imperative that 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. Ideally, 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 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 baby may have wandered off a short distance.
Most opossum rescues are done by children, often boys. I suppose their innate curiosity gets the better of them. The next largest group of rescuers is women. Their nurturing spirits extend to all forms of life. Men, for some reason, always seem to have the same response when the subject of opossums comes up: Eewww. Except for Officer Finkbeiner, who is always up for a rescue of anything, from an opossum to a great horned owl. PRWC will miss him dearly as he is leaving to pursue other avenues of adventure. Good luck, Brad.
by–Robin Jenkins, DVM
Mama opossum with a pouch full of babies
Juvenile Virginia opossums
CCAC Officer Brad Finkbeiner rescues a bobcat