I shot this video at Natural Pet, my animal hospital, and I brought a very special guest to be the star today.
But first I'd like to talk a bit about 'loathsome species'. These are species even animal lovers feel weird about.
Most of my clients love most animals, but for example, if I mention I treat snakes, many get uncomfortable at the thought.
I also treat and rehabilitate bats – another species that causes discomfort for many people. There's a common myth about bats that they'll swoop down on you and land in your hair.
Another misunderstood and loathed animal is the vulture. People have a lot of misconceptions about vultures, and just the sight of one makes them uncomfortable.
Opossums are another on the list of most loathed creatures. Again, misconceptions about them abound. People think they are dirty or disease-ridden. Most folks don't like their appearance, especially their tails.
To Every Thing There Is a Season
As a wildlife rehabilitator, I feel it's very important that while every species of animal may not be appealing for some reason, each one is deserving of the same respect given to more attractive creatures.
Every species on planet earth plays a vital role in the balance of the ecosystem.
Some animals are so loathed and disrespected, people intentionally harm or kill them, which is terribly unfortunate. There are species singled out as somehow unacceptable, unhealthy, and undeserving of life – while others, for example the bald eagle, are thought of as beautiful, magical, and worthy.
It doesn't make a lot of sense, and I hope I can help people think twice about the treatment some species suffer simply because of appearance or misconceptions about them.
My 'Loathsome Species' video is intended to do just that. I know for a fact once you learn the natural history and habits of different forms of life – everything from bugs and crustaceans to the life cycle of plants – you gain a deep respect for the fact that all species, regardless of whether they are appealing, are worthy to share the planet with you.
Every species serves a purpose and is part of the balance of the ecosystem. And each should be respected and rehabilitated when injured. None deserve to be maimed or killed.
The populations of many less popular, loathsome species are in decline due to habitat loss, human ignorance and abuse, and disease.
I've spent over 20 years as a wildlife rehabilitator. I see as a part of my role educating people that even though they may not be a big fan of starlings, for example, they should still do whatever they can to help foster respect and concern for starlings.
Most species now extinct, such as the Passenger Pigeon, were once so overpopulated people not only viewed them as nuisance animals, but did everything they could to reduce the populations as much as they could.
Clara, the Virginia Opossum
Clara is a 'wildlife ambassador' I use to help educate people about opossums, which are among the most misunderstood species. Clara is a permanently injured animal that has lived with me since her rescue. You must have a license to maintain any wild animal for educational purposes. It is illegal to keep wild animals as pets. For more information about wildlife rehabilitation and education visit the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association.
The Virginia opossum is the only North American marsupial. Marsupials have pouches and are relatives of the kangaroo and koala.
Other continents have lots of marsupials. We have only one, but ours is quite special. The Virginia opossum has been on earth for millions of years. They are referred to as living fossils because they're the oldest mammalian species on the planet.
Possums are adaptable and can live wherever there's food, water and shelter. They don't live long, though – only two to four years.
Clara just turned four, so the time she has left here is brief. She was rescued and brought to me during a thunderstorm in which her mother and her litter mates died – she was the only survivor.
Opossums are pacifists -- they're non-confrontational.
Like all living beings, opossums are beneficial for the environment.
How Opossums Defend Against Predators
Opossums like Clara have two very interesting defense mechanisms.
If you come upon one, she will first hiss, then open her mouth very wide and show you each and every one of her 50 teeth. Next she'll drool and appear to be rabid, which is pretty funny when you realize opossums are one of the few mammals that do not readily transmit the rabies virus. Their natural body temperature is too low to host the virus.
Now, if this ferocious display doesn't frighten you off as it should, defense device number two kicks in. The opossum will faint dead away right in front of you. That's where the phrase 'playing possum' came from! They despise confrontation to the point of literally fainting from fear if confronted hostilely.
When an opossum faints, she can be out from as few as 30 seconds to literally hours, depending on how much adrenaline she releases.
Apparently, this is a pretty good protection system since it's been used for 70 million years. Unfortunately, it has resulted in the occasional opossum being eaten by a predator while unconscious.
The Opossum Lifestyle
Opossums are solitary creatures. They are nomadic, meaning they roam rather than settle down in one place and claim their territory. They can be found throughout the U.S.
Clara, like all possums, is nocturnal.
As you can tell watching the video, she really likes to eat. In fact, that's Clara's mission in life – to find food and eat it. She wanders from here to there and back again, seeking food.
She'll eat almost anything – carrion, snails, bugs, amphibians, fruits, overripe veggies, leaves, grass, eggs. Pretty much anything Clara comes across will be sampled to see if it's edible.
As you can see from the video, Clara's enjoying her snacks. She also enjoys going outside, but most of all enjoys sleeping and eating.
Since she's nocturnal, she's up at night. Most of her nighttime activity revolves around finding food. Once she's met her caloric requirement, she heads back to bed. Opossums, all in all, are pretty lazy.
You might also notice as she nibbles that Clara has very humanlike hands. She also has a thumb on each back foot.
Opossums are well adapted to get by in this world, as long as they're left alone by predators, including uneducated people.
Nature's Garbage Disposals
Think of opossums as, well ... nature's clean-up committee.
Possums often eat leftovers that most other animals won't consume.
Clara also enjoys dog and cat food. If you leave pet food or edible human food outside and there are opossums in the neighborhood, they'll gladly gobble up the leftovers.
People often encounter possums in the garage. If this should happen to you, just leave a door to the outside open, remove any source of food, and she'll leave on her own.
Clara is a female, so she has a pouch. Inside her pouch are 13 nipples.
Possum babies leave the womb after just 13 days of gestation. Nature has arranged it such that most of the pre-born babes aren't able to make the two-inch journey from the womb to the pouch.
Those that do survive will attach to one of the 13 nipples and stay right there for the next two months to finish their gestation outside the womb, but snug inside the pouch.
At two months of age, opossum babies gain voluntary control of their mouths and are able to let go of the nipple. They can then crawl out of the pouch to ride around on mom's back.
This goes on for about another two months, until the babies are old enough to be weaned. When they reach that stage of development, they one day simply fall off mom's back and wherever they land is their new home.
A Final Few Words about Clara and Opossums
Opossums can climb trees. They use their prehensile tail (a tail that has adapted for grasping) to help them climb, but they can't hang from it.
Possums have a great sense of smell but poor eyesight. Clara has especially bad eyes, which is why she's non-releasable.
Possums don't dig, destroy property or spray.
If you're lucky enough to catch an opossum waddling through your yard, I hope you take a moment to admire the success of this little creature in existing 70 million years (so far).
Know that she comes in peace, won't stay around long, is utterly harmless, and should not be harmed.