Thirteen year old Claire was walking to school when she noticed an opossum lying on the side of the road.
Being an animal lover, Claire went over to investigate. To her surprise, there was more than one opossum on the roadside that morning— the larger one she had already spotted, and a tiny baby opossum, cowering in the weeds.
In fact, this was an entire opossum family in distress! In addition to the one baby, Claire could see the mother's marsupium, or pouch, bulging, indicating the presence of other babies... babies that might still be alive!
Claire ran back to her house to get help. She and her mom called WildCare's 24-Hour Hotline (415-456-SAVE (7283)) and operator Vanessa walked them through gently removing the baby opossums from the pouch and keeping any survivors warm and quiet until they could get to WildCare. Claire rescued a total of six tiny babies from the pouch of their dead mother, and brought them quickly to the Wildlife Hospital.
It really is astonishing how often a mother opossum will die in an impact with a car, but her babies will survive the accident.
The Virginia Opossum is the only native marsupial to North America. Like their Australian cousins, Virginia Opossums' babies leave the womb at a remarkably undeveloped age— they are barely the size of a raisin. Pink, hairless and with only vestigial back limbs, the babies use their forelimbs to climb up their mother's body into her marsupium where they latch onto any of her 13 nipples. The babies' mouths fuse around the nipple, and it is in this pouch that they complete their development.
This process is unique to marsupials and, although it differs considerably from the development of placental mammals like us, it is nonetheless an effective strategy. The marsupium provides a very protective environment, even in the event of a catastrophic injury to the mother marsupial.
These baby opossums are proof of that! All six babies received a comprehensive examination upon their arrival at WildCare. The medical charts for these little ones note that all were cold and wet, but BAR (bright, alert and responsive) and none had any injuries.
Even with such a positive prognosis, however, these little opossums still needed help. Medical Staff quickly went into action to warm the tiny opossums, as hypothermia is a very real danger to young animals like these. Claire's timely rescue had without a doubt saved their lives, and it only took a short time of wrapping them in heated towels to bring these babies' body temperatures up to normal.
The babies immediately went into Foster Care with an opossum specialist where they were tube fed a special opossum formula. Although the babies lost a small amount of weight as they adjusted to their new diet and environment, it wasn't long before these 70 gram babies were gaining weight.
In the wild at this age, these young opossums would be beginning to explore their world outside of mom's pouch, so these babies' Foster Care mom started introducing them to solid foods very quickly. A grape was a big hit, as were bits of fish and pieces of banana. Over the next weeks, these babies thrived, gaining weight and becoming healthy juvenile opossums.
Finally, after almost exactly a month and a half in care at WildCare, it was time for these young opossums to get their second chance at life in the wild. Without Claire and without WildCare, none of these young animals would have survived, so it was a heartwarming experience for Claire to be part of their release.
WildCare staff met Claire and her father at the release site. After scoping out the proper place to release the young opossums (a release site must have a water source and good cover, and be away from busy roads), Claire put on gloves and carefully opened the door of the opossums' carrier. Like all opossums, these youngsters took their time investigating their new environment. With a little prodding, all four eventually made their way out of the carrier and into their new lives in the wild. The sight of two of the opossums already open-mouthed chomping on tasty bugs or worms helped reinforce that these opossums were ready for life on their own.
We wish them the best of luck in their new home!