Bringing up an orphaned opussumThis spring it seems like a mama possum took up residence in my back yard. Maybe even two mamas. The dogs where agitated, the cats on the hunt and we heard strange noises on the back porch roof. One evening I even saw our cat Killer in a stand off with a very big opossum. Killer, despite his name, decided to back of when the possum displayed it's reptilian rows of nasty looking teeth.

The cat bowls were always licked clean in the morning. Nature took it's course and the fattened mama or mamas delivered a baby possum boom. Possums can rear up to 13 young in one litter. Well that's a good thing - most don't make it.

I Named it Feo

Seems like a not quit ready for prime time litter was let loose in our vicinity -  probably by the death of the mother. I'm sure their low encephalization quotients has something to do with it - dead and half dead possum babies kept turning up.

My pets played a major role in the possum decimation. I just kept disposing of the corpses. The half dead ones posed a problem - I had a hard time deciding how much of it was just acting. I gave them the benefit of a doubt  and kept them warm hoping they would recover. In all cases, after an hour or two, their end was unmistakable.

Than one day the dogs where making an unusually aggressive racket. They had cornered one of the little guys behind some boards on the side of the house. The baby possum couldn't get out but the dogs couldn't quite get at it either. I was very impressed by its hissing and bearing of teeth. Quite the defense for something so small. I guess the "playing possum" thing is a learned behavior.

I put on a work glove and lifted the critter from it's predicament.

I put on a work glove and lifted the critter from it's predicament. It seemed that the only injury was a bloodied and partially missing toe on one of its hind legs. We might be able to save this one.

I put a bedding of Spanish Moss (Tillandsia usneoides) I had lying around into a cage left over from one of my girl's hamster fazes. It was time to consult "Care of the Wild" by W.J. Jordan and J. Hughes . I don't know what it is but I get a real kick out of trying to save some poor wild critter. It seems to give me that "Good Karma" feeling.

Jordan and Hughes gave me a general understanding that - yes a baby possum can be saved. But no specifics. Need to consult the internet.


There are plenty of websites catering to orphaned possum information. First there is the The Opossum Society of the United States - guess it's like the official possum page. Than there's the National Opossum Society with a decent orphans page. Both websites are very adamant about how difficult it is raising baby possums. They mostly talk about unweaned little babies. Feo had a nice set of reptilian looking teeth on him and he seemed ready for, more or less, solid food.

Stimulation to eliminate - very young possums will not pee or poop without that. It's feeding time. Yummy - early on soft banana was a favotite.
Stimulation to eliminate - very young possums will not pee or poop without that. After pooping it's feeding time. Yummy - early on soft banana was a favorite.

The Imperial Order of the Opossum! website, a side project of the American composer John Craton, is entertaining, fun and informative. Max Summerville runs the Theo Possum pages with lots of information, photos and stories of many rescued and raised possum litters. The most useful, for me, turned out to be the 'Raising Orphaned Possums" page on the Alabama Wildlife Center website.  It has the most specific and detailed information and that includes diet.

After some banana a little piece of cheese. Ah, Feo is winking at me. My dog Eddie really wanted to "play" with Feo.
After some banana a little piece of cheese. Ah, Feo is winking at me. My dog Eddie really wanted to "play" with Feo.

Don't make the decision to raise a baby possum lightly. It's not easy, it takes time and commitment and you have to know what you are doing. Not sure? Than just contact the The Opossum Society of the United States, the National Opossum Society or simply call your local animal control service. You also have to take into account the local laws - in some states, counties or cities it's simply not legal to keep, raise and release wild animals.

Why did I decide to do it on my own? It's a tradition that I've been doing this since childhood. To the chagrin of my stepfather, Julek, almost every Spring my mother and me would bring home some poor critter to nurture, heal, raise and than release. Sparrows, pigeons, crows, mice, turtles have all passed through our careing hands with mixed but mostly positive results. I even saved a drowning bat once but my mother, Halszka, found it's presence in the house hard to take. Oh, yeah, and the snakes, they gave her the hebee jebees.

We once raise a sparrow hatchling I found on the sidewalk in Chicago. I hand fed it, it grew and got strong. I was teaching it how to fly by gently tossing it in the air. It was doing well but it always flew back to me. One day while on a road trip we stopped at a picnic area so that Julek could stretch his legs. He hated driving. I took my sparrow out so he could exercise his wings in the fresh country air. First flight was very impressive. He flew high around me and than back into my arms. Second time he went higher up, around me twice and than up, up and away. He just flew off into the distance. I can still distinctly remember the confused emotions that overwhelmed me as I stared at the disappearing tiny dot just above the tree line on the horizon - betrayal by a dependant, abandonment by a friend and pride of a job well done.

I felt that all that experience made me ready to handle a possum.

Soon the possum Feo got a big outdooor cage. Taking in the view from his "up top" vantage point. Soon when Feo was old enough all he could think of was the way out.
Soon the possum Feo got a big outdoor cage. Taking in the view from his "up top" vantage point. Soon when Feo was old enough all he could think of was the way out.

Possums are hardy survival experts. They've been around since when you could still make it from South America to Australia without getting your feet wet. For an animal without any special talents, apart for maybe acting dead, the Virginia Opossum (Didelphis virginiana), the only marsupial on the North American continent, has been doing well for itself.

When I rescued Feo from my dogs he was already weaned but still too young to make it on his own. His first home was a small hamster cage that I lined with some Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) and the sleeve from an old towel robe of mine. He loved crawling inside of the sleeve to sleep.

At first he would not defecate and urinate on his own so I had to "stimulation to eliminate". This instinct prevents young possums from fouling up the nest or worse the mothers pouch. What you have to do is hold the possum firmly and stroke it's rear end and genitalia with a warm wet paper towel or cloth. You are trying to imitate the mothers tongue. After a minute or two the possum will pee and poop. Keep stroking till you are sure he is all done. This went on for about 3 days, 3 times a day till he started doing it on his own. How did I know when to stop? When I had to start cleaning the cage.

At first my ward did not want to eat anything offered in a bowel so I decided to feed him by hand. Seems possums are naturally distrustful and aggressively defensive. Any motion or louder sound would get Feo agitated and he would open his mouth, bear his teeth and give a quiet hiss. I used this to my advantage during feeding. With a pair of bamboo skewers I used like chopsticks I would quickly place a morsel in his gaping mouth. He would bite down, act surprised and than with apparent pleasure chew, swallow and lick his chops. I would pick up another morsel and we would repeat till he started spiting out what I put in his mouth.  I only had to do this for a few days till he started eating out of his bowel.

Possums are extremely omnivorous - they eat almost anything but if not given the right mix and quality they can quickly develop Metabolic Bone Disease (nutritional secondary hyperparathyroidism). This can be lethal. Studies of the stomach content of road kill possums show an amazing diversity of animal and plant foods consumed. Keeping this in mind I fed Feo a very divers and changing diet. Every day was a little different. Bananas were a favorite, wet cat food, some strawberries, some white farmer's cheese, some old cheddar, avocado, celery with a little honey on it, a little chicken scraped of the bone followed with some bone marrow, maybe a little leftover hot dog and some old bread moistened with a little milk, etc. I just kept it varied with small amounts of different food representing all the necessary food groups. It seemed to work fine and Feo grew.

After a week he was moved to a bigger cage where he had room to move about on 3 levels and some dead branches to climb. I hung the cage by my bamboo grove and he seemed to like it like that. In the evenings he would sit on top of the little cardboard box that was his "bedroom" and watch the bamboo sway in the wind. In about 3 weeks he was starting to reach about 5" from nose to rump and acting more restless from day to day.

The wild was calling. One evening my daughter Rachel and I took Feo out to a very wild, secluded and protected part of our local very large park and we set him free. When I put him down on the ground he turned hissed at me and walked of into the woods. I hope you made it O.K. Feo and you're welcome.

The possum Feo

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