This Externship Was Totally Possum!

When I first started my rehabilitation externship, I thought that working in the ICU would mean mostly taking care of baby squirrels, which I was more than fine with because I loved working with them. Then we got in our first group of baby opossums and I suddenly had a new favorite species to work with.

The first opossums that came in were a group of five babies who were brought in because their mom was hit by a car. They were all so little that they still had their eyes closed and had to live in one of our incubators since they couldn’t regulate their body temperature yet. It’s pretty common that we get baby opossums in groups, usually after their mom was hit by a car or found dead. Occasionally get in a single, older opossum.

One considerable difference between rehabbing baby squirrels and baby opossums is that with squirrels, we can use a syringe and they’ll suckle on a nipple to eat, but opossums have to be tube-fed. This is because in the wild, a baby opossum's mouth actually fuses around the mother’s nipple, which reaches all the way to the back of their throat. Tube-feeding was a really intense procedure to learn because you have to make sure the tube is far enough down into their stomach, but you can’t go too far down or you could puncture through the stomach wall. You also have to make sure you’re not in the lungs or you could end up aspirating your patient. Sometimes the opossums get squirmy or try to pull out their tube so we end up ‘burrito-ing’ them to keep them secure. Depending on the size and weight of the opossum, we will feed them between one to six times per day.

As the opossums start gaining weight and their eyes are opening, they can be moved out of the incubator and into an aquarium, where they have more space to run around. When they are big enough to be tube-fed three times a day, the opossums get to have a mush bowl (soaked dog chow and a rice cereal/ formula mixture) and juvenile opossum meal in addition to their tube feedings. Once they reach the weight to be tube-fed only once a day, they also get mice pieces added to their diet. I think one of the cutest/weirdest things is watching two opossums tug at the mice intestines Lady-and-the-Tramp-style.

Once the opossums are weaned, they acclimate to the outdoors for a week before they are moved to one of our outdoor mammal enclosures where they have much more room to run around and many branches to practice their climbing. Soon, they are ready to be released back into the wild.

I think my favorite thing about rehabbing the opossums, besides their adorable faces, is their attitude. They are the feistiest little guys that I have ever met and I am definitely going to miss getting to work with them every day!

--Shannon
WCV Class of 2016