OUR POSITION ON KEEPING POSSUMS

Our position is that once a possum is releasable, it should be released.

When are they releasable? Donna and I have changed our minds on how soon releasable is. Previously we said three pounds or six months for a healthy possum with no problems. This is silly and is an example of our overprotective mothering instinct.

If they are eating well, gaining weight and don't have any health issues, the proper time is when you put them down outside and they walk away and don't come back. Of course this does not mean let them go in December when there is a foot of snow on the ground.

Our position also is that there is no such thing as a healthy pet possum.

Healthy domesticated possums can appear to be normal, but such opossums are not normal or natural and it should be questioned whether or not they are even truly healthy or domesticated.

They are CAPTIVE and most likely have, to some extent, developmental abnormalities that allow them to endure their unnatural captivity. A healthy normal opossum will not want to sit on a lap or live in a house.

The human concept of "pet ownership" is best applied to dogs and cats. With a possum, cultivate a sense of temporary responsible guardianship.

We have been approached by several people, both here at the house and on the internet, as to whether they could "acquire" one of our possums. In each instance, it was determined that the person wanted the animal because they thought it would be "cool" to have a possum. Being "cool" is not a good reason to have a possum.

Possums, indeed all wild creatures, have very individual personalities and natural desires. They have as much right as you to be free and live their lives as THEY wish without intrusion from people.

Think of the possum as a fellow creature that, for the moment, needs your care and help. Do not think of it as a novelty, possession, diversion, amusement or a toy for the kids (or the parents).

SO YOU PLAN TO KEEP ONE, ANYWAY?

Captive possums don't have much say about their captivity but nonetheless have very specific needs. If you insist on keeping a possum, we hope you will at least keep a few things in mind.

Possums cannot be reared with the relative ease of puppies or kittens or even human babies. Infant possums require feeding, cleaning and assistance with toilet at least every three hours, not to mention keeping tabs on their appetite, activity, weight, and waste.

Their diet is way more complex and demanding than that of dogs, cats and babies. Their required habitation space is huge. They cannot be chained or warehoused. They are most active while you are sleeping. Their odors can be overwhelming. Their medical problems are many and difficult to identify and remedy.

Adult possums are naturally free ranging, covering perhaps an acre or two in a night. They grow quickly bored with familiar spaces. They cannot be placed and left in a cage and remain sane, so if you cannot deal with a possum running loose in your house and the possible destruction of furnishings and personal items, you should consider hosting another species.

They are creative at finding ways to get to somewhere they want to be. If loose in the house, you will find them in the oddest places. Keep your toilet lid down. Look in your wastebaskets before tossing out the trash. Do not leave a dresser drawer or closet door open and then close it without looking, you might find a dead or starving possum in it later on.

Their destructive capability is boundless. They love to climb and they lick, rub and chew everything. They knock things over and don't look back.

Possums can be paper trained but that doesn't mean they will always head back to the paper when the time comes. They are not likely to carry a pooper scooper and paper towels. They can get smelly if you don't keep up with them. Be prepared to scrub the rugs and furniture regularly.

Possums are like humans in developing bad dietary habits. They will eat anything that is not good for them IF it is available. Do not feed them wet, dry or canned dog food or puppy chow, kitten formula, canned cat food, raw meat, sugary or salty foods, peanut butter, cheese, cow milk, hot dogs, hamburger, french fries, cake, donuts, chocolate, foods with excessive fat or foods with excessive vitamin A, D or protein. Get the National Opossum Society diet!

Always leave fresh water out. If their diet is correct, they will not require much water, but they still need some. Do not leave a large quantity of food out in a bowl even though it may be more convenient. This encourages the possum to overeat. Watch their diet. Keep records of their growth. Obesity, especially when coupled with lack of exercise, is a major cause of health problems with captive possums.

Of our last six possums (which were started on all the wrong food), the ones that seemed to be eating best and gaining the most weight got the sickest and ended up being the smallest and weakest of the six. The ones that were not eating so much of the garbage we were giving them did not get as sick and grew up to be the strongest.

BE CONSIDERATE!

Remember that small infants have been used to being in a warm, dark, quiet pouch. Consider this when you swing them up in the air for your loud neighbors and their noisy kids to see. A possum's hearing is very sensitive, so speak quietly when handling them. And don't pass them around. They are not toys.

Younger possums will instinctively search for a pouch. Older possums will instinctively climb up on top of mom (that's you) so don't be surprised when they keep heading up your arm.

They also become terrified when you put them down in the open because they think that they have fallen off. Loud hissing is possumese for "Wait, Mom, I've fallen off!"

Actually, the sound is more like a sharp "Huuss".

Pick possums up and put them down slowly. Picture yourself being that size. Being swept from the floor to chest level is like you going from the ground to the top of a twenty story building in one second.

You can not hold possums like hamsters and gerbils with their feet out in the air. You can not cup them in your hands. They always want to stand on their feet and will always climb to the top of whatever they are on.

During feeding, keep disturbances to a minimum. Turn off the TV, don't rustle papers or plastic bags. Quiet the kids and keep them back.

If you keep them in wire cages and glass aquariums they may become frightened because of seeing movement in the room around them.

Keep little orphans in a cardboard box or something with a cover for quiet and darkness. Don't forget air, but watch for escapees.

Except for the smallest of babies, if they get out of the box, they will spend all night walking until they find you. If you are in bed, you will probably awake to find them sitting on your shoulder or head.

They love to sleep in pouches, take a rectangular piece of cloth and fold it over, sew up the sides and hang it on the side of the cage, they will climb into it to sleep.

Be prepared to act as the foster mom for older babies by letting them spend some 'quality time' sitting on top of your head or shoulders. This calms them down. Medium length hair is good because they can grip it with their fingers, but they may get tangled up burrowing into real long hair.

Possums get restless and possibly frantic when stuck in a cardboard box all day. If you can't handle possums sitting on your head, spend some time rocking them in your lap. They love to just sit in a bundle after eating and fall asleep sleep while you rock. At the least, get them out and let them run on the floor.

When acclimating them to the outdoors, don't just plop them down in the grass. This will frighten the hell out of them. Sit down and let them sit on your lap or on your feet or hand near the grass. At first they will want nothing to do with getting off you. Soon they will get curious but will still stay close. They will want to explore a little more each time you go out. Eventually, when the time is right, they will wander away and not want to come back.

A SHORT PLAY

Curtain opens, lights come up. Patty enters stage right carrying a sheaf of National Opossum Society newsletters. Matty enters stage left with two healthy possums ready for release.

Patty: (whining) "Matty, This is too complicated! Isn't there an EASIER diet? I'm missing my soaps."

Matty: (assertively) "No, Patty, orphan care is NOT easy, it can be fun and rewarding, but it takes serious dedication."

Matty exits stage right and Patty exits stage left. Camera zooms in on the back side of two happy possums walking off into the sunset. The lights dim. Curtain closes.

ABNORMALITIES IN OPOSSUMS

All of the following are abnormal in opossums:

  • POOR VISION (possums can actually see quite well at close range, little ones should be very attentive of activity around the room)
     
  • BULGING EYES (possums should not look cross-eyed, conjunctiva should not be visible, irises and pupils should be dark but clear, not glazed, milky or hazy)
     
  • SWOLLEN TAIL (tails should be erect and not drag, adult tails should be slightly squarish in cross section at the base and not puffy)
     
  • LOW HUNG POSTURE (possums should have good road clearance underneath their belly, bellies should not drag)
     
  • SKIN AILMENTS (hard spots, black spots and lumps are signs of dermal septic necrosis)
     
  • EXCESSIVE and DARK URINATION (urine should be a very pale yellow and moderate in quantity, thick, stinky urine is a sign of problems)
     
  • EXCESSIVE THIRST (possums on a good diet will not need to drink excessively)
     
  • EXCESSIVE SLEEP (healthy possums will be active for several hours at night, they should not get up just to eat and poop and go back to bed)
     
  • CROOKED LIMBS (legs should be straight, toes spread out and not bent or crossed, they should walk up on their foot pads, not on their wrists or on the sides of their feet - bent forearms, bowleggedness, staggering and inability to stand up are all signs of MBD)
     
  • EXOTIC COLORATION (short hairs should be black or dark gray, long guard hairs should be white. Red or so-called cinnamon possums have dietary deficiencies and are not natural)

A possum with any of the above symptoms has problems.

Contact a qualified rehabilitator immediately!

PLEASE!

Get in touch with the National Opossum Society. (see the LINKS page)

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