I’ve Spent 7 Years With Opossums. Here’s What To Do If You Suddenly Encounter One.

Last week a woman saved patrons of a bar from a marauding marsupial. Here's a few things that could have made its foray into Brooklyn nightlife more positive for all parties involved.
The author and Pippen the opossum. “Pippen has a tail injury,” the author writes. “He gets daily meds and bandage changes until he heals, at which point he’ll go back to the wild.”
The author and Pippen the opossum. “Pippen has a tail injury,” the author writes. “He gets daily meds and bandage changes until he heals, at which point he’ll go back to the wild.”
Courtesy of Ally Burguieres

Alaska native Sara Fulton seems like a wonderful woman with an admirable take-charge attitude. Just last week, she saved patrons of a Brooklyn bar from a marauding marsupial, evicting the interloper back onto the street in a manner that allowed the opossum to scurry safely into the night and bar patrons to return to their pints.

She told the New York Post she’s no hero, but having successfully ushered both the opossum and her fellow revelers to a safe outcome, I’d say she is. Still, I’d be remiss as an opossum advocate if I didn’t point out just a few teensy weensy things that could have made this opossum’s foray into Brooklyn nightlife more positive for all parties involved.

Firstly, let me admit I’ve gone way further down the opossum rabbit hole than is healthy or normal. I’ve always loved underdogs and misfits, but until one particular opossum named Sesame came into my life, my rescue experience was limited to dogs, cats and the occasional rodent. Opossums are unlike any of these animals (as marsupials, they aren’t even closely related to rodents), and they are startlingly unique in their physiology and needs. I honestly never gave opossums much thought until Sesame stared at me with his beady eyes and ignited a passion for opossums in my soul.

With a lot of research, the help of experienced rehabbers and a willingness to embrace the absurd, opossum rehabbing became a slippery slope I slid down head first. While it’s surprisingly easy to get roped into rehabbing, rules and regulations apply depending on what state you practice in. Many rehabbers work out of their homes and find their lives overtaken by medical supplies, incubators, midnight emergencies and babies in boxes dropped on their front porches. My specialty became opossums, but I know others who work with raccoons, pelicans, foxes, owls and more. The work is often done out-of-pocket and in addition to full-time jobs and responsibilities.

Strangely, working with opossums taught me a lot about both opossums and people. One of the first things I learned was that we can live our lives surprisingly unaware of the animals in our own backyard. Before working with them, I didn’t even know if the North American animals were officially “opossums” or “possums.” Turns out, the Virginia opossum (the kind we have in the U.S.) was the first rat-like marsupial to get the name “opossum” in English. These days, “possum” is used officially for the creatures in Australia and New Zealand, and “opossum” is reserved for those of the Americas. Conversationally, “possum” is used in America as a nickname for the Virginia opossum.

Sweet Sesame the opossum. "Opossums are not pets and should only ever be cared for by rehabilitators," the author writes. "I say this not to take away anyone’s fun, but because opossums will get very ill without species-specific nutritional and medical care. Specifically, they develop painful and debilitating metabolic bone disease when fed an improper diet."
Sweet Sesame the opossum. "Opossums are not pets and should only ever be cared for by rehabilitators," the author writes. "I say this not to take away anyone’s fun, but because opossums will get very ill without species-specific nutritional and medical care. Specifically, they develop painful and debilitating metabolic bone disease when fed an improper diet."
Courtesy of Ally Burguieres

Finding ourselves face-to-face with a strange creature can spark exhilaration, joy, chaos and excitement. In a world where we’re often stuck behind screens and windows, an unexpected encounter with a weird fellow earthling shakes things up a bit. Which brings us to the scene of last week’s opossum panic at Temkin’s Bar in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

Opossums certainly have a penchant for the dramatic, feigning their own death on many occasions, but a less sensational exit for the marsupial would have been ideal. (Conversely, a calm, quiet relocation likely wouldn’t have gone viral and wouldn’t have turned into an opportunity to talk about opossums ― my favorite topic ― so this isn’t to say anyone did anything wrong for that particular moment.) For future encounters, a more measured approach may serve us and America’s only marsupial well.

My recommendation is to never make willful contact with a wild animal. Opossums can be relatively harmless but can still bite, and animals like raccoons and foxes are known vectors of rabies and should only be handled by trained and vaccinated professionals. The best course of action is usually to remain calm and call a wildlife rehabilitator. If animal control or another professional needs to be brought in, a rehabber will have those contacts. Keep yourself and the animal as safe as possible until help arrives.

The Temkin’s opossum seemed healthy and simply in need of a little redirection, which Fulton provided admirably, although scruffing isn’t ideal as it causes an opossum discomfort and confusion. Having lifted many an opossum, I’d place one hand under the opossum’s chest, securing their front legs and neck so they can’t turn their head and bite (opossums will usually avoid biting, but it’s always best to be cautious). I would use my other hand to hold the base of the opossum’s tail. Opossums often freeze when cornered, which makes picking them up relatively easy. Lifting an opossum in this way helps them feel secure and keeps them from dangerously flailing and twisting, something our Brooklyn opossum friend does in a frantic attempt to free themselves from Bouncer Fulton.

While safe and efficient removal is sometimes needed, an opossum sighting is rarely cause for concern. Opossums have a relatively low body temperature, making it virtually impossible for them to carry viruses like rabies, distemper or parvo. They’re nonconfrontational and reclusive by nature, so if you see one in a place crowded with people, it’s likely as surprised and unnerved by its presence there as anyone else. What attracts opossums to human-packed places is usually food. Given that they’ll eat literal garbage and scare away mice and rats, it’s actually not so bad to have them around. (Outside the bar is preferable to inside.)

"Crouton the opossum, not quite ready to be wild, gets plenty of playtime to learn valuable skills for when he’s released," the author writes.
"Crouton the opossum, not quite ready to be wild, gets plenty of playtime to learn valuable skills for when he’s released," the author writes.
Courtesy of Ally Burguieres

This is a good time to acknowledge the awkward fact that it might be our fault opossums are rampant in Brooklyn in the first place. Not in an abstract “opossums follow human activity because of food” sort of way, but in a much more concrete, intentional way.

In a situation that seems like it should have happened way farther back in history, opossums were reportedly released by city officials in Brooklyn parks and under the Coney Island boardwalk in 2007 in an attempt to control the rat population. A meeting of the Brooklyn Community Board 15 that year reportedly spawned the suspiciously understated note: “The Department of Sanitation said that the city brought possums in to take care of the rat problem.”

Not surprisingly, no individual or department is willing to take credit for this plan. Some officials outright deny it even happened. But others suspect the city is trying to cover its tracks. “If you were them and now you had an opossum problem, would you own up to it?” asked Theresa Scavo, chairperson for BCB15. She pulled no punches when expressing her thoughts to the New York Post: “Didn’t any of those brain surgeons realize that the opossums were going to multiply?”

Importing opossums to Brooklyn in a misguided attempt to control rats would certainly not be our only foray into ill-advised animal-on-animal control measures. Consider Australia, where humans introduced the cane toad in 1935 to eat beetles that were eating sugar cane. Unsurprisingly, the toads multiplied out of control. Not only that, but the beetles simply climbed the sugarcane to escape the toads. In an elegant coup de grâce, cane toads (and their eggs, tadpoles, and toadlets) are poisonous to consume, posing a deadly threat to any native would-be predators. The brain surgeons have been at this a long time.

Some people have decided that instead of backtracking on the concept all together, perhaps we just haven’t leaned far enough into it. In 2004, conservation ecologist Joe Roman wrote an article for Audubon titled “Eat the Invaders,” which includes recipes for dishes like “Nutria, Wild Boar, and Crawfish Egg Roll Towers.”

"Opossums are great parents," the author writes. "This mother arrived at Sesame the Opossum rescue with an injured shoulder. Once healed, she was released with her babies to live the wild and crazy life she deserves."
"Opossums are great parents," the author writes. "This mother arrived at Sesame the Opossum rescue with an injured shoulder. Once healed, she was released with her babies to live the wild and crazy life she deserves."
Courtesy of Ally Burguieres

An “invasivore” movement was born, along with slogans like, “if you can’t beat ’em, eat ’em” (credited to chef Phillipe Parola) and “eradication by mastication” (courtesy of the Institute for Applied Ecology’s Annual Invasive Species Cook-Off in Corvallis, Oregon). In 2017, biologist and invasivore.org founder Matthew Barnes told Scientific American, “I don’t think we have the data yet to know if [humans eating invasive species] is successful.” As a mere opossum enthusiast, I’m in no place to criticize any attempts at problem-solving. But perhaps we might consider the possibility that we’re trying to solve problems with the same thinking that got us into them.

Unlike the poor cane toads ― villains by no fault of their own ― opossums have ingratiated themselves into the New York culture with little apparent damage to more established species. Native originally to the southern states, evidence suggests they’ve been expanding their range for centuries even without municipal help. As eaters of decaying plant and animal matter, they can actually be helpful in urban areas. Perhaps because of their industrious sanitation work, opossums have seemingly been spared from large-scale eradication attempts. Brooklyn officials have thankfully not yet announced a campaign touting the joys of opossum casserole.

The slowed pace of life during COVID offered an unprecedented glimpse of what nature might be like without constant human impact. Viral videos showed pumas prowling Santiago and dolphins gliding toward Venice’s Grand Canal. Data from the Loggerhead Marinelife Center showed a 39% increase in loggerhead turtle nesting on Florida’s closed beaches. But removing ourselves from the equation overnight left some ecological systems that are dependent on us in the lurch. Conservation projects went unfinished, ecotourism-dependent sanctuaries went unfunded and poachable species went unprotected. For all we do wrong, we’re trying to do a lot right.

Clear answers are elusive, but even without big solutions we can strive to coexist with animals in the best ways we know how. Small actions can make a difference, even if it’s something as simple as gently helping a panicked opossum out of a tight spot. Since we may have actually invited and brought opossums to Brooklyn anyway, we probably owe it to them to evict them from bars in a way that causes minimal stress and embarrassment. A little apology and a quick “thanks for cleaning up after us” might be in order.

"Opossums climb trees, eat garbage, and keep to themselves," the author writes. "What could be better!"
"Opossums climb trees, eat garbage, and keep to themselves," the author writes. "What could be better!"
Courtesy of Ally Burguieres

Ally Burguieres is an opossum advocate and the rehabber behind the popular Sesame the Opossum rescue. She works as an artist and illustrator under the name Cocoally, has her PhD in Sociolinguistics, and just released a new book with Quirk Books titled, “Possums Are Not Cute!: And other myths about America’s only marsupial.”

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