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Wildlife rehabilitation: Tenn. couple has an unusual opossum adventure

Manny and Tanya Rios found themselves babysitting some opossums.
Tanya Rios

Manny and Tanya Rios of Bristol, Tenn., found themselves in an unusual situation on Sunday afternoon. According to a March 30 interview with the National Wildlife Headlines Examiner, Tanya Rios explained how the couple ended up babysitting four opossum babies that literally dropped onto the scene. She also offers some important direction on how to get baby animals like these into the hands of a wildlife rehabilitator, but first let's get to the very odd story.

The Rioses noticed an opossum with a very large belly waddling across their back yard toward the tree where their squirrel house was located. After attempting to get through the opening, the opossum became stuck, with its back end wiggling and feet flopping. (This may remind you of Winnie Pooh in the familiar childhood story where he became stuck in the window.)

All this wiggling and flopping dislodged some opossum babies from her pouch, and they began to drop to the ground; there were four in all. At this point, the mother opossum was small enough to be able to fit into the squirrel house opening. There were still three little babies peeping out of the pouch with more babies inside. Opossums have up to 21 babies at a time.

At a loss as to what to do, the first thought was to get help from neighbors, but neither neighbor was home. Wearing welder's gloves, Manny picked up the animals and placed them in a box with a heating pad under it set on low. They also placed a little watered down canned cat food and some water in the box. (They found out later that the towel they placed in there was not a good idea because the little marsupials could have caught a claw and broken a limb. A tee shirt would have been a better choice.)

Then the couple turned to the Internet for answers. On the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association website, there is a menu option to locate a wildlife rehabilitator. (Choose: Help, I've found an animal >Finding a rehabilitator.)

It is important to choose your own state, even if a rehabilitator in a neighboring state may actually be closer. There are very strict rules about transporting animals across state lines. So, choosing Tennessee, the closest option was in Elizabethton: Wynn Wood Wildlife Rehabilitation Center. It was odd, though, that Mr. Wynn was actually nearby in Bristol at the time. After determining that the opossum babies would not be able to be safely reunited with their mother in the squirrel house, the babies were on the way to Elizabethton with Mr. Wynn, but not before the Rioses gleaned some valuable opossum information which they shared with us.

  • If you see a raccoon or opossum during the daylight hours, especially in the spring, do not immediately assume they have rabies or are sick. The daytime is the only time momma can safely go forage for food for the babies without the fathers killing or attacking the babies; the fathers are active at night. In the 23 years they have been running the rescue, they have not had a rabid raccoon or opossum turned over to them from this area.
  • Do not throw food out your car window. I know I’ve been guilty of throwing an apple core and such out, figuring it will biodegrade. While that is true, in the meantime, it attracts animals towards the roadways.
  • Because the opossum are so clean, he didn’t hesitate to pick them up with his bare hands. Manny had used heavy welding gloves; now we know better. The babies won’t hurt us and love to snuggle. Momma, on the other hand will hiss and bite if threatened, but usually they are not terribly aggressive.
  • Opossums are not very bright. They are pretty stupid, actually. I had asked if the momma would be upset about the four we couldn’t return to her and was told that “she won’t even notice.”
  • The babies are about the size of your thumbnail when born. Ours were actually quite big. Based on some reading I did on websites, I placed them between 12 and 14 weeks old. That means they were born during the freezing Arctic Blast in January!
  • Opossums can have up to 21 babies at a time, caring for only 13 at any given time because that is how many teats they have.

The Rios household is no stranger to wildlife rescue. They actually cared for seven baby skunks under their porch in New York for around two months. They are already leaving food and water at the base of the tree for the little opossum family living in their squirrel house.

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