‘Possum Soup

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I’ve already written one post about how much I love opossums, but today we got our first orphaned opossum babies of the season, so I thought I’d take this opportunity to share another example of how great they are.

At TreeHouse, we don’t take very young opossums, with their eyes still closed.  This is because, as marsupials, opossums are born at a very early stage of development.   Neonates are essentially embryos.  Inside their pouches, female opossums have thirteen tube-like teats that the babies will latch onto and remained attached to for around two months.  It is around that time that their eyes open.

Because they remain latched onto a teat as long as their eyes are closed, neonates do not have a suckling reflex.  For this reason, orphans at this age cannot be hand-fed via syringe, as squirrels and many other baby mammals can be.   Very young opossums must be fed through a tube that is inserted in the mouth, down the esophagus, and into the stomach.  Unfortunately, this is a very delicate and tricky procedure.  The babies’ tissues are so fragile that it is incredibly easy to cause severe internal injury when inserting the tube.  Since TreeHouse relies on a large force of devoted but frequently changing volunteers for animal care, it was decided long ago that we could not accept patients whose care is so difficult.

Once their eyes open, however, baby opossums can be coaxed to drink formula from a dish.  When they are a little older, they have absolutely no problem drinking this way, but when their eyes are just barely opened, they are very unsteady on their feet and don’t yet see well.  This is when we get to see what Adele calls “’possum soup.”

'Possum soup.

At feeding time, we place the babies in a container with only a cloth covering the bottom and a wide, shallow dish of warm formula in the center.  We set the baby opossums around the dish and basically dip their noses in the formula so they know it’s there.  From that point, it becomes pretty chaotic, as some babies will dive right into the formula—literally—while others stagger around in circles, huddle together in the corner, or just fall over sideways while trying to walk.  Watching from above, the person feeding makes sure that none of the babies get stuck or chilled, but otherwise it’s pretty hands-off.  The ones that go swimming in the formula dish inevitably manage to drink some, and when they get out the others will pile around and lick the formula off their fur.  It’s absurdly cute.

It generally only takes two or three feedings for the babies to get the hang of lapping formula out of the dish, but we always get a few that prefer to swim in it.  So, we get to see more ’possum soup.

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River Otter: UPDATE

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Sadly, the baby river otter we admitted yesterday did not make it through the night.  She initially rallied a bit after getting warmed up and getting some food and fluids, but after a few hours she began to go downhill.  Based on the condition of the mother’s body, she must have been on her own for at least a couple of days, which is a very long time for a baby that is still nursing.  She had simply gone too long without nutrition before she was found, and her body began to shut down.  She was unable to retain body heat, and no matter what I tried to keep her warm, her temperature continued to fall until finally her heart stopped around 2 AM.  Everyone here at TreeHouse was greatly saddened to lose her, but at least, thanks to the care and alertness of the couple who found her, she didn’t die shivering in a drain.

A mother’s care is of paramount importance to the survival of young animals, particularly mammals, and no matter what the circumstances, the odds are stacked against orphans cut off from maternal care.  In nature, many animals succumb to weather conditions, predators, and even simply being the runt of the litter.  This is the way natural selection works.  At TreeHouse, we are able to help so many animals that are victims of both natural and human-caused trauma.  Each year, we raise a great many orphaned animals for release back to the wild.  It is always incredibly rewarding when we are able to release an animal that was brought to us malnourished and shivering from exposure, and that we nursed back to health and cared for until it was mature and strong enough to survive on its own.  Still, it is often the animals that do not make it that really stay with us, and this otter will certainly be one of those for me.

But as always, life goes on at TreeHouse.  We received good news today as well–a bald eagle we admitted over the winter with a broken tibiotarsus (equivalent to the shin) from a gunshot went to the vet yesterday and had her cast removed.  The eagle is a huge female that came from along the Little Wabash River in Clay County.  Although recovery from injuries of this kind is a long process, she is doing well, and as long as she retains enough function in the talons of her injured leg, we are hopeful about her prospects for recovery.

There is always another animal in need of care for an injury, or more babies orphaned and in need of nurturing, and it is simply the nature of wildlife rehabilitation that we will experience emotional ups and downs as we continue to invest ourselves in the care of these animals.

This picture from a release earlier this year shows what we hope the future holds for the eagle from Clay County.

It’s a Baby Otter!

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I’m so excited right now that I am literally bouncing on my desk chair.  Today, we admitted a baby river otter.  I’ve just realized that there is nothing in the world quite as adorable as a baby river otter.

I think of all the puppies and kittens I've ever seen, and then I have to accept that nothing else can ever be this cute.

After over 30 years of wildlife rehabilitation, it isn’t often that TreeHouse gets something completely new, but in all that time, we have never admitted a river otter.  They are around in this area, but much like bobcats they are rarely sighted.  According to a biologist at Two Rivers National Wildlife Refuge, most otter sightings in and around the refuge come in the form of road-kill.  Otters live along the banks of secluded rivers and streams, feeding primarily on fish and crustaceans, like crayfish.  They are found throughout North America, from Florida in the south to northern Canada, and from Newfoundland in the east to the Aleutian Islands in the west.  Despite their broad range, their population has been dramatically reduced from historical numbers by habitat loss and heavy fur trapping.

I love otters.  They are highly intelligent, inquisitive, and playful.  In fact, many would argue that of all animals (besides humans!), otters show the best evidence of true play.  That is, they demonstrate behavior that does not seem to have any adaptive value, either in terms of survival, attracting a mate, learning skills for use in later life, or any other practical purpose.  They slide down mud-banks on their bellies.  They have been observed repeatedly pushing a pebble into the water, then diving down after it to catch it on the top of their head and bring it back to the surface, like a kid with diving sticks at a swimming pool.  They will even bring these “toys” back to keep in their dens—smooth stones and other objects that they play with in the water.

The otter we admitted today came from a couple who live off the Great River Road just a few miles from TreeHouse.  Her mother was found dead (cause of death unknown), but fortunately for the baby, the couple found her after hearing her whimpering coming from a drain culvert.  They dried her off, warmed her up, and brought her to TreeHouse.  Just to note, I keep using the word “her”, but we’re not sure of the sex yet.  I think it might be female, but determining the sex in otters is not actually as straightforward as it is in other mammals.

She was fairly lethargic when she first came in—she was curled in a tight little ball and wouldn’t uncurl—but after taking some warm fluids and a little bit of food, she perked up quite a bit.  She started nosing all around the counter where I was feeding her, pushing bottles and jars over as she explored her surroundings with her whiskers and staggered around on unsteady baby legs.

Like any toddler, as she began to liven up, she made an increasingly huge mess of herself.  She dipped her whole face into her water bowl and blew bubbles at the bottom through her nose, repeatedly lifting her head up for breath, then going back down to blow more bubbles.  She basically dove headfirst into her food bowl.  So, before she could go back into her cage in the nursery, she needed a bath.  I put her into a shallow pan of warm water, and she took to the water about as gleefully as you might expect a baby otter to do.  She swam all around the pan, going underwater as much as the shallow water would allow.  She is not a strong swimmer yet—it was likely her first time swimming on her own—but she looked more comfortable in the water than she does on land.

Fortunately, although we have never rescued an otter before, we have a lot of great information resources we will be utilizing, and we hope we will be able to raise this orphan for release back to the wild.

Pelican Moves to the Zoo

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For the past month, we have had a pelican living in the greenhouse here at TreeHouse.  Today, we brought it to its new home at the St. Louis Zoo.

The keepers take the crate holding the pelican into one of the buildings where birds are housed so that they can take the bird's weight.

All new animals joining the zoo’s collection spend a mandatory 30 days in quarantine to ensure that they aren’t carrying any parasites or infectious diseases that could spread to the other animals.  The zoo is currently renovating its hospital building, so instead of going to the normal quarantine facility, our pelican will be spending its 30 days in a holding cage near the nursery.  It has a pool to swim in, and it can look through the bars at its next-door neighbor, another pelican that was rescued from Portage Des Sioux by the World Bird Sanctuary.  That pelican also arrived at the zoo today, so assuming neither bird has to spend additional time in quarantine (as a result, for example, of a fecal sample coming back with worms), both will join the flock at the same time.

We say goodbye to our pelican at its quarantine holding cage.

The zoo’s flock of American white pelicans currently consists of about 15 birds, all of which are rescues like ours.  In fact, two of them were brought to the zoo by TreeHouse in the past.  According to the keeper who checked in the pelican and showed us around, having such a large flock makes it very easy to introduce new birds.  Often, when a small number of animals are together for a long time, they will bully and exclude any new animal that is introduced.  But with a group of this size, a new addition will almost always fit in somewhere.

The flock cruises around the island where it nests.

So, next time you’re at the St. Louis Zoo, check out the pelican flock.  They nest on an island next to the Lakeside Cafe.  One of them will be the pelican we rescued from Riverlands in February.

A Case for Opossums

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This angry baby 'possum from last year's baby season is the background on my laptop.

Generally speaking, opossums have a pretty bad reputation.  Most people seem to think of them only as pests that get into their garbage cans and give birth under their porches.  They can come across as downright vicious, hissing and snapping when they feel threatened.  Their black eyes are lined with dark fur that stands out vividly against the pale fur of their pointed faces, heightening their impression of ferocity.  Although they will sometimes “play ’possum” when cornered, they can also put up quite a fight, as anyone whose dog or cat has ever picked a fight with one likely knows.  They’re not the most intelligent of animals, and the results of their lack of intelligence are evident in their high roadkill body count.  In fact, opossums have the smallest brain size relative to body size of any mammal—and, coincidentally, more teeth than any other North American mammal.  So that can make for a fun combination.

Still, I have to say, I love opossums.  They’re just awesome.  For one thing, they’re marsupials, meaning their young are born very early in development and then spend several weeks in a pouch in the mother’s abdomen as they continue growing.  The Virginia opossum is the only marsupial in North America, having made its gradual way north over the last several millennia from the rainforests of South America, where its relatives still live.  The American marsupials are descended from some common ancestor with Australian mammals in the distant past when Australia and South America were connected as part of the same supercontinent.

Opossums also have prehensile tails, like some monkeys, which they use to gather leaves and other nesting material and to hold onto tree limbs for balance.  They have grasping front and back feet with almost-opposable thumbs.  When you go into more detail in opossum anatomy, you find even more fascinating peculiarities.  For example, its genus name, Didelphis, which literally means “double-wombed” in Latin, describes its unusual bifurcated reproductive system.

The opossum explores her new cage.

People visiting TreeHouse often wonder why we accept opossums, and they ask us “What good are they?”  After swallowing the urge to launch into a diatribe about how I don’t think humans have the right or the knowledge to make judgment calls about which animals are “good” and which are “bad”, I generally respond that opossums are omnivorous scavengers, and like any scavenger they fill an important niche in the ecosystem.  Opossums really will eat just about anything, and that is very important for keeping an ecosystem clean and healthy.  Imagine what the world would smell like if it weren’t for scavengers like vultures and opossums speeding up the process of dead organisms returning their nutrients to the environment.

We admit a lot of orphaned baby opossums at TreeHouse.  Typically, the mother was killed by a car, and one or more of the babies in her pouch survived.  Opossum baby season has not arrived yet, but when it does I will have to devote a post to them—they’re ridiculously adorable.

At the moment, we have two adult opossums living at TreeHouse.  Both came in last summer as orphans, and for different reasons these two were unable to be released.  The first was much too habituated to humans to be released.  The people who found her after her mother was killed by a dog intended to release her when she was old enough, but unfortunately she became too tame.  Luckily, though, she is an absolute sweetheart, so we are able to hold her during education programs and we can let her out of her cage for exercise.

After dunking her head in water and then rubbing it on a log, the fat opossum looked like she had painted her face for camouflage.

The other opossum is just fat.  She was going to be released last fall, but on the day we went to pack up her and her litter-mates from the release training cage, we found her on the floor of the cage with a large wound on her back.  So, we had to keep her over the winter while the wound healed.  It did heal, but opossums are somewhat prone to obesity.  They store fat in their tails and also, somewhat disgustingly, in deposits at the corners of their eyes.  Despite all our efforts to control her diet, the opossum gained a great deal of weight.  As a result, she moves very slowly and can’t really climb, so unless she gets in shape we won’t be able to release her.

The opossum rubs the side of her head on the log to mark it with her scent. She also kept licking it.

The two opossums spent the winter in cages in the mammal ward, so today I was very excited to move them both into deck cages where they have space to explore and climb around.  It’s always a lot of fun watching an animal explore a new environment (with the annoying exception of the bobcat, as I discussed earlier) and today I spent a good hour watching the two of them.  The fat one was the funniest—immediately after arriving in the new cage, she went to the water bowl and dunked her whole head in it.  She then proceeded to rub her head and neck over every inch of the log we gave her to practice climbing, marking it with her scent.  This resulted in the fur of her face being dyed a dark greenish-brown, as if she was trying to camouflage herself.

Based on the amount of time she spent exploring the cage, I now have hopes—not high hopes, certainly, but hopes—that she might lose enough weight to be able to return to the wild.  Unfortunately, opossums, whether in the wild or captivity, have extremely short lifespans.  They very rarely live past two or three years.  Their survival strategy as a species is based instead on their extraordinarily high reproductive rate—a single female opossum has the potential to have raised as many as 26 young after one year of life.  So, although our opossum may may never be able to have a life in the wild, she seems pretty content at TreeHouse, and she is definitely enjoying her new cage!

Exploration's done for the day. Time for a snack.