I live in Bernal Heights in southern San Francisco, where the streets are narrow and hilly and the houses are crowded together. We get to see a lot of wildlife, including a coyote who lived in the neighborhood for a while. After a couple of incidents where raccoons came in through the cat flap and tore open bags of cat kibble and feasted upon them, we began keeping the flap closed at night. But that was not to be the end of our close encounters with the wild.
It was a weekend evening in spring, and my husband was out with friends. I was writing some e-mail when I heard a scrabbling noise. "Crap, we’ve got mice," I thought, and got under the desk to check it out. I was surprised to see a baby possum looking back at me from among the spaghetti junction of cables! It didn’t seem particularly scared, although it gave a teeny-tiny hiss when I reached down to scoop it into a nearby shoebox. I ran to grab one of our cat carriers and a couple of towels and made a safe little nest.
Although he had a bloody ear, the possum, who I instantly named Titch, seemed unfazed by his ordeal so far. He was also pretty damn adorable. I wasn’t sure how he’d gotten in, since he didn’t look big enough or smart enough to navigate the cat flap, but I figured one of my cats must have nabbed him. And I had a fairly good idea which one.
Frisbee, our Norwegian Forest Cat, and Miss Uppity Tibbs, our tabby, had shown great aversion to small critters in our previous home, which included a nest of mice living under our stove. They actually ran away when we confronted them with full mousetraps. But Hammett, a 10-year-old, 15-pound snowshoe we’d adopted from the SPCA three years earlier, was always patrolling the backyard, although he had yet to show any hunting skills.
I shut Titch and the carrier in our bedroom and did a quick online search to figure out my next move. Ten minutes later I was talking to Jamie Ray at the San Francisco Rescued Orphan Mammal Program (SFROMP), the guru of wildlife rescue in the Bay Area.
Jamie gave me the lowdown on possums (or opossums, as they should strictly be called in North and South America). Although people are often frightened by the adults’ scary-looking pointy faces and teeth, the shy, nocturnal marsupials are beneficial to the urban environment because they eat bugs, snakes, and mice.
I asked whether I should put Titch back outside, but she told me that opossums are nomadic, and that babies as small as him were too young to be out on their own — they ride on their mothers’ backs, clinging on with their teeth ÔÇô so it was likely that something bad had happened to his mama. Babies his size haven’t learned to eat, but they can lap, so she told me to give him some applesauce and call Animal Care and Control (ACC) in the morning. Their staff would bring him to SFROMP, where he would get antibiotics to counteract any ill effects from his encounter with the cat, visible wounds or not.
My husband came home a couple of hours later and was amazed to meet Titch in the cat carrier. "I found a dead baby possum on the kitchen floor this afternoon!" he told me. Assuming that Hammett had killed it, he gently put it in the compost bin and put the lid on. He’d decided not to tell me about it, figuring I’d be upset.
"But possums play dead when they’re scared!" I pointed out, fully armed with my new encyclopedic knowledge of marsupials. "You know, playing possum?" He looked horrified, and we grabbed a flashlight and ran out back. The compost bin was critter-free. Had Titch burrowed out and been brought back in by Hammett? We didn’t know, and the cat wasn’t telling.
I awoke the next morning fretting about Titch. Had he made it through the night? But the little guy was looking perky.
He’d groomed away the blood on his ear and was lapping at the applesauce, his claws curled adorably over the edge of the cup. His ears were up, instead of flattened against his head as they were last night.
Meanwhile, Hammett, sharklike, was circling the house, clearly wondering what had happened to his prey. The other two cats were their usual inert, largely decorative selves.
As a former gerbil, hamster, and guinea pig owner, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to get in close to another variety of little critter. Titch chattered and hissed a bit, but otherwise seemed quite happy to be picked up and examined.
I didn’t want to freak him out too much — he was a wild baby animal, after all — so we put him in the carrier and took him to ACC, where staff assured us he’d soon be getting full attention from Jamie and her volunteers.
When we got home, our neighbor, Angela, announced over the back fence, "We found two baby possums in our yard today!" Her daughter, Nancy, had spotted them and scooped them up. (Fortunately their Chihuahua, Cinnamon, didn’t seem interested.) We told them about our adventures.
Then I got a call from Jamie, who said Titch was definitely too small to be away from his mother. She was even more agitated to hear about the other two. She said they were probably from the same litter, and she’d take them straight away. So I called Angela — to learn that she now had THREE! Another one had ambled across her yard while they were having a barbecue. She had already called ACC.
We sat on the couch, cracked a couple of beers, and sat back to watch the news with a sense of a job well done — when I noticed a movement out of the corner of my eye. There was ANOTHER baby opossum, hiding behind the fireplace tools, with Hammett glaring greedily at it. I swooped in. It was a little bigger than the others and had a bloody eye and neck, presumably where the cat had grabbed it.
I quickly called Angela. “ACC just left!” she trilled. Drat and double drat! I called the ACC emergency tech, who understandably sounded pretty miffed that she had to come out again to practically the same address.
I double-checked the cat flap was closed and gave Hammett some fancy wet food to distract him. The cats were on full indoor lockdown until we figured out the possum situation.
A couple of days later, Jamie e-mailed me some updates. Titch had snuggled in with a bunch of other orphaned babies and started drinking milk straight away ÔÇô yay!
Fireplace Opossum Baby (number 5) had a scratched eye after his encounter with my cat, but the vet had given him some eyedrops and he was healing nicely. Once they were old enough to fend for themselves, they would be released back into the wild -ÔÇô quite possibly back in our neighborhood. Unfortunately, one of the babies from my neighbors’ batch had died, possibly because he was too runty and didn’t seem to want to eat.
Meanwhile, our cats were going stir crazy being inside all day, but I didn’t want to risk any more hassles. Hammett was still cruising from room to room, sniffing every corner and looking for his trophies.
A couple of days after that, I was drinking the first cup of tea of the morning and thinking about getting out of bed when I spotted a worm wriggling along the curtain rail. My brain went through several stages of deep processing.
How did a worm get up there?
That’s not a worm.
That’s a TAIL.
That’s a POSSUM TAIL.
There was a baby opossum sitting on top of the curtains in my bedroom.
I admit that I paused long enough to take this photo before running to fetch the cat carrier, summon my husband, and rescue the latest addition to our household. Then we scooped the little critter into the box and called Jamie, who laughed and laughed and said this one had probably been hiding out since the shenanigans of the previous weekend.
We christened her Maytitch, since it was now early May. She was unscathed and clearly hungry — she scarfed down a lot of applesauce on the journey to ACC -ÔÇô and was headed straight back out to SFROMP when we left.
Our house remained opossum-free after that, although I did check every room from top to bottom after we discovered Maytitch on the curtain rail. I donated to both SFROMP and ACC in honor of all their hard work rescuing and rehabilitating the wildlife of our city. And Hammett never did figure out what happened to his interesting new toys.
Catster readers: What’s the strangest thing your cats have brought in?
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