Opossums are North America’s only marsupial. Marsupials are pouch animals, just like kangaroos. The minute the babies are born, they crawl up into the mother’s pouch and stay there until they are able to go off on their own. Opossums give birth to an average of 9-13 babies, and the babies stay with their mother for an average of two to three months. Mother opossums carry their young in their pouch everywhere. They do not put their babies in a den like a raccoon or a squirrel.
Let’s first determine if they are real orphans.
I’m an orphan if…
- I’m next to my dead mother.
- If I’m wandering around by myself and smaller than 8” (don’t include my tail)
- I basically can fit in the palm of your hand.
- I’m injured (Do you see blood?).
- There are a lot of fly eggs on me.
- The family pet brings me home.
It is very rare to see a baby opossum walking around on its own unless it has been separated from its mother.
Reasons for separation are…
- Mother was chased and the baby fell out of the pouch.
- Mother knows that she cannot take care of it and left the baby behind.
- Mother was killed and the babies are wandering on their own.
Most opossum orphans are caused by motor vehicles. Mother opossum is walking across the street and then WHACK. Some people ask, “Why they are so slow?” “Why didn’t she run?” Can you run with 13 babies attached to you? Also, the headlights from the vehicles cause the opossums to freeze, just like a deer. And, if the car is approaching them too fast, they might think it’s a predator and play dead, not realizing that it is soon to be a reality.
Playing dead is an involuntary response. When threatened or harmed, the opossum goes into an involuntary state—playing dead. They are mimicking the appearance and smell of a sick or dead animal. Their lips are drawn back, teeth are bared, saliva foams around the mouth, and a foul-smelling fluid is secreted from the anal glands. Their bodies become stiff. You can actually pick them up at this stage and assume that they are really dead. They will not move. The only way to tell if they are still alive is to pay close attention to their breathing. Their stomach will go up and down ever so slightly. Humans will be able to tell, but other animals will not. When the opossum feels that the danger is over, they just get up and walk away.
If you do see an opossum on the side of the road, especially during the months of April through June, you might want to consider checking to see if the opossum has babies in the pouch. Baby opossums range from a size of a bumblebee up to fitting in the palm of your hand. If you feel comfortable doing so, it’s best to remove the babies right away. This can easily be done by holding the base of their tail (close to their back) and pull ever so gently. They will release themselves from their Mom. When taking the babies from the mother, have a box ready with plenty of soft fabric. These babies get cold very fast and they need to stay warm to survive. Then call a rehabber.