Woman Saving America’s Only Marsupial
ASHEVILLE, N.C. -- The opossum, or possum as it’s commonly known, is probably best known for its ability to fake death. But for many people these animals are little more than pests, and such misconceptions have led to their needless suffering over the years.
But one woman wants to change the plight of the possum, and has devoted her life to saving this wonderful animal -- North America’s only marsupial.
“My name is Sondra Allison and they call me the Possum Lady,” she said, holding Pepper the Possum.
Sondra Allison is a wildlife rehabilitator. She rescues and cares for possums at her home in North Carolina. Over the past decade she has helped more than 400 injured, abused and orphaned possums -- on her own time and her own dime.
“I rehabilitate about 50 animals a year depending on the season,” said Allison. “I get them from the nature center, people who know me around town, (the) humane society, animal control. (I) get called out in the middle of the night.”
Her license plates even say ‘possum 1.’
“I get stopped everywhere I go,” she said.
One of her rescues is one-year old Pepper. He’s a permanent resident in Sondra's home; she took him in when he was a baby. But he is blind and can never be returned to the wild. Instead he is kept as an educational animal -- not a pet.
Possums aren’t pets, said Allison.
Pepper, who loves to eat, is larger than most of his wild cousins, weighing in at 11 pounds.
“…he gets around pretty well for a blind possum,” said Allison. “He can get around outside by himself.”
“The reason I’ve kept Pepper as an educational animal is because I use him for schools. I educate children.”
There’s a misconception about possums, said Allison. She said when drivers see them they will intentionally run them over, “and that’s how I usually get my animals.”
Free roaming dogs often injure them, too.
But Allison doesn’t want to confuse what she does or the wild nature of the critters.
"Pepper is not a pet,” she explained. “Wild animals are supposed to be left in the wild. I rehabilitate them and then I let them go free when they get to be a certain age. When they get to be about a pound I let them go.”
Many possums that come to Sondra are orphaned babies -- their mothers lost, victims of the road, other animals and people.
Being marsupials, they carry young in their pouches, just like kangaroos. Caring for the tiny animals, which are born the size of a lima bean, is a very delicate task.
A recent litter of babies Allison is currently caring for are about seven weeks old. They need to be tube fed with a special syringe every three hours; they must be kept very warm -- just like they would be in a pouch, and they also need to be kept moist.
Another rescue, a protective mother, is hiding seven babies in her pouch. She is injured and will stay with Allison for a few days. And when fully recovered, the little family will be released back into the wild.
“…we don’t really know the whole story,” she said. “We think she either got hit by a car or somebody was mean to her and hit her. She’s got babies in her pouch…and I’m rehabilitating her because she has cuts about her face and is kind of thin.”
“…she’s kind of stressed -- possums don’t like people this close to them. They feel like we’re predators and going to hurt them.”
Allison said she planned to release the mother and her babies in a few days. It’s a fairly simple rehabilitation, but one that she sees all too often.
Possums are unique, Allison said, and they’re peaceful animals. Vital to the eco-system, and not disease ridden, they’re not dangerous rodents, either. But unfortunately, many people still perceive them as lowly creatures.
“(People) think they’re just a giant rat, and this animal’s not a giant rat this is a marsupial -- not a rodent,” she said. “The tail gets everybody; (they) think it’s a rat tail.”
“My mission is to change people’s perspective of the possum, to reduce the number of babies I get in every year because of cars, dogs, carelessness, and then my other big aspiration is to have my own rehab center so I can educate more people, take in more animals, more possums, and do more good.”
But for now, Allison will continue working part time delivering newspapers for the Asheville Citizen Times. In her free time, its back to caring for the possums -- animals few others think are worthy of attention.
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Matt Van Hoven, Pet Pulse, contributed to the print version of this story.
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