When it comes to furry companions, a possum probably isn’t the first creature that springs to mind. A lot of animal lovers keep cats, dogs, gerbils, maybe even rabbits in their homes. But wildlife rehabilitator Sondra Allison specializes in possums—many of which have narrowly escaped becoming roadkill. Allison, whose volunteer gig has earned her the nickname Mama Possum, has a soft spot for these marsupials with the rope-thick tails. In fact, her own living room is home to Pepper, an enormous possum.
Still, Allison is careful to point out that the animals she cares for are not pets. They’re wild, and they’re kept in temporary captivity only until they’ve gained enough strength to be released. Even Pepper, who couldn’t be released because he’s blind, is officially not a pet but an “educational animal.”
Looking after wildlife is no easy feat. But as Allison demonstrates, the job does have its rewards.
Allison is practiced in jumping through the requisite hoops to get permits for the critters she nurses back to health. But getting official permission to keep Pepper indefinitely was a lot harder: It took a signed statement from the Brevard Animal Hospital, where she brings possums in need of care. “He wouldn’t last a day in the wild,” she reports.
Usually, says Allison, she goes out of her way not to touch possums she’s rehabilitating or let them get used to the sight of her, lest they lose their natural fear of people. “Otherwise, when they get released, they’ll walk up to the first human they see and get shot,” she explains. The possums, mostly babies who’ve lost their families, tend to start coming her way in early spring from the WNC Nature Center. The animals are kept in cages throughout her mobile home off the Leicester Highway.
For Pepper, life got off to a rough start. “His mom and the rest of his little family were killed by a car,” Allison explains. These days, however, the 9-pound marsupial is living the good life. His cage in Allison’s living room stands a good 3 feet tall—and she says, “We need to get him a bigger one.” Pepper likes to be handled and petted, but he seems far more interested in eating than in cuddling. When Allison breaks out a piece of cheese from the fridge—a considerable distance from where Pepper is moseying around her living room—he immediately thrusts his tiny, pink snout up in the air, his radarlike sense of smell compensating for his lost eyesight.
While she talks, Allison tosses Pepper some apples and fruit loops, and she says she occasionally feeds him scraps of salmon—gourmet fare for an animal that typically subsists on roadkill, salamanders, berries and garbage in the wild. Well cared for and protected from predators, he even gets to travel: Allison brings Pepper on educational excursions to teach youngsters about possums.
Those show-and-tell sessions are apparently highly enlightening for young audiences. At one elementary school, says Allison, “A kid raised his hand and told me he thought possums were supposed to be flat.”
Seeing Pepper up close gives students a new appreciation for animals, she notes. “Possums are one of the oldest creatures on the planet,” says Allison. The only marsupials found in North America, they won’t die from the bite of a copperhead or other venomous snake, she reports. But while they’re often able to evade predators by playing dead, a bite from a housecat can be lethal. The incidence of rabies in possums, says Allison, is extremely low.
Mama Possum rehabilitates nearly 100 animals a year; she’s been at it for more than a decade, since age 18. “I was a kid going on the wrong path, and my mom took me to a wildlife-rehabilitation center, where I started volunteering,” she explains. “I guess you could say it was my calling.”
Over time, Allison has gained a lot of respect for these creatures. “Next time you see one on the road, don’t think they’re just a dumb animal,” she says.
“They’re very good mothers. There was one who was hit by a car with seven babies on her back. She dragged herself all the way to the shoulder when she was mortally wounded. She was spurting blood out of her nose, and that means internal injuries. But I think it’s instinctive: She didn’t want those babies to be killed.”
Pepper, who suffers from digestive problems, has expensive special dietary needs. Anyone wishing to make a donation toward the care of Pepper or any of the wild possums in rehabilitation may contact Allison at firstname.lastname@example.org.