Q&A: Jeff Ashford talks opossums, biodiversity and venomous spiders

CAMERA SHY: Jeff Ashford poses with a common snapping turtle. Photo courtesy of Appalachian Wildlife Refuge

Jeff Ashford’s youthful curiosity about lizards and toads led him to a post-military job at PetSmart, before studying marine biology at MiraCosta College in California in the 2010s. Following a stint at Sea Life Aquarium, Ashford pursued his passion for parrots at the Sacha Yuca Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Center in the Ecuadoran rainforest.

“That’s how I really got my experience with wildlife, in rehabilitation and conservation,” Ashford says.

He took that experience in animal husbandry to the Macaw Recovery Network in Costa Rica, a pilot program for breeding scarlet and great green macaws, until the COVID-19 pandemic forced him to return to the U.S., temporarily sidelining his career.

“I was in Austin, working at dog kennels while the world was upside down, trying to figure out what was next,” Ashford explains.

In August 2021, he traded the Texas Hill Country for the Blue Ridge Mountains. “I had never been here, but I love the mountains and was fascinated by the biodiversity and biomes of North Carolina. When the opportunity at Appalachian Wildlife [Refuge] came up, I jumped on it.”

Below, Xpress speaks with Ashford about his work, the appeal of opossums and his unusual home pet. This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

You have worked with exotic creatures in exotic locales. What interests you about Appalachia?

To me, this area kind of epitomizes the North American wildlife. The biome is very suitable to what I and many think of as the animals of North America — the black bears, foxes, squirrels, hawks, all these beautiful species we are fortunate to have here. I got a taste of that in Texas, but Texas is not nearly as biodiverse as here. All the biodiversity here is beautiful.

Explain wildlife husbandry.

The term is derivative of the need to reproduce animals in the livestock industry. Husbandry in livestock implies you are getting these two animals together to reproduce, setting up their area and taking care of their needs. In the middle of the 20th century, when people started taking zookeeping seriously, they started to adopt the term, and it became less used for the reproduction of animals and more used for the daily care of animals — giving them their daily medicine, food and water, setting up their enclosures and taking care of all the things they need to be comfortable in captivity. That’s pretty much what a husbandry tech does. It can include reproduction, but across the zoo and wildlife world, husbandry basically refers to the care of the animals.

What type of wildlife comes to your facility?

We get larger animals, but the plurality of what we see are small mammals susceptible to being hit by cars and litters of mammals that get orphaned and displaced from their parents. Any of the animals you see killed on the side of the road are what we get a lot of. A good percentage of them survive that initial car hit, and hopefully we are able to get them recovered enough to get back into the wild.

What is the biggest threat to wildlife?

Suffice it to say that a lot of the animals that come in injured are injured due to human activity and humans in their area. We’re not out there trying to hurt them, but they get hit by cars or fly into our windows. The majority of things are not intentional, it’s just humans living their lives and not considering the environment and the animals living all around them. It can be something as simple as someone saying, “I don’t want this tree in my yard anymore,” and cutting it down, unaware there are a couple families of squirrels living in there.

How do you return orphaned babies to the wild?

Common gray squirrels are very able to go back to the wild after being hand-raised by people. After they reach a certain weight and level of maturity, they are just like a wild squirrel even though you’ve been syringe feeding them, handling them and looking them directly in the eye since they were a neonatal little cute furless thing. They revert right back to being wild.

On the other hand, if you take a bobcat kitten and raise it in the same way, that cat will become so habituated it will not know how to act in the wild. There are techniques we can use like covering our faces and doing what we call predator aversion training, which is where we intentionally make them afraid of other animals and associate humans with something bad.

Opossum sightings give a lot of people the creeps. Are they misunderstood?

Absolutely. We say in the business if opossum didn’t have those tails, they would have it so much better! It’s their big rat tails that turns everyone off. If they had a cute little cotton tail, they’d be so loved. When you rehab them and get to know their personalities, they are so gentle, sweet and intelligent. They are more apt to understand you are helping them than other mammals.

But their biggest selling point is they eat ticks in the wild — hundreds and hundreds of ticks. Who likes ticks? Even epidemiologists who study insects don’t like ticks.

Is there an animal that wildlife experts are afraid of?

I’d say spiders. Snakes are a close second. Even people in my field who work with animals and wildlife are afraid of spiders. I’m not, but a lot of my peers are. When you’re in a place like the Amazon, they are kind of hidden, and I have come uncomfortably close to very venomous spiders.

Do you have any pets?

I do. I have a small, white Chihuahua mix named Bean. She is 4 pounds and adorable. I also have an ambassador animal at my house from Appalachian Wildlife — an Eastern milk snake named Milkshake. She is a nonreleasable due to medical issues. So, she lives with me and when AWR does public events, Milkshake sometimes comes and kids can see and touch her.


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About Kay West
Kay West was a freelance journalist in Nashville for more than 30 years, contributing writer for the Nashville Scene, StyleBlueprint Nashville, Nashville correspondent for People magazine, author of five books and mother of two happily launched grown-up kids. To kick off 2019 she put Tennessee in her rear view mirror, drove into the mountains of WNC, settled in West Asheville and appreciates that writing offers the opportunity to explore and learn her new home. She looks forward to hiking trails, biking greenways, canoeing rivers, sampling local beer and cheering the Asheville Tourists.

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