An Emotional Support…Opossum?


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You’ve heard about emotional support dogs, cats, and sometimes even other animals. But opossums? One woman says yes. In fact, when she rescued one opossum, it rescued her. And then it went on to provide emotional support to many others, humans and animals alike. Can you believe it? It’s true.

About Opossums

Opossums are a group of over one hundred species of marsupials native to the Americas. They’re wild, but many have made themselves at home in urban areas, much like raccoons, skunks, foxes, and coyotes. These nocturnal omnivores are about the size of a house cat, with an appearance that’s part mole, part rat, and part, well, we don’t know what exactly.

Between their long, ratlike tail, glowing eyes, and big teeth, few people would describe opossums as “cute.” However, they are very beneficial to whichever of the many possible environments they happen to be inhabiting.

An opossum on a fence, facing the camera
Image: CC SA 2.1 Austraila, by drcyrus, via Wikimedia Commons

First, opossums clean up their surroundings by eating a variety of things humans would rather not have around, including carrion, slugs, and insects. They’re one of nature’s sanitation workers. Also, they compete with rats and cockroaches for food, so they keep the population of those dreaded pests down. Additionally, they are more or less immune to rabies — unlike skunks, raccoons, and foxes, which are rabies carriers. Finally, if you run into one, it probably won’t go on the attack. These little guys prefer to “play possum,” that is, to pretend to be deceased until the threat — you, in this case — gets bored and goes away.

All in all, opossums are a wonderful thing to have in your garden. But few people would put them in the same part of the cuteness spectrum with puppies and kittens. Perhaps that should change.

The Story

Barley the opossum cuddles with human friends.
The image is a screenshot from the featured video.

Vet Tech Lea Murray was working as the emergency supervisor at an animal clinic in Tampa, Florida when a woman brought in a pair of opossums that had been hit by a car. The opossums turned out to be mother and son. The mother, sadly, passed away. However, Barley, who was a baby, only had a hurt leg. Murray, a vet tech with 15 years of experience, decided to take him home and adopt him.

The first two weeks were difficult. Murray researched online to see what to feed an orphaned possum, and how. She ended up feeding him puppy formula through a tube, every three hours, around the clock. Eventually, Barley graduated to a bottle, and then, to solid food.

An Uncommon Opossum

Barley the possum cuddles with his human, Lea Murray
Image: Instagram

Hand-rearing turned Barley into a very uncommon opossum. Opossums are wild animals, and not exactly cuddly. However, Barley seemed to love and crave human contact. Murray was able to house train her new friend, and he used body language to tell her when he needed to “go out.” He slept in a bed inside Murray’s house and even used his prehensile tail to pull the blankets around himself when he slept.

An Emotional Support Opossum

One day, a woman brought her dog into Murray’s clinic to be euthanized. The woman’s heart was broken. Murray asked her if she’d like to hold Barley. After cuddling with the opossum, the woman thanked Murray for making the worst day of her life a little bit better. And that’s when Murray knew that she and Barley had a mission.

For the rest of his life — opossums live one to three years in the wild, and up to five in captivity — Barley came to work every day with Murray. There, he acted as an opossum ambassador, changing people’s perceptions of his species. He also comforted pet parents who needed a cuddle.

Over one hundred people came to Barley’s first birthday party, and when he crossed the rainbow bridge, people came in from all over the United States to see him off.

Her First Opossum, But Not Her Last

Aspen and Keebler, rare white opossums
Image: Instagram

Murray later went on to adopt Kricket, an orphaned female opossum. Kricket not only goes to work with Murray, but also visits schools, children’s homes, and other venues, to teach people about opossums.

Eventually, Murray went on to start her opossum rescue. You can learn more about Kricket and Barley in the video at the end. You can also follow Kricket and Murray’s other possums on their Instagram.

And if you want to know more about Barley’s story, you can read his very own book.

The front cover of the book Barley: a Possum's own Story
Image: Amazon

Think You Might Want to Adopt an Opossum?

Think again. You can’t just go out and catch one, and make it a pet. In many areas, it’s illegal to make a pet of wildlife. And in most cases, it’s a bad idea for the animal, and for the human who makes this mistake.

Lea Murray is a trained veterinary technician, who had 15 years of experience when she met Barley. Barley was orphaned and would have died on his own. Murray made sure to get the proper permits to keep Barley legally, and did the research necessary to keep him healthy and safe. Even still, Barley wasn’t always an easy pet, and he retained some of his wild ways for his entire life.

A white possum climbs a person's leg
Image: Instagram

If you want to get up close and personal with an opossum, or any other kind of wild animal, the best way is to look for volunteer opportunities with wildlife organizations. With training, you could work with a wildlife rescue, and help injured and orphaned wildlife to eventually return to nature. Or you could become a docent at a zoo or animal sanctuary.

Wild animals need us — they need us to be respectful and to allow them to live their lives undisturbed. But sometimes, when the circumstances are right, our paths cross in the most amazing, and inspiring ways.

Featured Image CC0 by daynaw3990, via Pixabay

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