I thought she was a Siamese kitten, rolling around and playing in the leaves behind my house. I thought, “Hmmm, who has a new kitty?” But then, in the dappled forest light, she morphed suddenly into her true self: Not a kitten but a possum. Not just a possum, but a small, female possum with eight babies in her pouch, each the size of a split pea.
Not just a young possum mother, but a possum mother covered in maggots, unable to walk, emaciated, with a prolapsed rectum. Not rolling in the leaves in play, but dragging herself on her side to escape the flies crawling all over her. I guess the possum gods were not done with me this summer. My fostered babies were gone and grown, but now this pathetic creature had found her way to my door. Evidently, there was more I needed to learn about possums.
I ran into the garage for a towel, then raced back down the hill to chase away the flies and gather the possum up in my hands. She was light as a feather, nothing but a small mound of bones and matted fur. Her eyes had that glazed, “I’m checking out of here really soon”-look to them. Several of her babies dropped away, dead. The possum was straining hard, pushing out her red bottom like an inverted melon. I did not know then that she was trying to force out the wad of parasites and worms in her tummy. At that moment, all I could see was her behind crawling with maggots.
Where to start when everything seems to be wrong? I gave her some fluids in a syringe, and eased her into a warm bath. In my hands I held an eyebrow comb and a toothbrush. Working as quickly as I could, I combed away the maggots, fly eggs, old scabs and old poop stains. I washed her gently with a mild shampoo, then toweled her off and sat down with her in my lap. This summer, I purchased a set of magnifying lenses you can wear on your head, like a jeweler. With them, I was able to find more maggots I’d missed, so tiny I could not see them with my glasses alone. I picked them away.
In the possum’s pouch, her three remaining babies were also covered in small maggots, which had eaten their way into the babies’ flesh. I pulled the tiny, embryonic, dying infants away. They were far beyond help. Their mother looked far beyond help, too, but my hands kept working away, of their own mind it seemed.
I had planned to spend that day preparing for out of state company. Instead, I spent it on the phone, on the Internet, and on the floor where I work best. I put a tiny drop of hydrogen peroxide into each open wound around the possum’s head and neck, flushing the bugs and eggs away. Along with all her other misfortunes, mama possum bore the marks of a recent scrap with a dog or some other biting creature.
Her skin felt and moved like clay, indicating severe dehydration. I kept offering her fluids in small amounts and she didn’t fight them. She had no fight left. But she had a heart—a big one, I would learn.
By evening, she had taken some food. I’d injected her with fluids to rehydrate her more quickly. The maggots and fly eggs were gone. She was resting quietly in a plastic tub on old fleece throws and an absorbent pad. I’d managed to get her anus back inside where it belonged.
That night, I talked to Greta, my possum team leader, about yet one more perplexing symptom I’d come across in the course of my maggot hunting. The possum was covered head to toe in hard, white bumps the size of the head of a pin. The bumps were under her skin, on and in her rectum, eyeballs, ears, lips, toes. She had hundreds of them, sort of like the bumps you see on a plucked chicken leg. Greta said she’d call the National Opossum Society, and see what she could find out, not just about the bumps, but about the proper medications for everything else we were dealing with.
When I finally turned off the lights that night for bed, I gave the possum a reassuring stroke on her bumpy head. She looked at me fixedly. She could not close her eyes. She could blink, but whatever those bumps were, they kept her from pulling the lids down over her eyes to sleep. I did not hold much hope that she would survive until morning.
But the possum gods had other ideas. Pepper the possum, was indeed alive the next morning. She seemed eager for some food. She had pooped in the night, and her feces were so full of worms of many kinds, the gooey pile could have walked away under its own power. Yech.
Company was coming in three hours, a friend and her son I hadn’t seen in years. I threw on my clothes and drove off to WildCare for medications, starting her on different wormers and antibiotics than what I had at home for emergency care. Greta suggested some Geritol for Pepper’s probable anemia. I brought home specially made frozen possum food, syringes, high-calorie food in a tube, and special care liquids to strengthen her.
My mind was in three places at once: With my husband, who had gone away for a week to visit his kids, with my girlfriend who’d be arriving for a week’s stay momentarily, and with Pepper. These days, my mind has a hard time being in even one place at a time. I felt fractured, foggy, and anxious.
Back at home, Pepper watched me with her ever-open eyes, yawned now and then, and gratefully gobbled up her medications like they were possum candy. She resisted nothing I did to her—not the injections, the butt probing, the fluids, or the quick rinse-offs when she messed herself.
I made her up a special lunch of possum food, yogurt, baby food, and grapes. She ate so loudly, her lips smacked. When she was finished, she made motions of pushing the food away. I finally realized she was making a valiant-hearted attempt to wash her face, which she could not quite manage. On the floor, she could go nowhere but creep in a tight circle. Pepper could not move her back end. Or much of her front end. Her head was too heavy to lift.
That evening, we got word from the National Opossum Society that Pepper’s many bumps and hardened skin were the result of a particular parasite inside of her. The possum expert emailed us, “You think the bumps look bad outside? Sorry to say she has many, many more inside, on her organs, her nerves, her intestines—everywhere.”
I was advised of some medication changes needed, and that if Pepper survived at all, it would be a long haul. The bumps would take weeks or more to resolve, and the die-off of the parasites, plus the liver-damaging medications, would take a hard toll on a weak, starved body. The parasites could also be the reason for her neurological problems. It would take a long time to tell.
My visiting friend, Debbie, came by for dinner with her son Max and they watched Pepper struggle her way through her evening meal. They took some photos of her. Then they looked at her hunched on her pink towel and said, “Wow, she looks really bad…” I wish I could have disagreed…