Our first good deed of 2010 on New Year’s Day

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On the afternoon of the first day of January, my wife and I scrambled to get a few outdoor chores finished before the snow arrived. The temperature had already dropped into the low 20s, so we were anxious to get things done.

As I carried garbage to the compost pile, I noticed that our small dog was showing more than normal interest in one of our open-ended sheds.

Pippy

Pippy’s self-appointed job is to patrol the grounds in the vicinity of the house. He’s only a 14-pound Chihuahua-Jack Russell mix, but he hasn’t met a deer or critter he won’t confront.

Pip is especially adept at detecting snakes; he even has a special “snake bark.”

But in the frigid weather of New Year’s Day, I knew it couldn’t be a snake. I ignored him. But I couldn’t ignore my wife’s sudden yell when Pippy started barking.

“Hurry! Get up here right now. There’s something you’ve got to see.”

I could tell from the urgency in Linda’s voice that she meant business. I hustled toward the house, immediately suspecting the worst — a frozen water pipe. But Linda was standing just outside the middle shed.

A ‘possum

“Pip’s cornered a ‘possum, and it has something around its neck,” she told me, pointing.

Sure enough, a small ‘possum was backed against the wall, snarling and hissing and showing all its 50 teeth. It was trying to look ferocious, but I’ve dealt with opossums a few times, and their act is typically worse than their bite.

In fact, this guy’s performance was more comical than terrifying. I hoped that maybe Pip’s excited barking would cause it to roll over and play ‘possum, but no such luck.

I’ve seen bigger dogs send a ‘possum into unconsciousness, but Pip just doesn’t inspire fear. So we put him in the house, I got a pair of gloves, and Linda grabbed a towel and a scissors.

Distressed

The ‘possum was clearly distressed. It had a plastic six-pack ring around its neck, and the fit was snug.

“Hold it down with the towel while I cut the ring,” Linda suggested.

But I had a better idea — one that wouldn’t result in either of us getting bitten. I grabbed the ‘possum by its prehensile tail and then wrapped the towel around its muzzle. Holding a ‘possum by its tail renders it pretty much helpless.

“It’s so little and cute,” Linda sighed.

I agreed. It must have been born late in the summer. Its naked ears were a mottled pink and black, and they were perfectly intact. I didn’t tell Linda, but I doubted it would survive the winter.

“What’s it doing out in this cold weather?”

“Probably hungry.”

I explained that ‘possums do not hibernate. Instead, they den up during days of severe winter weather.

Special affinity

Linda and I have a special affinity for ‘possums, ever since we raised a litter many years ago. A friend had found a road-killed female with four babies in her pouch. I couldn’t resist myself, and I agreed to raise them.

We hand-fed those babies and handled them until they were as tame as kittens. They were with us from spring until just before the following Thanksgiving, by which time they were living on their own, abandoning us and the dog food we kept on the porch.

The ‘possum wiggled, and I grabbed the towel to keep its teeth away from Linda’s hand. One quick snip, and she was able to pull the offending plastic ring from its neck.

The ring had not yet become embedded in flesh, as frequently happens with these rings, but it was snug in the matted fur.

The ‘possum was free. I gently set it down in a pile of leaves, and after a few seconds, it scurried toward a hole in the back of the shed.

Wintering in the shed

I suspect it may be wintering in the shed. Though open on one side, the inside of the shed is well protected from the wind, rain and snow. And among the stacked firewood and dried leaves, there are many places to hide.

We felt good. New Year’s Day, and we scored our first good deed for 2010.

About the Author

Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. Send questions and comments to scottshalaway@gmail.com. You can also visit his Web site, http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com. More Stories by Scott Shalaway

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