Spring is baby animal season, so when Mississippi wildlife rescuer Doug Pojeky gets a message about a dead possum on the road, he gets there fast.
He pulls his car over near the mound of flesh and fur, slips on a pair of white rubber gloves, gets out and looks both ways. He kneels down to confirm that the animal isn’t just playing dead.
Then, if it’s a female, he reaches into her stretchy, fur-lined pouch and searches for babies — because they might still be alive.
There’s a name for this: “Pouch picking.”
“A lot of people might think we’re crazy to save animals they consider to be dirty, nasty rats,” Pojeky says. “But possums — they’re very misunderstood.”
The baby possums Pojeky saves end up at Wild at Heart Rescue, which has headquarters on 20 acres in the southern Mississippi town of Vancleave. It’s certainly not the only wildlife rescue organization that fishes out possum infants from roadkill, but it has made the practice something of a specialty. Veterinary technician Missy Dubuisson started the organization, which also rescues birds, rabbits, turtles and other wildlife, in 2012. These days, she focuses on rehab: getting the animals healthy and strong enough to be released back to the wild.
That’s no small task. A big part of 50 volunteers’ job is pouch-picking and caring for whatever’s inside. On Saturday, Dubuisson said, the organization took in 40 possum babies in one day. On Wednesday, it picked up 100. By Thursday afternoon, 23 had been located, “and the day’s not over yet,” Dubuisson said. She said Wild at Heart rescues upwards of 1,200 possum babies each year.
“A lot of people don’t know there are animals in the pouch,” said Pojeky, 40, a retiree who spent more than 20 years in the U.S. Navy and now saves injured wild animals full time. “If they’re not rescued, they’ll starve or get hit by a car.”
You might wonder: Why save babies that will grow up into naked-tailed, garbage-rifling scavengers? That’s a question Pojeky, the group’s president, said he and Dubuisson get a lot.
For starters, possum advocates point out: They’re not rats. They’re marsupials that have inhabited North America for tens of millions of years, and they’re related to koalas, kangaroos, wombats and wallabies. They prey on venomous snakes, Pojeky noted, making the environment a little safer for humans. They very rarely carry rabies. They work hard at grooming, even if they always seem to be having a bad hair day.
Scientists at the Cary Institute for Ecosystem Studies in New York have found that possums consume the ticks they find while grooming themselves. According to one study, in a single season one Virginia opossum, as the species is formally known, can eat 5,000 potentially disease-spreading ticks.
Still, most people are squeamish about the idea of reaching into a dead possum, Pojeky said. “But the pouch is actually very clean,” he said.
It’s also roomy, so he might have to dig around to find the tiny pink-nosed babies inside. There could be a dozen of them. They can survive for days in the pouch even if their mother is dead. He searches the surrounding area for babies in case they’ve been flung out upon impact. Then he frets, he said, wondering whether others he didn’t locate are watching him walk away.
Surviving babies get transported in soft, snuggly pouch-like containers that Pojeky stockpiles in his car: tube socks, pillow cases and velvety, purple bags that used to protect bottles of Crown Royal whiskey. He also keeps on hand shoe boxes, receiving blankets and hand-warmers to keep the orphans toasty and safe. Before leaving a site, Pojeky moves the dead mother to the side of the road to prevent scavengers — such as vultures, raccoons, box turtles, bobcats, coyotes or foxes — from getting hit.
Once rescued, the babies are fed formula through tubes connected to syringes. When they’re strong enough to survive on their own, they’re released, usually in the area where they were found.
Dubuisson, 48, has a strong opinion about the spelling of words related to what she calls her “favorite animal on the planet.” The species name may be “Virginia Opossum,” she said, “but we just call them possums.” It won’t come as a surprise that she has no time for the “g” at the end of the word “picking,” either, when it refers to the pouch of a possum.
“We’re country down here,” she explains. “What we do is called ‘pouch pickin.’ I tell people during the spring season, ‘Y’all go pickin’ strawberries — I go pickin’ for pouches.’”
She said her organization aims to change people’s minds about possums. Dubuisson and Pojeky visit hundreds of schools every year to provide wildlife educational programs. The rescue has more than 12,000 followers on Facebook. Volunteers for the organization — a nonprofit that is funded by donations — help transport babies, spread the word and fundraise.
Dubuisson, who was born with spina bifida, said she connected with animals as a child. She would rescue orphaned wild animals, feeding them and keeping them safe in a shoe box under her bed, and returning them to the woods when they seemed ready.
“I couldn’t do a lot of things other kids could,” she said. “I spent a lot of time alone.”
She became a vet tech to help more animals, she said.
“We have people from all over the world — Quebec, Australia, Maryland — asking us about our techniques to save these babies,” Dubuisson said. “People are pouch pickin’ all over the world right now. It is crazy. But ‘possums are amazing little creatures. I love seeing this misunderstood animal that I love become an animal that people respect.”
Kitson Jazynka is a freelance writer, children’s author and animal lover in Washington, D.C.