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Westmoreland Neighborhoods
Opossums protected by state law

Thursday, May 15, 2003

By Michael A. Fuoco, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Personnel at a Westmoreland County wildlife rehabilitation center plan to report to state game officials that an Arnold man beat an opossum to death with a shovel when it wandered into his yard on Mother's Day.

Mel Schake, information and education supervisor for the Pennsylvania Game Commission's 10-county Southwest Region, said he hadn't yet heard about the Arnold incident but, speaking generally, said people need to realize that wildlife are protected by law.

"Opossums are not the cutest, most attractive critters we have, but they are still protected under the game and wildlife code and you can't indiscriminately kill them," Schake said. "Generally, they are not aggressive animals, more inclined to run away, given the opportunity."

Jill Nadzam, rehabilitation manager of the Pennsylvania Wildlife Center, said personnel learned of the incident Sunday when the dead opossum, with 10 opossum babies in its marsupial pouch, were brought to the Verona facility by a man who witnessed the attack and unsuccessfully begged his neighbor to stop.

The babies were then transferred to another wildlife rehabilitation center, Kritter Kamp near Indiana, Pa., where the director, Ayn Van Dyke, set to work to save the babies, who are about 3 weeks old. The embryonic-looking babies, weighing about 15 grams and as large as a woman's crooked little finger, normally would have remained in the mother's pouch for 60 days until they grew fur and opened their eyes.

Despite Van Dyke's efforts, three of the babies died. Four others are being fed by tubes inserted into their stomachs. Van Dyke placed the other three into a rescued opossum mother, whose eight babies were old enough to come out of the pouch and who is now acting as a surrogate.

Van Dyke was repulsed by the attack on the opossum, the only marsupial native to North America. She noted the opossum is so nonaggressive that other than initially hissing and showing its 50 teeth, its primary defense is the slowing of its heartbeat and respiration to give the illusion it's dead -- hence the term "playing possum."

"People need to have some empathy. It isn't just an animal, it's a life," she said.

In Pennsylvania, opossums are listed as fur bearers, which like others -- raccoons, foxes, coyotes, mink and muskrat -- can be hunted with a license. The most recent fur-taking season was from Oct. 19 to Feb. 22.

Fines for killing wildlife without a license and/or out of season vary by species. Killing an opossum and some other animals carries a $100 fine while killing an elk has an $800 fine.

Schake said that just because wildlife may wander into a neighborhood doesn't make it a nuisance. A demonstrated problem must be shown before licensed wildlife agents can take care of the problem, he said.

Anyone concerned about wildlife in their area should call the game commission at 1-877-877-7137, he said. The game commission's Web site -- www.pgc.state.pa.us-- also has information.

"There are a number of things that can be done, short of taking a shovel to one of these things," he said. "We share the planet here. A level of tolerance is needed by everybody. Just because they're near us doesn't mean they want to hurt us or cause any problems for us."

Michael A. Fuoco can be reached at mfuoco@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1968.

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