OSSINING, N.Y. – Arhan Dutta got an up close look at several animals at Teatown Lake Reservation in Ossining on Sunday, including North America’s only marsupial, the Virginia opossum.
During an hour-long program, kids, like Mount Kisco’s Dutta, learned how animals keep warm during the winter months. While humans wear jackets and gloves, fur and hair is what traps body heat for most mammals and keeps them warm, Elissa Schilmeister, environmental educator at Teatown, told a group of about a dozen Sunday.
While Miss Opossum, as Schilmesiter called her, has a thick coat of fur on most of her body, her ears and tail are exposed to the elements. As a result, she has some frostbite on her ear. She also lost her sense of balance as a baby when she fell through a ceiling tile in the Scarsdale Country Club and hit her head.
As a baby, opossums literally piggyback on their mother for a few weeks after birth until they fall off. They then go out on their own. Unfortunately for Miss Opossum, her mother was walking in an attic when she fell off. The country club got her to a wildlife rehabilitator, who then sent her to Teatown’s opossum specialist in Somers.
Eventually, she came to Schilmeister, another wildlife rehabilitator who specializes in possums and snakes. She put the now two-year-old opossum in a tall cage with lots of branches until she could be released to the wild.
“I found that she couldn’t climb above the first level. She’d fall constantly, even on the flat ramps,” she said.
As a result, she couldn’t be released back into the wild. Instead, she remains at Teatown, where Schilmeister said she acts as an animal ambassador for her species.
Sunday, kids admired Miss Opossum’s 50 teeth, opposable thumb on her hind leg and her curling tail, which lets her hang onto things. Schilmeister said this helps her in many ways.
“In the winter time, instead of walking on the ground, they’ll spend time up in the trees where it’s less cold; where there’s less now,” she said.
Opossums are scavengers. Often they scavenge for things that other animals leave behind. To keep warm in the winter, possums also put on weight, often by eating dead animals. The fat gets stored behind their eyes, which can make the mammal cross-eyed, like Miss Opossum, Schilmesiter said.
“I thought it was interesting,” said Dutta’s father Autri. “I really liked the upclose encounter with the animals and I think the children really liked the interactive nature of it.”
If you find an injured animal, call Teatown at 914-762-2912 for help finding a wildlife rehabilitator who specializes in that animal. You can also call Greenburgh Nature Center at 914-723-3470, Rye Nature Center at 914-967-5150, or your local veterinarian's office.