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Pogo Goes from Pot to Pet As A Whole Family Plays Possum

By Rosalie E. Leposky

A small quivering creature fell from a large-leaf begonia plant into my family one autumn Sunday afternoon.

At first I thought the three-inch-long ball of fur with the long hairless tail was a rat. I took a closer look, and realized it was a baby oppossum. We named it Pogo after the late Walt Kelly’s cartoon creation.

Pogo turned up in a back-porch potted plant when he was dropped there during a tiff between his mother and a neighbor’s cat.

The find delighted my children. “Let’s keep Pogo,” chorused our children, Marjory, then 4˝, and Teddy, then 2˝.

George, my husband, had his doubts. I phoned our friend, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, an author and environmentalist, who once had nurtured an oppossum.

Primitive and Resilient

“Possums are primitive and not very smart,” she said, “but they’re remarkably resilient. You should feed yours cat food and table scraps and give him water every day. He won’t become tame. He will bite, so you mustn’t handle him. He’ll be ready to survive in the wild when he’s about a foot long, not counting the tail.”

Credit:George Leposky

We put Pogo in a borrowed wood-and-wire-mesh cat carrier and fed him a few spoonfuls of cat food and some water. He devoured his first meal with us and every one thereafter, consuming whatever we offered except fish, cooked chicken, and lettuce. He grew especially fond of fruit.

Until his teeth developed, I had to cut up his portion and peel his apples. After eating, he washed his face in feline fashion with his front paws.

To prepare Pogo for the wild, we supplemented his diet with grasshoppers, palmetto bugs, and earthworms. I found myself seeking out these lowly creatures. One day it rained heavily and a horde of wriggling worms invaded our driveway. Teddy was afraid to pick up the worms, but he helped me collect them by pointing to them and shouting, “For Pogo, Mama!”

Like our two cats, Pogo learned his feeding times, sitting at the cage door awaiting dinner. When he was small, I could set his food on top of the cage while I opened the door. Later he learned to push his food off the cage top, showering himself, the cage and the floor with its contents. He would lunge impatiently for the dish as I placed it inside.

As he grew, his jaws sprouted an array of teeth. I began wearing heavy gloves whenever I opened his cage. Because the teeth looked formidable enough to pierce the gloves, I held him off with a book while I set his food inside.

Surrogate Pouch

During Pogo’s first weeks in captivity, he seemed grateful to have a substitute for his mother’s pouch – a children’s shoe box turned upside down. He hid and slept in it, and climbed atop it when he felt sociable. He also had a security blanket – a square of soft, worn dish towel. When he outgrew his security blanket and the small boxes, he started nesting in the newspaper on the floor of his cage.

Every week I laid down an inch-thick stack in sections which could be removed some at a time as they became soiled and smelly. The Wall Street Journal fit best, but I have no evidence that exposure to its contents made Pogo a financial wizard. He merely burrowed into it, always keeping a light layer of stock listings or bond quotations over his head for privacy.

At first Pogo would “play possum” when I cleaned his cage. In this docile state he could easily be slipped into a 1.5-quart apple-juice can, which Marjory held. She occasionally stroked Pogo’s tail or a bit of his fur protruding from the can. When he outgrew the can, I used the book to confine him at the back of the cage while I pulled the old paper out and quickly slid a fresh supply beneath him.

Except for Marjory’s timorous touches at cage-cleaning time, none of us handled Pogo. We treated him as a wild animal. This frustrated the children, who didn’t always understand why they were allowed to pet the cats and not the possum. I worried that one of them would forget or another child would open the cage out of curiosity and be hurt, but Marjory and Teddy were careful to warn their friends that “Pogo bites!”

The marsupial’s behavior when startled reinforced this warning. He fluffed up his fur like an angry cat, bared his teeth, and uttered a soft, almost inaudible hiss – the only sound we heard him make.

Yet, as long as Pogo felt secure within the confines of his cage, he seemed not to mind the presence of people nearby. If one of us placed a hand against the side of the cage, he would lick our fingertips. Several times I saw Marjory and Pogo nose to nose, sniffing each other through the mesh.

Oppossums are nocturnal. Marjory complained that the click-click of Pogo’s claws as he climbed around his cage kept her awake at night. During the day he slept, curled up in a ball around his belly, or sprawled on his back with legs and tail outstretched, using a mound of newspaper for a pillow. Adjusting his biorhythms somewhat to our own, he arose at an unpossumly hour to await dinner and delayed his morning slumber to accept breakfast. When the children were playing in Marjory’s room during the day, he often peered from his nest as if to share in their activities.

Liberation Time

About three months after Pogo’s arrival, he was a foot long and ready to survive outdoors. By this time he was eating a can of cat food a day. Although we never intended to keep him longer than necessary, we found ourselves conveniently too busy to release him for almost two weeks. Then one night, saddened at the thought of turning out a member of the family, we carried his cage to the woodpile behind our garage and opened the door.

I expected Pogo to bolt to freedom. Instead he stared at the gaping door for several minutes, then tentatively poked his nose out and nibbled at some of the grass. As soon as his four feet were on the ground, I took away the cage. Still he stayed close to us.

Credit: George Leposky

Marjory and Teddy were chanting “Bye, Pogo!” at a scarcely calming decibel level, yet he continued to sniff about at their feet. We finally decided to leave him alone to accustom himself to being free.

George and I went to the woodpile an hour later and found Pogo perched atop it. “He’s crying,” George pointed out.

The following morning Pogo was nowhere in evidence. To ease his transition to foraging, I decided to set out a dish of cat food and fruit at dusk for a few days. That evening and the next, Pogo strolled from the depths of the woodpile to consume his dinner without apparent concern at our presence. On the third night after his release, he failed to appear and his food was untouched overnight. We haven’t seen him since.

Were we right to release him? I think so, even though we all missed him. To keep him permanently caged and isolated from his own kind for our pleasure would have been an act of cruelty. With no evidence around the neighborhood that he fell prey to a dog, cat, or car, I believe he just went exploring and found a new home. Or perhaps he realized in his primitive way that he could only be truly liberated by abandoning his ties with us.

In any case, Pogo is free – and I am glad.

Rosalie E. Leposky is managing partner of Ampersand Communications, a news-features syndicate based in Miami, Florida.

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