Opossums are, ultimately, tropical animals. Out of over 100 opossum species in the world, nearly all live in the hot deserts and rainforests and Central and South America. Opossums aren’t equipped with adaptations for surviving winter: they can’t hibernate, and they have naked feet, tails, and ears that are highly susceptible to frostbite.
Our native Virginia opossum is stubborn little survivor and, over thousands of years, managed to create a life for itself even in parts of North America with very cold winters. Due to climate change and the loss of large predators, opossums can now even be found in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and even parts of Canada! Still, winter is a rough time for them and the majority of wild Virginia opossums don’t survive their first winter. Those who do survive often lose tails and ears to frostbite— ow!
You can give a helping hand to your local opossums by providing shelters in the form of nesting boxes and insulated pet houses. There is no specific model or company that we recommend, but as a general rule, an opossum will enjoy using any shelter made for cats or any large mounted nest box such as those intended for wood ducks. There are many commercially available products available, as well as guides to building them yourself with inexpensive materials.
Thank you to everyone who looks out for their wild neighbors during this season of giving!
This beautiful Eastern box turtle was spotted laying eggs in Fairfax, Virginia. Fortunately for her, the photographer left her and her eggs alone. Many other reptile moms aren’t so lucky: often, a person will find reptile eggs and will move them either indoors or to a different outdoor spot. This is often fatal for the developing embryos.
There are a few motivations people have for moving reptile eggs. Some people may simply want the experience of “raising” reptile eggs. Well-meaning people worry that the spot the mother chose is inconvenient or unsafe, perhaps too close to an anthill or a pet. But a mother reptile has powerful instincts that guide her to the right spot for laying her eggs, even if it doesn’t make much sense to us.
One factor that influences a reptile’s egg-laying site is temperature, and this is something we humans may get wrong. When moved to a place where it is too warm or too cool, the eggs may decay or fail to develop at all. A sunny spot may look ideal to a human, but if the spot gets hotter than about 95 degrees, the developing embryos will die.
A mother reptile may also know something we don’t know about predators in the area. Perhaps you think your dog is a threat to turtle eggs but the turtle may have selected your yard because she knows it’s safe from the armadillos and skunks on the other side of your fence.
Even these considerations aside, reptile eggs often die simply from being handled. Reptiles don’t turn their eggs like birds do, and the embryo can easily become detached from its yolk if you turn the egg on its side or upside-down. This can happen accidentally even if you’re careful.
Please leave reptile eggs where you found them and don’t intervene or kidnap them! If you know of a situation where reptile eggs absolutely must be rescued— such as a box turtle nest in field that is about to be plowed— please contact a rehabilitator who can safely incubate, raise, and release the little ones.
Let’s work together to let mother animals have their young in peace!
Happy Turkey Day! What a great day to be thankful for the turkey and all it does for us. The wild turkey is a keystone within the ecosystem of North America. As we recall every year, wild turkeys and other native fowl helped countless generations survive famine after famine. They’re also an important food source for nearly every natural predator in the U.S., from foxes to bears!
While most humans don’t depend on wild turkeys as a life-saving food source anymore, they still save human lives. Turkeys eat even more ticks than opossums and lizards, sometimes consuming 200 or more in a single day. This helps to prevent tickborne illnesses including Rocky Mountain spotted fever, tularemia, Lyme disease, and countless others.
While you’re enjoying your Thanksgiving— preferably safely!— please take a moment to be thankful for our magnificent native animals. We’re all part of the same world, and depend on them without even realizing it!
‘Tis the season! In winter, raccoons enter a hibernation-like state called torpor and will spend most of the season curled up in their cozy dens, resting and staying warm.
For most raccoons, especially youngsters who have recently left their mothers, an attic looks like a ideal den. They’re dry, warm, insulated, and inaccessible to larger predators like coyotes. A female raccoon also instinctively knows that this same den will be ideal for raising her own kits next year. Perfect!
The problem is that this arrangement doesn’t work out so well for raccoons or for us. Through no fault of their own, raccoons can cause a lot damage with their pee, poop, and chewing. This often leads to them being relocated— which they do not survive— or being killed.
Please take a moment to prevent this from happening. Make sure that there are absolutely no entrances that raccoons or other animals can get into your attic. There should be no gaps or loose pieces soffits or eaves, and your chimney and vents should have secure caps. Be sure that any windows are securely shut with no large spaces. Be sure to also trim back any branches that could give raccoons an easy route to access your roof. Putting strong-smelling compounds like Vicks vaporub or vinegar near all possible entry points can also help make it inhospitable through winter.
If you do end up with unwanted guests, please don’t kill them! Humane hazing through bright lights and loud noises can get the critters to move out on their own, and you can make sure their entry points are all closed once they are gone. We can coexist with our wild neighbors as long as we take steps to prevent them from mistaking our homes for safe dens.
You may have read about (or met) people with savant syndrome. Formerly called “idiot savants,” people with savant syndrome have significant learning disabilities but also display exceptional intelligence at times, often to the shock of those who underestimate them. Opossums are the natural world’s own example of savant syndrome!
If you were to look at the brain of a Virginia opossum and didn’t know better, you would assume they were among the least intelligent animals on Earth. Their brains are only one-sixth the size of a raccoon’s and one-fifth the size of a cat’s, giving them one of the lowest brain-to-body ratios of any mammal. An opossum’s brain is also very smooth, lacking the network of folds and grooves seen in most intelligent species.
Interestingly, an opossum’s brain completely lacks the structure known as the corpus callosum, which connects the two halves of the brain and is largest in intelligent animals. In humans, a missing corpus callosum is considered a serious birth defect and is associated with a high rate of learning disabilities (and many noteworthy cases of savant syndrome!).
Because of its unique and primitive brain structure, the opossum does have traits that make it seem unintelligent. They tend to move more slowly than the quick scurriers that dominate the forest, and they don’t always react instantly to changes in their surroundings. Opossums are non-aggressive and not as curious or adventurous as raccoons or coyotes. They also don’t live in social groups or work cooperatively, and mother opossums are notorious for forgetting how many babies they have (something almost no other mammals do).
Despite all this, opossums actually excel in intelligence tests. In one study, scientists tested opossums’ ability to remember where food had been hidden, and they scored even higher than cats, rats, dogs, and rabbits. In another study, opossums demonstrated that they can solve maze puzzles faster than cats and rats. Scientists have also documented the opossum’s ability to recall specific smells a full year after being exposed to them.
Nature is full of surprises, and humans are only just beginning to learn the mysteries of the mind. Perhaps one of the opossum’s gifts to humanity is in showing us that we still have much to learn, and need to respect the sentience and intelligence of every living creature.
Look at this bizarre-looking cutie pie! This is a chuck-will’s-widow. It looks like a weird new Pokemon, and— just like a Pokémon— it says its name! Like its close cousin the whippoorwill, the chuck-will’s-widow is rarely seen because it’s nocturnal and well-camouflaged. If you’re lucky, though, you may hear its characteristic high-pitched call at night.
Chuck-will’s-widows are in big trouble, with their populations steadily declining in recent years. Habitat destruction, especially of the shady oak and pine forests where they usually nest, is a big threat to them, while climate change and pesticide poisoning are additional threats. Outdoor cats can also be a danger to the youngsters during their first few weeks of development.
You can help protect chuck-will’s-widows and other native birds, especially if you’re fortunate enough to have these special birds in your neighborhood! Please keep your cats inside and limit your use of pesticides. Support local sanctuaries and nature preserves (like, in our area, Chattanooga Audubon Society and Reflection Riding Nature Center). We can work together to help keep our native birds safe!
If you’d ever seen how quickly our raccoon patients can devour twenty pounds of acorns or forage through six inches of fallen leaves for bugs, you’d understand exactly why there’s no need to “clean up” the gifts trees leave us in autumn!
Many native animals in our area cannot survive winter without the bounty of nuts, acorns, and other seeds falling from trees in fall. These high-fat, high-protein foods help animals like deer, raccoons, opossums, turkeys, and even bears fatten up before the annual famine, while animals like squirrels, chipmunks, and jays depend on storing enough to last the entire season. When we bag them up and send them away to be composted or burned, all of our wild neighbors miss out!
Fallen leaves are also essential for the survival of wildlife in winter. Turtles, frogs, salamanders, and beneficial insects and microbes need the warmth and shelter they provide, and scavengers and predators, in turn, need to eat these smaller critters to make it through winter.
Even branches and twigs that fall from trees are very important. Brush piles and fallen branches act as shelters for many mammals, including raccoons, turkeys, opossums, skunks, rabbits, groundhogs, quail, and songbirds. Bear in mind that— while leaving brushpiles alone is generally fine here in Southeast Tennessee—it may be unsafe in certain seasons and areas due to fire risk, so check with your local authorities to be certain.
If you must “clean up” whatever your trees are dropping this time of year, please sweep or rake them into a pile but leave them alone without burning or shredding them. You can be a savior for your local wild animals simply by letting trees do what trees do!
Several people have asked if T’challa, our nonreleasable bobcat ambassador, still has his claws. Of course he does— big, razor- sharp ones! His claws could easily cause serious injury, and that’s one of the many reasons that we don’t allow him to be handled or played with by the general public.
All other bobcats that have been at For Fox Sake were released to the wild after rehabilitation, with their claws and teeth intact and exactly the way nature made them. That’s precisely what they need to climb trees, hunt their prey, and defend themselves.
Bobcats need their claws for proper balance because they are digitigtade, meaning they walk on their toes. Declawing amputates the toe past the last knuckle, leaving bobcats (and any other declawed animals) susceptible to arthritis and chronic pain. A declawed bobcat is also much more dangerous than a bobcat with its natural claws, because they are much more likely to bite in self defense. Some organizations and pet owners solve this problem by also removing teeth, but removing teeth unnecessarily is also extremely cruel.
Even if we wanted to declaw our bobcat patients and ambassador, we wouldn’t be able to! USDA law prohibits licensed wildlife exhibitors from declawing or defanging exotic cats, and nearly all licensed wildlife veterinarians refuse to perform routine declawing of wild animals.
Those adorable fuzzy toe beans pack powerful weapons inside them, because that’s what nature intended! None of the wild animals at For Fox Sake are pets, and we value their health and happiness above our own convenience. Please respect wild animals for the natural and potentially dangerous creatures they are.
Cross foxes and grey foxes are easily confused! The description of “grey with a red outline” applies to both, but they’re actually completely different species (both of which occur naturally here in Southeast Tennessee).
The cross fox is actually a red fox, the species most people are familiar with. When a red fox carries genes for partial melanism (more pigment in certain parts of the body), the colors distribute to create dark grey to black marks around the face, legs, and tail, and in a cross-like shape in the back and shoulders. A cross fox’s chest and belly will generally be gray to black. The rest of the body remains the typical red-orange seen in most red foxes.
Like other red foxes, cross foxes white-tipped tails and wooly fur on their paws. They may been seen with their relatives or mates, which may be typically colored red foxes or melanistic (“silver”) red foxes. Cross foxes are very rare here in the South, but more common further north, where they’re believed to comprise nearly one third of Canada’s red fox population.
Gray foxes are a completely different species from red foxes, including cross foxes. As a much older and more primitive species, they are more cat-like in their build and facial structure and have retractable claws used to climb trees. They do not mate or socialize with red foxes of any color.
The key characteristic of a gray fox is its black-tipped tail, which never occurs on any color morph of red fox. The gray portions of a gray fox’s fur will usually be lighter than a cross fox’s, and the red accents on a gray fox’s fur usually extend to the legs and feet. Gray foxes also usually have white markings on the chin, chest, and belly.
Have you ever seen a gray fox or cross fox in the wild? We’d love to see photos!
Humans aren’t the only animals who experience pandemics. In recent decades, racccoons and many other wild animals have been massively afflicted with canine distemper, an extremely contagious virus that passed to wildlife through unvaccinated dogs. We saw lower-than-average rates of canine distemper in wild raccoons this year, but had a sudden spike just in the last week. These animals have been particularly concentrated in Hixson and Red Bank.
The biggest indicator, for us, that an animal has canine distemper is that the finder will usually describe its behavior only as “something’s wrong.” Symptoms of canine distemper can be very vague and the animal may simply seem “off.” It may approach humans fearlessly, stand around looking confused, or make odd, repetitive motions. It may drag or repetitively lift a limb, which can often be mistaken for a broken leg. Many raccoons with distemper will bare or smack their teeth. As the virus progresses, the animal will usually become blind and experience seizures.
No one likes to hear this— and we hate that it’s the case— but no wildlife rehabilitator can treat canine distemper. It is extremely contagious and bringing just one raccoon with the virus into a rehabilitation facility can quickly wipe out every single patient in care. Forcing a raccoon through any attempt at treatment is also very cruel, since the disease is painful and has a near-100% mortality rate even with weeks of intensive care. The extreme few raccoons that have ever survived it have had lifelong disabilities and a very poor quality of life. We believe that suffering animals deserve humane euthanasia, and we cannot risk our other patients’ health and safety.
For that reason, if you have found a raccoon with distemper in the Chattanooga area, please call animal control to arrange the animal’s trip to the Rainbow Bridge. That is McKamey if you are in city limits and Humane Educational Society if you are elsewhere in Hamilton County. We know that it is painful to “give up” on a sick animal, but the animals depend on humans to help them pass peacefully, and it is the only fair and humane thing to do in these cases.
The best way to prevent canine distemper in raccoons is to remove all food sources from your property. We believe this specific outbreak of canine distemper started about seven weeks ago when a group of wild raccoons fed nightly by a Chattanooga resident began getting sick one by one. Raccoons fed by humans often overcrowd at feeding sites and exchange viruses with each other and with other animals. This is one of many reasons that we strongly discourage the public feeding raccoons.
Finally, please make sure your pets are vaccinated! Canine distemper is not contagious to humans, but can spread to unvaccinated dogs, even without direct contact. Please check with your vet to make sure your dog’s vaccines are up-to-date and that your pup is protected.