The drama began to unfold about 6:30 a.m. Tuesday in the center divider of northbound Interstate 5 near El Toro Road.
There, as stalled motorists watched in fascination, an unidentified man got out of his 4-wheel-drive Bronco and tried to stand in front of an injured young opossum so that it wouldn’t bolt into traffic.
The man was soon joined by California Highway Patrol Officers Paul Golonsdki and Alex Varela. Together, the three tried to prod the opossum into a cardboard box.
It wasn’t easy, said Officer Ken Daily, a CHP spokesman. “The thing was really hissing and snapping, so nobody was really going to get close and check him for broken bones.”
Eventually they succeeded, but their next concern was what to do with a boxed opossum.
“They were going to call (county) animal control, but they knew what would happen; they would put this thing to sleep,” Daily said.
(The county has routinely killed opossums, including more than 3,600 in 1986, because the animals can carry a potentially fatal virus. They are not endangered and can be legally hunted.)
But the officers didn’t really want the opossum killed, Daily said. Neither did the man with the Bronco. He offered to take it to San Clemente’s animal shelter which keeps animals alive as long as they are not seriously ill. The man left before he could be identified.
Unfortunately, the opossum was dead by the time it got to the animal shelter. “There were no visible open wounds. . . . We assume (the animal was) hit by a car,” shelter manager Roberta Gorny said.
But shelter workers got another surprise.
The opossum was female and inside her pouch were three healthy, furless, rat-tailed, 2-week-old baby opossums who continued to nurse off their dead mother.
So Gorny called an expert, Laguna Beach veterinarian Drew J. Barras, who rehabilitates injured or orphaned wild animals.
Barras volunteered to “foster” the opossum babies at his home--keep them warm, feed them around the clock, and eventually, if they got strong enough, release them back to the wild.
Barras, 36, has done this sort of thing many times since graduating from veterinary school in Mississippi in 1982. Still, he was not prepared for the size of the baby animals.
“I expected to see possums that
weighed a couple of pounds each--nasty, little, mean things that I’d have to throw food to. . . . I didn’t envision them this young. They can’t weigh more than a couple of ounces each.” All three, he said, “fit in the palm of my hand.”
Barras said he plans to keep the baby opossums in his bedroom in a small box lined with hot-water bottles. About every 3 hours, he will use a syringe to feed them a mixture of a milk substitute and egg yolk. After 2 weeks, when their eyes open, he will put them on solid food, probably cat food.
For the next 3 to 4 months after that, Barras said, he will keep the young opossums in a bucket--"kinda like staying in mama’s pouch. I’d kinda like to give them that atmosphere.”
Though the baby opossums are healthy now, “the toughest time is the first few days” after their mother’s death, Barras said. Baby opossums are “not ones to nurse bottles,” he pointed out.
But late Tuesday, one question about the orphaned opossums had been answered: their sex. Barras has determined that two of the possums are females and one a male.