Opossums may not have any greater defender than Dawn Summerlin, who fiercely fights the many misperceptions about North America’s only marsupial.
The Buellton woman rehabilitates opossums, giving them a new chance at life while advocating on behalf of the animal often disparaged as an oversized rat. They actually are related to fellow pouch-possessors such as the more beloved kangaroos and koalas.
After moving to rural Buellton, Summerlin became involved in helping wildlife and eventually volunteered with the Santa Barbara Wildlife Care Network.
She recalled her first rescue — a litter of five tiny opossums she had to feed through the night.
“I fell in love,” she said, recalling that she wanted to become a veterinarian, a career deemed less acceptable at the time for a girl in upstate New York. “The minute I put them in a pouch, brought them home and started hand-feeding them, my husband and myself fell in love with them right away. I just knew I had to take care of them.”
The retired nurse watched videos, took classes and became a member of the Opossum Society of the United States.
“It’s my passion. I have to take care of these babies, these little guys, and the adults,” Summerlin said while wearing a top covered with images of opossums and equipped with a matching face mask to don during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Founded by volunteers in 1988, the SBWCN continues to rely on them, according to Julia Parker, director of operations.
Home care volunteers such as Summerlin must meet the requirements spelled out in federal and state permits, and serve an important role in the nonprofit organization.
“Raising baby mammals can be an around-the-clock commitment,” Parker said. “Many baby mammals need to be hand-fed every two hours. Baby mammals need to be monitored and nurtured, which is time-consuming, especially during spring and summer when the center receives hundreds of animals that have been separated from their mothers.”
At one point earlier this year, Summerlin cared for 40 baby opossums, ensuring they were fed and medicated until ready for release.
“Dawn has developed the skills and expertise and observational talent to give excellent care,” Parker said.
Summerlin is quick to spout facts, mostly positive, about the misunderstood animals. They have a long history on the planet, and it’s believed they’ve been around since the Dinosaur Age.
An opossum’s tail — looking like a rubbery worm but actually covered in soft fur — is a key tool for survival, serving as a rudder when they swim, Summerlin said.
Playing possum isn’t a myth; they pretend to be dead as a defensive mechanism.
“They can do this for a couple of hours,” she said. “They want whatever they feel threatened by to leave them alone.”
Since they have low body temperatures, they also do not carry rabies or distemper like skunks or raccoons do.
Opossums often get blamed for destruction caused by masked bandits — racoons — or other critters. While opossums don’t dig in yards, they do climb and will eat overripe fruit.
Mice and rats make up 80 percent of the opossum diets. They also eat slugs, snails and crickets — “things that we really don’t want around us,” Summerlin said.
“They love ticks. That’s the latest thing they’re trying to tell people, that they eat thousands of ticks,” she added.
At Summerlin’s property, a number of cages, some indoors and others outside her facility, house rehabbing opossums of varying ages with heating pads to keep the youngest warm as they tuck into cloth pouches she provides them.
Often she ends up with babies because mom was struck and killed by a vehicle. The tiniest babies, or “pinkies,” can’t be saved, but any opossums with open eyes and fur have a chance at survival, she said.
Once an opossum reaches 7 inches in length measured from the tip of its nose to the base of its tail and weighs about 1 pound, it can be released.
While some wild critters thrive in herds, opossums are solitary animals, with mothers and joeys often separating upon release.
“With other wildlife like raccoons and skunks, it’s better to release them where they’re found if it’s possible,” she said. “But with opossums, they’re nomads. They wander all the time. They build a new nest every three or four nights.”
At her rehab facility, the opossums live in cages sitting near shelves of stuffed animals, pictures and signs — all related to opossums, of course.
“They really are a nice animal. They’re not mean. They want to be left alone,” Summerlin said.
Anyone who finds an injured or young opossum can contact the SBWCN helpline at 805.681.1080, with suggestions available by clicking here. Donations to the nonprofit organization also may be made by clicking here.
— Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.