Co-written and Photographed by Bill Coyne and Dana McCuller
I can’t define any one particular moment where it all began. Like any kid, I had my curiosities with bugs, lizards, and just about anything else I could find in a typical suburban neighborhood backyard … before being sidetracked with tinkering on go-carts or hanging out with my friends. Perhaps it was when I was 15 years old and was attempting to sneak back into the house. I leaned down to pet our cat, who was munching on some food at the front door. That’s when I heard an unfamiliar growl. When I clicked on the porch light, my own scream scared both the opportunist opossum and myself, which in turn woke mom.
Nature is fascinating. I wish I had the passion to learn more about animals then, as I do now. I believe a lot of the desire to learn stems from witnessing the fear and ignorance of humans play out in regards to helpless animals. It has driven me to give animals a voice and a chance at life that they may not have otherwise.
I don’t think twice about stopping in the middle of the road to help a turtle cross safely, or to hurry along a beautiful water snake into the grass as I snap a couple of photos.
My wife and I have both been fosters for Lake Charles Pit Bull Rescue for a few years now, and our fascination with wildlife has drawn us into rescue work as well.
One morning in early April, I was at a customer’s location when they alerted me to a baby opossum that has been lying in the ditch, cold and wet, for hours. Mom wasn’t coming back and this little guy wasn’t going to make it on his own.
A female opossum carries her young, as many as 15, in her pouch. When the babies get too big to pack into the pouch, they’ll hang on to mom’s back as she travels and scavenges for food. If mom gets startled, she will run along, and babies sometimes get left behind. That’s what I believe happened with this little one.
Normally, this baby would have been transported to Suzy Heck at HeckHaven, a wildlife facility in South Lake Charles. However, being early spring, I knew that she was already overwhelmed with babies needing her care. Unfortunately, we lost Ms. Suzy this spring, and her passing has left some pretty big shoes to be filled when it comes to helping our local wildlife.
I am not one that can encounter an injured or orphaned animal and simply walk away and let nature run its course. Myself and my friends, who help me do this, all do what we can to help the animals survive and thrive. We always try to provide the best care possible and to learn what we can along the way.
The big no-no in all of this is that you cannot make these animals your pets. When rehabbing wildlife, release is always the goal, which means human interaction must be kept to a minimum to prevent the animal from becoming desensitized to humans. Of course, some handling is required to track their weight, evaluate their physical health, and for feeding and cleaning.
That is how Salt’s story began. He was a young male opossum that was cold, wet, and orphaned. He was too small to be released back into the wild, too underweight to withstand the elements, and he never would have stood a chance against any predators.
For the first couple of weeks, I created a cozy spot in my garage, where the temperature and environment was ideal for both of us, as frequent hand feedings were needed. In preparation for better weather, I began building a coop outside, where he could transition easily as he grew and became acclimated to the weather and temperature.
While caring for Salt, we made frequent trips outside, allowing him to take his time strolling through the grass, snatching up a few bugs, and climbing a bush or two. He was learning to be a opossum. Salt is naturally photogenic, so I took advantage of the photo ops these outings provided and used them as an opportunity to show others that opossums aren’t animals to be feared. They aren’t disease infested creatures, as some believe, and the fact that they eat ticks, snakes, any many other pests, makes them beneficial to have around.
Each animal definitely has its own personality and characteristics, and as the weeks went by, his popularity grew. You can’t help but to form a bond with these animals when you’re spending so much time feeding and caring for them, and watching them grow, but I always knew the end result would be letting him go. I’m not going to lie, I wrestled with this. Should I turn him loose to the elements, or should I protect him and limit him from doing what he’s instinctually driven to do? In the end, if I didn’t release him, then I didn’t do what’s best for him, and it would have made it more complicated for me to be able to help another opossum down the line. This is why we do this, for them.
Release day arrived. He had been giving me signs for a couple of weeks that he was ready to be out on his own to tackle the world. Well, at least to tackle as many bugs and dead animals as he could eat. I lifted him out of his coop, brought him around to the family so they could say goodbye, and I placed him at the edge of the field. I really wanted it to play out like it does in the movies. You know the scene, where you set him down, give him an emotional, hesitant nod, and he looks back as if to say “thank you” before he runs free, as harmonious music plays in the background.
Yeah, well, that didn’t happen at all. Salt took a couple of steps, sniffed every twig and blade of grass within a foot, and then plopped down in the mud. I choked back a few tears, and tried to swallow the lump in my throat as I walked back into the house. After about 20 minutes, I used a flashlight to see if he was still close by, and sure enough, he was. He didn’t get very far, but at least he was heading in the right direction. I turned back toward the house, and that was the last I saw of him, but I know that he’s out there, living large.
Although his photos garnered a lot of likes and attention on social media, I didn’t realize how many people he touched until I posted his release. People were in disbelief that I had let him go, and some cried along with me. He was a huge benefit, both to opossums and to humans, by simply showing people that opossums are so much more than just an animal crossing the road, getting into your cats’ food, or stealing a few chicken eggs. They are an important ecological factor, and once you get down to their level, you’ll see that they’re really just cute animals trying to do their thing.
Editor’s note: Both Dana and Bill are poised to become certified wildlife rehabbers once Louisiana resumes providing licensing.