Possums Are NOT Puppies, But I Foster Them Anyway

I foster owls, beavers and other critters in addition to dogs. And let's just say switching back and forth between "wild" and "domestic" mindsets is a trip.


I’ve been working in the field of animal welfare for years, so I’ve been foster mom to many a dog and puppy. One of the major purposes of fostering dogs, of course, is to get them acclimated to living in our (human) world. It’s not just the shelter and food and basic care that a foster home provides -– it’s socialization, which is truly just as important to the dog’s long-term survival and well-being. Dogs need to learn to trust humans, to accept their care, and adapt to their ways.

This socialization aspect is crucial for every foster dog or puppy, but especially for orphaned, unweaned puppies. For example, I once fostered a tiny white puppy who came to me at the age of one week. Someone brought the puppy to the shelter where I worked, saying that the mother and all the littermates had died for unknown reasons, and this puppy was the lone survivor.

The puppy, who I named YaYa, was up against tough odds to survive, but she was a fighter. She had to be bottle-fed with puppy milk replacement formula and diligently kept warm. But also, as a foster mom, I had to try to replace the social care that would have been provided by her natural mother and siblings, as well as the human socialization that any puppy needs.

I took her to work with me at the shelter most days, and my personal “pack” of dogs nurtured and played with her at home, teaching her how to be a dog.

In another example, I fostered a Dachshund and her puppy with ringworm who had been confiscated during a puppy mill seizure. In my home, I kept them warm and fed, and carried out their prescribed ringworm treatments; but equally essential was petting, holding, playing, and interacting with them. They were destined to become someone’s pets -– no longer just breeding machines in a factory -– and they needed to acquire the social skills for their new role.

While working at the animal shelter, I also became interested in volunteering with wildlife. Let’s just say it was a huge jolt when I entered the world of wildlife rehabilitation, because the operational philosophies are a tremendous contrast with those of domestic animal welfare.

I began my training and volunteer work with a great organization, Clearwater Wildlife Sanctuary. Under the direction and mentorship of the licensed wildlife rehabilitator who headed the program, I earned the privilege of fostering orphaned baby birds, squirrels, and opossums. Additionally, I sometimes worked at the program’s headquarters sanctuary, which housed native wildlife from raptors to rabbits.

When dealing with wildlife, my goal was almost the opposite of puppy socialization: I was supposed to avoid taming the animals or habituating them to human contact. Ultimately, we aspired to release the birds and critters back to the wild once they were capable of surviving out there. They needed to remain appropriately wary of humans.

So, when raising baby songbirds, for example, I’d feed them with tweezers, approximating a mom bird’s beak, rather than with my own fingers, and I would not pick them up or handle them more than necessary to change bedding or clean their “nest.”

It was a difficult transition from one world into the other, requiring an entirely different mindset. I had the urge to “love on” all the wildlife. The doves cooed so invitingly, the squirrels were almost irresistibly furry, the opossums so curious and gentle. I wanted to make pets of all of them, and had to constantly remind myself that this was NOT in their best interest whatsoever. Indeed, if I truly loved them, I must not love on them.

Learning this lesson was hard, but the payoff was huge. When my first orphaned baby mockingbird grew up, he had changed from a helpless creature who was almost all hungry mouth to a fine fellow with the most perfect feathers I’d ever seen. When he was ready, and I released him into the wild, the feeling was profoundly fulfilling.

And so I revisited what I’d known on an intellectual level all along, and yet now experienced with my own senses and emotions. I realized again that wild animals are to be admired for what they are, and that a life of confinement or forced adaptation to human ways would only be a disservice to them.

Subsequently, I raised many wild orphans to the stage of release. The awe and wonder and sheer happiness of those moments never diminished.

The contrasts I experienced while working with wildlife also helped me appreciate anew our relationships with domestic animals. How our lives with dogs are so fully intertwined, according to the spectacular partnership that has evolved over all these hundreds and thousands of years we’ve spent as two species living side by side. Dogs and humans: We belong together.

Too often, in my years of working in the field of animal welfare, I’ve often heard a colleague identify herself as an “animal person” but not as a “people person.” Indeed, sometimes I have heard someone mention (almost proudly) that she doesn’t particularly like people. This field is actually a poor choice for someone who truly feels that way. It could only lead to feelings of hopelessness and cynicism.

Pets need people. It’s as simple as that, really. Humans are half the equation, half the partnership. Domestic animal welfare isn’t about the animals, really; it’s about animals and people together, the lives we share, and the bonds we create. Any work in the field must be based on some core of faith in those principles, and a belief in the will and desire of humans to do what is right for animals in their care.

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