Pat’s Wildways: Possum Painter

By Pat Foster-Turley

I must admit I have very interesting friends here on Amelia Island. Take Sandra Baker-Hinton for instance. Sandra is a gifted artist who specializes in nature scenes, landscapes, paint pouring and all sorts of other artwork. But I know her for far more than her artwork. For years Sandra patrolled the beaches of Fort Clinch as a turtle volunteer, finding new sea turtle nests, marking them, and ensuring their successful hatching. Each year her artwork adorns the Turtle Trot T-shirts—I have a whole collection of these. She sometimes does artwork on commission too. If you want to find out more about her art, you can see some examples here, on her Facebook page, or by email at [email protected].

Sandra Baker-Hinton touches up the mural at Amelia Hotel at the Beach with a baby possum in her hair.

Many people know Sandra as an artist, but I wonder how many know about her animal rescue and rehabilitation work. For many years now Sandra has been taking in baby squirrels that have been separated from their nest, feeding them by bottle, and releasing them again to the wild when they are ready to go. A couple of non-releasable squirrels, with various medical disorders, also live with her and her husband Bruce. And recently Sandra contacted me about an opossum she is hand-raising.

So, one day I visited Sandra at the Amelia Hotel at the Beach where she is reworking their lobby mural. What was painted years ago by someone else as a Greek scene, she changed to a beach theme, and a few years later is now touching it up again. Of course, this new rendition includes sea turtles and the Greek goddess has been changed to a mermaid. Perfect.

But I didn’t go to visit her to see her art project. I wanted to see her opossum. And sure enough, there was Sandra painting the mural with a baby possum snuggled in the comfort of her hair. I never knew baby possums were so cute! Like many of us, I’ve seen plenty of adult possums roaming in my backyard at night and when Bucko and I were trying to live trap pesky rabbits from my vegetable garden we ended up catching more possums than bunnies. But I never thought the “cute” word applied to possums until I saw this baby, Sandra named Polly.

A baby possum couldn’t be cuter!

Virginia opossums are the only marsupial mammal, those with pouches, in the United States although there are many other possum species primarily in Latin America and Australia. Baby possums are tiny, and sometimes as many as 20 are born in a litter, but altogether they could fit in a teaspoon. At birth, the tiny infants must crawl from the birth canal to the pouch, where they are sheltered, suck on nipples and grow for about 10 weeks. Not all newborns survive this process, but those that do and outgrow the pouch climb on the mother’s back while she scavenges for food. Sometimes they fall off, and the mother, who probably can’t count, forgets about them and moves on. If they are lucky these castoffs find a nurturing environment with someone like Sandra who will raise them until they are ready to be independent and released to the wild.

Adult possums service our gardens at night eating insects, slugs, and rotting fruit.

Possums eat a variety of food items from insects and worms to fruit and rotting items they scavenge on the ground. In a garden, they are very useful, since they eat snails and insect pests. For these reasons when Bucko and I inadvertently catch a possum, we open the live trap and set them free to continue providing these services.

Although opossums can have up to three large litters a year the world is not overrun with them. Most possums in the wild live no more than two years and the many baby possums provide food for other animals further up the food chain. To protect against predation opossums can open their mouths showing their 50 teeth (more than any other mammal in North America) and make threatening sounds. If handled they can defecate smelly substances that are a real put-off. But if worse comes to worst they can play dead. “Playing possum” is a real thing. They even stick their tongues out when acting dead to make it even more realistic!

I am so happy that I got a chance to meet Sandra’s sweet baby possum. By the time you are reading this no doubt this critter has been returned to the wild, live and well. Thanks are due to Sandra for all she does to help our helpless wild critters and for the wonderful artwork she produces.

Pat Foster-Turley, Ph.D., is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations. [email protected]

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Noble Member
6 months ago

Opossums ARE fantastic little creatures! Another « service » they provide is tick consumption ! As they stroll through our yards, they attract ticks, which they then eat as they groom themselves. Another beneficial thing they do for US—helping to prevent the spread of diseases by ticks. I am rather fond of their « so ugly they’re cute » faces!! Thanks for the great article, Ms. Pat!!!