Somewhere around Asheboro, North Carolina, is the unsung, original rescuer of Heidi the possum, who became internationally known for her crossed eyes and goofy smile. Heidi’s recent death in a German zoo made international headlines, but the person who originally brought her to the North Carolina Zoo’s Schindler Wildlife Rehabilitation Center never knew the role they played.
In fact, nobody really knows who originally saved Heidi–likely from her mother’s pouch by the roadside. She was one of nine possums from different litters rescued in 2008, says Halley Buckanoff at the center.
Rehabbers try only to take orphans of any species, but it’s sometimes hard to tell if the mother is just looking for food. With the possum, you’re going to be pretty sure because the babies cling to the mother or rest in her marsupial pouch. So, normally when somebody brings baby opossums to a rehabber the mom has been hit by a car, Buckanoff says.
Normally, these possums would not be a zoo attraction. At the North Carolina Zoo, they never saw the public (and Heidi’s eyes weren’t crossed then). The rehab center doesn’t have a display license, Buckanoff says, because they want the animals that staff and volunteers treat to return to the wild.
North Carolinians don’t think of possums as any great treat, either. The state hunts them as both a fur bearer and game animal. They give people the willies–especially when they mistake a garbage-foraging opposum for a giant rat. But state wildlife officials say that the most common interaction is to hit one with your car.
In January 2009, these nine possums went on a trip to the Copenhagen Zoo in Denmark. It’s a huge zoo that has some hands on exhibits for kids. From there several possums went to Odense Zoo. Somewhere along the line somebody fed Heidi way too much and she got fat. (She was fine when she left North Carolina, Buckanoff says. The fat is why her eyes were crossed; she had fat behind her eyeballs. Soon after her arrivial in the Leipzig Zoo in December 2010, a photo in the Bild brought her international fame–and a strict diet. Since Europe doesn’t have any native marsupials, they’re fascinated by possums.
So, the next time you see a possum by the road, know you could be saving a future international star.
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Read about another Here’s my wildlife rehabber that takes in possums.