Friday, June 17, 2011

The Truth About Baby Opossums and Human Breast Milk

This is not Kirstie Alley
I, like most people, am always on the lookout for opossum news. And yes, I have written about them before. But today I found this gem:

Kirstie gives possum her publicist's breast milk

Associated Press
Nov. 2, 2004 02:10 PM

NEW YORK - Publicists are expected to do anything a star tells them to do -- but does that include breast-feeding a possum?

It does if Kirstie Alley's your boss. Vanity Fair says Alley once brought her pet possum to an event and when it started squeaking because it was hungry, Alley asked her publicist, "Say, aren't you nursing a baby right now?"

Seeing the possum's teeth, the publicist refused to breast feed it, but she did express her breast milk into a bottle, which Alley fed to her pet.

End quote.

My, what big teeth you have!
This brings up many questions, a lot of which I admit to being completely unqualified to answer. But as a Los Angeles resident, a past foster mom to dozens of baby opossums, and the acquaintance of someone who did once work for Ms. Alley, I feel that I can answer some of them. And so, as a public service, I offer my take on this story.

Question #1: Did this REALLY happen?

I have no idea. Honestly, it sounds phony as hell to me. But Kirstie Alley is a bit eccentric, and she does keep a lot of animals in her house, so I guess anything is possible.

Question #2: Aren't they called opossums, not possums?

Correct. Saying "possum" is like calling a mosquito a "skeeter". And using it in an article is called bad journalism.

Question #3: Could an opossum drink human breast milk safely? 

I'm going to go with "probably" on this one, because I believe a definitive study is yet to be done. Of course opossum milk is the best thing for baby opossums, but I can't see any reason why human milk would harm them short term. A much better choice would have been baby opossum formula though. And yes, there is such a thing!

Question #4: Actually, I was wondering if it would be safe for the human.

We are super cute and rabies-free!
Oh! Well, again I'm going with "probably", even if she had been foolish enough to try to clamp the joey to her nipple. Opossums do have a mouth full of sharp teeth but they don't suckle the way a human infant does. In the wild they actually swallow the very long nipples of their mothers and stay clamped there until they are old enough to move around on their own. In captivity this means that they must either be tube fed, or, when they are old enough they will lap from a spoon or dish. A note of caution here: tube feeding babies is for trained wildlife professionals only! The tube must be carefully inserted into a very tiny stomach (avoiding the lungs) and a very small dose of milk must be administered with a great deal of precision. Don't try it at home!

Question #5: Don't opossums carry rabies and other nasty things? Why would Kirsty Alley have an animal like that out in public?

Opossums are wild animals. They should not be pets. And they are capable of contracting rabies, but at a much lower rate than most other animals. This probably has to do with the fact that they are marsupials, and as such have a lower body temperature than other North American mammals. They are simply not very hospitable hosts to most common diseases. That said, the best place for an opossum is in your yard, not your house. They are excellent mousers, ratters, slug and snail eaters, and all-around do-gooders. As to why Ms. Alley had one, I won't even hazard a guess. 

For more opossum facts, check out The Opossum Society.


  1. I'll probably complain less the next time my boss asks me to take out the garbage.

  2. One can only wonder how these rumours get started but as always I enjoyed your article they are always informative and entertaining.

  3. So gosh darn cute! Very well written and timely blog. :)


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