It's official. Barley the possum is a winner.
Soon he will appear as a calendar pinup in what may be a first for possums everywhere. Barley claimed first place in a cutest-pet contest that ended Dec. 1, sponsored on Facebook by Furever Yours Pet Rescue and Placement Services in Tampa. He raced to the top with votes from nearly 1,000 Facebook "friends."
Susan Laurenzi of San Diego is one. She was visiting her family in Hudson last spring when she fell in love with Barley's sweet face that accompanied an April 23 Tampa Bay Times story. Barley then went on the local TV circuit.
"I want to see him," Laurenzi wrote as she "friended'' Barley on Facebook. She followed his postings, which were actually from his owner, Lea Murray.
"I think he touches the humanity in all of us," Laurenzi said. "With his rescue story, he's like a little miracle."
People in Nepal, Honduras, Ontario, England, Australia and other countries have tuned in to Barley's story. On Dec. 14, he will be the featured guest at a Very Barley Christmas Party at East West Animal Hospital in Lutz. Donations will go to wildlife rescue and the National Opossum Society. Murray says that visitors will get information about the possum, North America's only marsupial and a critter — with 50 teeth and a prehensile furless tail — that's often misunderstood.
Barley was 5 weeks old when a car hit his mother. A passing motorist took her to Blue Pearl Veterinary Partners on Busch Boulevard in Tampa. The mother died, and only one of eight babies survived. He had an injured leg and only a slim chance of living. Murray, a veterinarian technician for 18 years, wouldn't give up.
Soon the little guy was nestling in the nape of Murray's neck and grasping her long blond hair. Murray planned to rehabilitate and release Barley, but it was apparent that his injury would prevent him from surviving in the wild. She received a legal permit to keep Barley from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
East West Veterinarian Dr. Linda Register helps care for Barley, who still has an uneven swagger.
Both Murray and Register are quick to advise against capturing a wild possum and trying to tame it. Possums rarely live longer than two years in the wild and average three to five years in captivity.
Laurenzi tried working things out to fly from California to meet Barley at the Christmas party, but her schedule didn't allow it. For now, she's content visiting the Facebook page, where just seeing his face gives her a boost.
"One day I will see him," she said. "He has touched my heart."