The tiny baby's odds of survival were slim. At four weeks, he was alone, his mom and siblings snuffed out by a car. It's likely the baby possum would have been a vulture's meal — but for the actions of one motorist and the unpredictable events that followed.
In the spring of 2012, a woman retrieved the dead mother possum from the road and took her to Blue Pearl Veterinary Clinic in Tampa. The baby was scooped from the marsupial's pouch where he nursed. He had a fractured leg. Recovery seemed unlikely.
In stepped Lea Murray, a registered veterinary technician with 15 years of experience, determined to give the wee possum a chance. The Massena, N.Y., native never dreamed she'd become attached to the little fellow. And no one would have imagined how the possum would thrive with her, become a regular at Applebee's and Tijuana Flats (in the outdoor patios, of course) and celebrate his first birthday party recently with more than 100 attendees and raise more than $1,200 for wildlife rescue through donations and T-shirt sales.
Along the way, the little fellow is educating those, like me, who have erroneous ideas about his kind.
"They're misunderstood and under-appreciated," said Murray, 41, who has a permit from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission for keeping the possum.
For starters, the furry little fellow needed a name. Murray's two cats, Chowder and Porridge, have soup names, so "Barley" fit the little possum perfectly.
The first two weeks were tough. Murray fed him puppy formula every three hours through a tiny tube after online research gave her detailed instructions, including diet, for an orphaned possum.
Barley graduated to bottle feeding and imprinted firmly to Murray. And she fell for the little critter, even though people tend to be repulsed by his kind because of possums' scraggly appearance, rodentlike tails and their tendency to bare sharp teeth — they have 50 of them — and hiss when approached. When threatened they'll often go limp and, with closed eyes, feign death, thus evoking the familiar phrase "playing possum."
Possums rarely earn positive reactions and begs of "Can I hold him one more time?"
But it happened to me. Hugging Barley close, I stroked his soft fur and enjoyed the tickle of his stiff whiskers while he sniffed my face. I was surprised by his innocent eyes and gentle cuddliness. I didn't want to let go.
Barley wrapped his tail around a chair arm, creating a firm tug when I tried to shift the 12-pound critter. Possums don't use their tail to hang upside down, though.
"Barley actually uses his tail to pull blankets over himself," Murray said.
Barley has also mastered housetraining. As we talked, he became antsy.
"He's telling me he's got to potty," Murray said, explaining that possums are very fastidious.
Outside, Barley took care of business, and with possum swagger returned to the porch, passing up two doors and on to a third that he knows is his entrance.
Barley eats fresh food, pet food and occasional treats like yogurt and cottage cheese. He loves a slice of cheese pizza, which Murray gives very sparingly because she is conscious about keeping him on a good diet.
Lifespan for possums is about three years in the wild, and up to seven in captivity. Hugging Barley close, Murray said, "We're planning a world record."
Murray is in the process of moving from Wesley Chapel to the Citrus community of Beverly Hills, where she recently started working as practice manager for Countryside Animal Clinic. Dr. Linda Register, veterinarian at East West Veterinary Hospital of Lutz, and Murray's previous employer, still helps with Barley's medical needs.
Register and Murray emphasize that possums are wild creatures and never should be mistaken for pets. Attempting to capture a possum for a pet is strongly discouraged.
"The intent is always to rehabilitate and release," Register said, advising that anyone who finds an injured possum should carefully take it to the nearest vet clinic where trained professionals can administer care.
Barley is a rare exception. With his unusual circumstances and Murray's professional training, the two are good "possum ambassadors," working to educate people at community events and provide a personal glimpse of a common animal, usually only seen in the wild.
"Every day, he makes my day," said Murray, tucking tired little Barley into bed with soft blankets.