Instagram's Latest Pet Trend Is Giant Tree Rats with Spiky Teeth

Meet the brave souls trying to rebrand a most maligned, misunderstood vermin—by inviting them into their homes (and beds).

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Jun 6 2017, 3:15pm

Photo of Sprout via Instagram.

This morning, New Orleans–based artist and business owner Ally Burguieres woke up with an opossum next to her in bed.

For most people, this would result in sheer panic, horror, and most likely a frantic call to a pest control service. For Ally, it's happened almost every day for the last year and a half, when she first took a Virginia opossum under her wing and into her home—voluntarily. Sesame, who was found in the wild as a baby and handed off to Ally by a friend, has grown up as a family pet: He knows his name, walks on a leash, occasionally flaunts a costume or two, and each night lumbers up a set of doggy steps to sleep in the bed with his human keeper.

Ally isn't the only intrepid soul to invite North America's only marsupial into her home. She's not even the only one to dress up her domesticated opossum in costumes and kisses for social media. Sesame has a posse.

Among them are Poppy the Possum ("I dropped the o, deal with it" her IG bio reads, thumbing her nose to correct classification), whose owner shares her day to day with 31,000 Instagram followers. There's Sprout, who was scooped from the side of the road as a weak, dehydrated orphan and now poses in flower crowns. There's Joey, who is completely blind but also, incredibly, litter box–trained. "There's definitely a little but strong community of opossum caretakers, and it's so helpful because opossums' unique physiology and needs means I'm always seeking advice and guidance from others who have dealt with the same things," says Ally.

Like dogs, these opossums are house-trained, can walk on a leash, and sleep in the bed with their humans. Unlike dogs, a lot of people (me, for instance) still find their dagger teeth, grabby pink starfish feet, and bald, snaking tails really upsetting.

The people who invite these critters into their homes consider themselves animal rescuers and rehabilitators, though they talk about the animals in their care more like cooing parents of newborns. "Sesame is ridiculous—he's like living with a cat, a dog, and a dinosaur, all rolled into one animal," says Ally. "Joey is a little angel, truly," says Aradia, who rescued the blind opossum from a busy intersection last December. She now feeds him grapes, bathes him by hand, and sings him Spanish lullabies when he gets nervous.

"We always joke that Sprout is like a little bear," says Lauren, who scooped up her opossum from the side of the road where the animal's mother and siblings had met an unfortunate demise. Sprout's come a long way from her nearly roadkill roots: She kicks it with the family dog, enjoys licking her human pals' feet and hands, rubs her chin on new friends, and, it's worth mentioning again, uses a litter box.

Sesame, meanwhile, is house-trained to use puppy pads, answers to his name, and "will do anything for a treat," which Ally uses to coax him out into the open when he's tucked away in a hiding spot.

Joey, Sesame, Sprout all live a life more akin to that of a pet Chihuahua than a wild animal—though, of course, that's exactly what they are. Which presents its fair share of challenges.

Sesame has free run of the house, so Ally had to "opossum-proof" her home by covering up small holes or nooks where he could potentially get stuck, hiding strongly scented things like bars of soap and deodorant, which he'll attempt to eat otherwise.

I grew up assuming opossums were rife with rabies and mean as shit. Neither of these things are actually true—opossums are actually resistant to rabies and generally pretty terrified of predators like us—yet myths and misperceptions about the opossum abound. Those assumptions and deep-seated revulsions are exactly what this small cadre says they're hoping to combat, that in spite of their snarling crocodile mouths filled with far too many teeth (50, to be exact), their bone-chilling hisses, and of course, That Tail, opossums can be cute.

Ally, who earned an International Wildlife Rehabilitation Certification after taking Sesame in, calls Sesame an "educational pet" and sees him as an opportunity to boast about the beneficial qualities of nature's little tick-eating, rabies-resistant sanitation workers. Joey's mom adds that, when she takes him out in public (which is often), "some people are disgusted by him, others fall in love, and then [others] are intrigued; these are my favorite because it allows me to educate them on Joey's kind."

Maybe it's the magic of suggestion-tailored algorithms, maybe it's the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, or my own morbid fascination with these hairy little beasts, but when I open Instagram and am greeted with this, it reeks faintly of an internet subculture fad in its infancy. Will the opossum—in all its weird, quirky, instant-IG-cred glory—soon follow the path of the Shiba Inu or the tiny hedgehog? I ask Ally if she thinks rescuing and domesticating opossums for the 'gram is a trend. "I sort of hope not," she says. "Only because I think a lot of people wouldn't know what they were getting themselves into, and opossums require a lot of care."

Indeed, every single one of the opossum advocates I spoke with made one thing very clear: Not everyone can hang with an opossum in their house, and no one should snag the next opossum they see from the woods and force them into domesticity as a novelty pet. "They are sensitive beings that require medical examination, deworming, a good diet, and the list goes on," says Aradia. Lauren echoes this. "I don't think wild animals should ever be taken or captured from the wild, but I do believe that if a possum is orphaned or injured, rescuing it as a pet can be done," she says. "I think that having connections to wildlife vets or rehabilitation centers is very necessary if considering raising a possum."

In fact, the general advice from wildlife experts on keeping an opossum in your home is simply… don't. Marjan Ghadrdan, the director of animal care at the Atlanta Wild Animal Rescue Effort (AWARE) and the certification director for the International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council, says the best way to deal with an injured opossum is to safely contain it and promptly get it into the able hands of a legit rehabilitator. (She also notes that if it's uninjured, as long as the critter is longer than a dollar bill from nose to butt, it's old enough to survive on its own.) "You don't want to touch the opossum, if you can avoid it," she says. While opossums are generally non-aggressive, "it doesn't mean it can't deliver a bite, and the bite could certainly be pretty severe." (See: those 50 dagger teeth.) Instead, she recommends gently using a broom to push the animal into, appropriately, a trash can or bin, or sliding a piece of cardboard beneath a box, like you would a (giant, hairy, hissing) spider. "You wouldn't want to feed or water them; the best thing is just to keep them warm and quiet. Don't attempt to handle them," she says. She adds that taking an opossum into your care would prevent it from ever being able to live in the wild on its own. As to whether they make good pets? "They're wild animals," she says. "A healthy possum deserves to be free."

The opossum has gotten the shaft in a most epic fashion, from their basic design to the glut of fear-inducing falsehoods that exist about them. Most people still see them more as an unfortunate-looking, disease-riddled vermin and evolutionary mishap than a potential companion animal, and reversing that would take one hell of a rebrand. Yet, after immersing yourself in photo after photo of opossums snuggling their owners, sporting apparel, and snoozing beneath a dreamcatcher, the fear begins to dissipate a bit. You start to see the faintest tinge of cuteness in their whiskery snouts, and have to give them props for scarfing down ticks and actual venomous snakes, because that's pretty metal.

Still, you're better off admiring them from the safety of your bedroom window—and your Instagram feed.

Follow Gray Chapman on Twitter.

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