Houstonia's Wild Animal Outbreak

After a possum wins its freedom, an era ends at Houstonia House.

By John Lomax April 3, 2014

Walter was the first of the Tortie Sisters to be trapped.

So over the past month or so we've had an outbreak of feral cats here at the Houstonia House on Heights Blvd. It started with three gorgeous torties who took up residence under our porch while in the late stages of kittenhood, which quickly, before we could catch two of them, turned into young womanhood. (Deputy art director Alese Pickering managed to snag one on Mardi Gras day, took her home, and named her Tuesday.) By the time the remaining Tortie Sisters went into heat, the food we'd been putting out was already starting to attract a few more cats, including a tomcat or two. Or maybe five or 10—we never got an accurate head count.

One of the most persistent gentleman callers was a big gray-and-white fellow with the notched ears of many combats. A week or so back, he was one of two males chasing Walter, one of the remaining Tortie Sisters, and having his wicked way with her.

Things were spiraling out of control. At its peak, we saw as many as five cats simultaneously, with new arrivals almost daily, and this number would soon grow, as we were pretty sure the Tortie Sisters had gotten knocked up. With the assistance of SNAP, we started trapping them.

We got one tomcat first, then each of the Tortie Sisters. We left the trap out to try and snare the other toms, but the next morning the trap contained an unwelcome guest: a fat possum, whose teeth were entangled in the wires of the trap.

"Those teeth were the first things I saw this morning," recalled Pickering later in the day. "I knew we had trapped something and when I lifted the towel, I thought I would see another cat in there. Instead I got an eyeful of possum teeth. The mouth, when open, is probably seven inches long and the teeth were mean looking! He was so stiff I thought he had died hours before. Turns out he was playing possum."

A coworker cut the wires and freed his teeth, but the possum just grabbed ahold of the bars with his little hands and refused to let go -- neither when I poked his fingers with a stick nor when I attempted to blow air into his nostrils. (I vaguely remembered that dogs would let go of sticks when you did that, but why I thought it would work on a possum's hands remains a mystery to even me.)

No, he would not be dumped out of the back of that trap come hell or high water—he just gazed at us, unblinking, his mouth agape, displaying all 50 of those evil teeth, his little fingers wrapped around those bars in a death grip. I assured him his imprisonment was only in his mind, but my pep talk was to as little avail as my human-mouth-to-possum-nose trick.)

I Googled our dilemma and read that they can get dehydrated when they have their mouths open like that. BING! IDEA! Maybe if I lifted his cage up and poured some water on his face, some of it might get in his mouth and it might also getting him to let go of the bars. 

With associate editor Peter Holley's assistance, this plan was put into effect, and lo and behold, it was working. The Possum let go of the bars and starting sliding out of the cage, but before he got all the way out, he got hold of another set of the bars. I repeated this beneficial waterboarding experiment and he slid a little bit more towards freedom, but once again, grabbed a hold of another rung in the trap.

Just then the lady from SNAP arrived on the scene, and here we were enacting a marsupial version of a Gitmo atrocity. She was kind of appalled. "Why don't you just leave him alone and let him figure out how to get out of there?" she asked us. Holley and I slunk off in shame, but returned to check on the possum every now and then.

Meanwhile, Grizzled Old Gray Tom headed over to his old stomping grounds, assessed the situation and ran away to the other side of the porch, where he plumped down on the stairs, slumped his shoulders and assessed what he had just seen.

I could read his thoughts. "Man, just last week this place was rockin'. Wet food, dry food, sisters in heat, other dudes to fight. Now the food's all gone and that last cat in that trap is truly heinous and seriously insane. Later days, Houstonia."

He hasn't been seen since. The Tortie Sisters found a new home with web producer Dan Derozier. The possum got out. We stopped putting food out and the traps are gone.

So ends the era of Houstonia's Wild Kingdom.  

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