While most Mississippians are beginning to have springtime thoughts of picking velvety magnolias and sun-kissed tomatoes, Missy Dubuisson is only thinking about picking one thing — possum pouches.
When Dubuisson — known to most as the Possum Queen — receives a message about a dead possum in the road, she knows she or a member of her wildlife rescue team needs to get there fast. They find the poor possum and confirm the animal isn’t just scared or injured and playing dead.
If it is a deceased female, they glove up and someone reaches into the possum’s stretchy and roomy, fur-lined pouch and searches for any babies that might still be alive. It’s no easy task, there can be more than a dozen and the pink-nosed babies can be as tiny as jelly beans.
That’s “pouch picking” and Dubuisson and her team of injured-critter-scooping volunteers do it all year round—especially in the spring.
“Baby possums cannot suckle and their mouths are sealed shut on a mammary gland in the pouch,” she said. “If their mommy is killed, we have to pouch pick to save the babies. And in Mississippi, baby season is pretty much year-round. With it being warm even through winter, babies are being born all the time. But our busiest time is Spring. When people are out picking strawberries we’re out picking pouches.”
She said possum math is just as serious as possum picking.
“If we check five deceased possums in one day we’re bringing home 35 to 55 baby possums in that day,” she said. “And it’s not uncommon for us to admit 100 baby possums in a day during peak baby season.”
And picking a possum’s pouch is just the beginning. Once rescued, the babies are fed formula through tiny tubes connected to syringes. When they’re strong enough to survive on their own, they’re released, usually in the area where they were found.
“I created a technique to get these babies fed where no one else has,” she said. “And we can go through five pounds of powder formula a day, but I got tired of rehabbers and rescues telling me I could not possibly save any of them under 20 grams of body weight and I set out to prove that you absolutely can save them.”
As a veterinary technician, Dubuisson started the Wild at Heart Rescue in Vancleave in 2012. She has about 50 volunteers on the 20-acre property who help rescue birds, rabbits, turtles, and other wildlife with the main focus on rehabilitation and getting the animals healthy and strong enough to be released back into the wild. The nonprofit is funded by donations and is state and federally permitted to possess wildlife for rehabilitation. The organization also has the only raptor flight training enclosure in the state, which is a massive 100-foot long, 20-foot wide, and 16-foot tall facility.
“Wild at Heart is my dream come true,” she said. “The Coast needed a rescue who wouldn’t discriminate against any species of wildlife in need and here we are. As a rescue, you cannot pick and choose which wildlife need help. We rehab all wildlife indigenous to Mississippi. We have hawks, owls, possums, foxes, raccoons, squirrels, and two hispid cotton rats all in rehab at this time. When animals are in need, we are there. I never expected Wild at Heart to be what it is today, it’s internationally known and we can assist wildlife all over the world through our amazing network.”
When Dubuisson and her team receive a phone call about an assumed abandoned baby animal, they try to educate people and many times through careful direction, babies are reunited with their parents.
“But in the event we cannot, we are prepared to take them in,” she said. “And we take them in by the thousands. When it is Spring, all of the babies are in bloom.”
If you do rescue an animal, Dubuisson said the baby needs to be in a secure, quiet, and dark spot, and do not offer food or water.
“That is very important,” she said. “Babies that are not stabilized and have not achieved adequate body temperature, cannot be fed. It will kill them. And also for people trying to raise wildlife on their own, it is illegal to do so in the state of Mississippi as well as detrimental to the well-being of baby wildlife.”
And that’s the kind of information the rescue organization uses to educate people in Mississippi about wildlife. The rescue team visits hundreds of schools every year to provide wildlife educational programs. Especially about possums because they prey on venomous snakes and make the environment a little safer for humans. They very rarely carry rabies and even if they always seem to be having a bad hair day, they work really hard at grooming and each animal has a unique set of individual fingerprints.
“Possums are the most misunderstood animal on the planet,” Dubuisson said. “Everyone thinks they are rabid, but their body temperature is too low to harbor rabies. Their defense is to show their mouth of 50 fanged teeth and drool. So people automatically think that makes them rabid. But they can’t have rabies. They are docile by nature. They are just loathed by many and I am going to educate on them until my last breath. People need to love them. They are just amazing animals.”
Unfortunately, Dubuisson and her team have had to add a new chapter to their wildlife education forte — COVID-19 and a possum named Matilda who passed away from covid last year.
“She came to us completely loaded with maggots,” she said. “I use Capstar to kill the maggots and thought she would need euthanasia the next morning. I wanted her to keep comfortable through the night. But the next morning she got up ready to eat and not a maggot to be found. She was with us right about a year until she actually died from Covid. She became an international sweetheart and people grew to love her and love her species. That truly made me realize that she, through her illness and injuries, touched the world. Now, we have to explain about covid and animals, too.”
And rescuing animals just comes naturally to Dubuisson. She was born with spina bifida and needed life-saving surgery at only five months old. As a child, she connected with animals and rescued orphaned wild babies. She fed them, kept them safe in a shoe box under her bed, and eventually returned them to the woods.
“I did everything in life that I was not supposed to,” she said. “I rode horses and had children, who have supported and assisted me their whole lives. My mom helps tremendously as does my sweet better half, Patrick. They are the wheels that keep this rescue rolling. To say I am blessed is an understatement. I was called to do this. It is an honor to fulfill that calling.”
So what about the future of Wild at Heart Rescue?
Dubuisson said that’s easy — her six-year-old grandson, Seth, is already willing for her to move over and let him have the reins.
“He is the future of this rescue,” she said. “I have four grandchildren but Seth is the only one who has actively rescued with me since he was very little. He’s the future of Wild at Heart and I know it will be in good hands.”
All photos submitted by Missy Dubuisson