Sarah Stoltenberg knows all about the contempt opossums inspire, because she disliked them herself at one time.
Growing up in rural Nebraska, Stoltenberg had the impression opossums were dumb, ugly, filthy creatures. Many people also fear the animals carry rabies.
Then she was assigned to work with an opossum named Orville in her job as an animal keeper at Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium and, wow, did her view of the little marsupials change.
Stoltenberg spoke Saturday to 13 members of the Omaha World-Herald’s Explorers, a group of high school students with an interest in journalism, writing, photography and video.
Two other animal keepers, Jordan Anderson and Jessica Conroy, also spoke to the group.
Stoltenberg was disappointed a few years ago when she was assigned to work with Orville. It seemed like a crummy assignment.
In her hometown of Cairo, in central Nebraska, people disliked opossums.
“It’s a backyard animal and everyone seems to hate them,” she said.
Orville was a rehab mammal, sent to the zoo after he had suffered an injury in the wild.
Stoltenberg had to learn about opossums to work with Orville. Orville also taught her things about his species.
She learned they are meticulous self-groomers and are clean. She learned they are bright and often out-perform rats and cats in maze exercises.
She learned they eat ticks and other pests. Not only do they not carry rabies, but they rid the environment of some insects that do carry diseases.
Stoltenberg spoke to several Explorers about her experience with Orville. He might have been picked up and dropped in the wild by a hawk, she told them, because Orville’s spine began to fail.
And so he had to be euthanized.
“I was a hot mess for about a week after that,” she said.
But opossums had become one of her favorite species. On Saturday she displayed to the Exploring group another opossum, named Ophelia.
“I’m sure they’re lovely, but I just can’t handle them,” said Kassie Kizlin, a Millard South junior.
Opossums are, in fact, odd-looking. Ophelia’s claws splayed, and her eyes were crossed. Her long tail was snake-like. That tail helps opossums with balance and to hang from tree limbs.
Ophelia lay passively in Stoltenberg’s arms. A few times she sat her down to roam about slowly.
Exploring students took photos and video of Ophelia and Stoltenberg.
“If you get to know any animals, they become cute and awesome, in a way,” said Colin Leick, a Fremont High School junior.
“I like what her tail does,” said Kim Mendoza, a Columbus High School junior.
Exploring, a co-ed program, is administered by the Boys Scouts of America. It is basically a career-exploration program for high school students.
Shruthi Kumar, a Marian High School freshman, and Samantha Aguilar, a Burke High School sophomore, said the visit to the zoo helped change their perception of the place.
They said they were unaware of the zoo’s conservation efforts and had newfound respect for the zoo’s mission.
The three animal keepers proved to be fine ambassadors for the zoo, just as Orville and Ophelia were fine ambassadors for opossums.