The tale of "playing opossum" and the narrow escape from the cougar pen

Opossum escapes Nina the cougar by pretending to be dead

ROANOKE – There's been a narrow escape from a cougar pen at Mill Mountain Zoo.

One lucky marsupial made it out alive thanks to playing opossum, the animals’ only defense against the predator.

In fact, Nina the cougar, formerly belonging to Jack Hannah, now a permanent resident at the zoo-decided the small opossum would make a better playmate than a  snack, and set it free herself.

Nina isn't your average cougar. The 12-year-old mountain lion was donated to the Mill Mountain Zoo by celebrity zookeeper Jack Hanna, director emeritus at the Columbus Zoo.
She has lived her entire life in captivity and has become very fond of her zookeepers. You can even hear her purr when they are around.

"When she's around her keepers, we hear purring from her most often,” said Julia Franet-Hornbeck, a zookeeper at Mill Mountain.

Similar to a pet dog, she's even been taught to retrieve and come when called. When a zookeeper says the word “station,” she comes to a small platform and stands on top. It’s a useful trick that allows her keepers to examine her or even feed her.

Although she's got quite the demeanor of a domestic cat, Franet-Hornbeck explained her wild instincts are still there. That's why training is important.

"The training here is really to help better care for the animals in captivity,” Franet-Hornbeck said.

And in this case, training that helped care for any animals like the opossum that wander in to that captivity. But one little marsiupal's quick thinking, or pure panic may have saved its life.

It’s common for small native wildlife to go into the cage. Often, they become a meal for Nina. Somehow, the tiny opossum managed to make it out alive. After what zookeepers assume was a night of playing dead

One morning, one of Nina’s zookeepers spotted Nina with a opossum in her mouth. They quickly put her training to good use, calling her to her station to hand it over. Nina quickly responded and dropped the opossum by her station, then followed the zookeepers command to another area of the pen. In exchange, Nina received a rat, which Franet-Hornbeck explained is her favorite snack.

"She responded really well. She also was getting a better reward than that opossum,” Franet-Hornbeck said.
The zookeeper thought the opossum was dead, but soon realized it was only “playing dead.”

"It was apparent it did what it had to do to keep that predator from eating it,” Franet-Hornbeck said.

The zookeepers quickly called the Southwest Virginia Wildlife Center in Roanoke for help treating the opossum.

“This little opossum probably played opossum most of the night, which probably saved her life. It just shows that Nature knows what it's doing,” said Dr. Diana D’Orazio.

D'Orazio said when it finally woke up, it was terrified, clinging to D’Orazio. Somehow however, the tiny opossum was unharmed, escaping with only bruising and a fur full of nits which were quickly removed. Nina, well fed every day, apparently wasn’t hungry, and was only looking for a playmate. 


“When I had heard that Nina, and I know Nina pretty well, had gotten a hold of one I had very little hope you know that we would be able to do anything for this little opossum,” D’Orazio said. “But amazingly enough, Nina had really only carried it around. Hadn't punctured it, or broken any bones.”

"Yeah, definitely a lucky little opossum," Franet-Hornbeck said.

Beating the odds of survival, the tale of the tiny opossum and the big Mountain Lion turned out in the opossum’s favor. Much like David and Goliath, except without the slingshot or even the gumption to fight back, but instead an instinctual response to play dead. Somehow, this close encounter had a happy ending. 

D’Orazio was able to release the opossum later in the week, returning her to the base of Mill Mountain.

“This is quite a story. And don't you know she's got a story to tell when she runs into other opossums,” D’Orazio said.

Franet-Hornbeck said she suspects that little opossum won’t be back to visit Nina anytime soon.

"Maybe one day we will have our own resident opossum, but for now we are happy to know that one got a second chance at life," Franet-Hornbeck said.

A second chance that quick thinking, training and a little bit of luck made possible.

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