Oregon Zoo welcomes new opossum ‘Homer’ from Alaska

By Joni Auden Land (OPB)
Dec. 10, 2023 2 p.m.

Homer was born an outlaw.

The 7-month-old opossum is one of the latest arrivals at the Oregon Zoo. His journey to Portland covered three states and involved a monthslong search for loose opossums.

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The journey started in Washington state, where his mother snuck aboard a shipping container en route to Alaska. Opossums are considered invasive species in the state — potentially dangerous to native wildlife — and the state removes any that are found.

Homer the opossum is an ambassador animal at the Oregon Zoo.

Homer the opossum is an ambassador animal at the Oregon Zoo.

Courtesy of Michael Durham / Oregon Zoo

When authorities noticed his mother, named Grubby, on the streets of Homer, Alaska, about four hours south of Anchorage, officials from the state Department of Fish and Game tried for two months to capture her. The hunt garnered widespread attention, even inspiring the hashtag #FreeGrubby.

Eventually, authorities caught her and sent the opossum to a zoo in Anchorage — but that wasn’t the end of the story.

“Baby opossums started showing up at Homer City Hall,” said Kate Gilmore, an animal curator at the Oregon Zoo.

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During those two months on the run, Grubby had a litter of babies, called joeys. Fish and game officials ended up capturing five of the tiny joeys, and they were all sent to different zoos.

Homer, named after the city of his birth, ended up in Portland. Gilmore said Homer can help tackle misconceptions the public might have about opossums, North America’s only marsupial.

“When you hear of an opossum or you see one, it’s normally probably on the side of the road as roadkill,” Gilmore said. “They kind of get the reputation of just being these, like, trash eaters, and that’s really not true.”

Homer is the latest addition to Oregon Zoo’s ambassador animal program. These animals are often featured on the zoo’s summer stage, where attendees can get much closer to the animals compared to a normal exhibit and see how they behave.

“It’s a really great way to get guests really engaged, more so than you can get from just watching an animal in its habitat from the outside,” Gilmore said.

First, Homer will have to train to acclimate to the noisy, dynamic environment of a zoo. He’s never seen strollers or heard children scream, so the zoo has to see how he’ll react to those new experiences, Gilmore said.

Gilmore said she hopes Homer expands people’s views on what animals they can expect to find at a zoo.

“Having one on grounds here that we can introduce people to would help them understand a nice part of the local ecosystems,” she said. “A lot of people kind of overlook what’s going on around them.”

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