February 22, 2006

W.Va. Woman Told to Stop Rescuing Opossums

PARKERSBURG, W.Va. (AP) - The Division of Natural Resources has told a Parkersburg woman to stop rescuing orphaned baby opossums because possessing wildlife is illegal in West Virginia.

Sarah Stapp heard from the DNR after her efforts to save baby opossums that had lost their mothers were recently publicized in newspapers across the state. The 42-year-old former science teacher cared for the orphaned animals until they were about 50 days old, and then returned them to the wild.

Stapp has kept several opossums as pets because they could not survive in the wild. She obtained special pet permits for them.

While it is legal to keep some wild animals as pets, West Virginia does not allow wildlife rehabilitation, except at two licensed facilities that work with raptors or endangered species. In October, the DNR destroyed 60 raccoons being kept by a Berkeley County woman.

Rehabilitation is not allowed because of concerns about disease and the animals' acclimation to humans, said Paul Johansen, assistant chief to DNR's wildlife resources section.

"I'm sure she was operating in entirely good faith," Johansen said of Stapp.

Stapp currently has no wild opossums because the babies don't usually appear until April. She worries about what will happen to the next batch of orphans if she cannot help them.

"If I took in the baby opossums, I could be prosecuted. I'm not a lawbreaker. I'm more than willing to comply with whatever law they pass, but the question is what to do with all these babies between now and then," Stapp said. "I'm afraid if I took them in, it would force the DNR to take action against me. That's not me. I don't want to break the law. This isn't just about me, it's about everyone who helps wildlife, game animals, songbirds, all of it."

"There are a lot of little lives on the line," Stapp said.

Delegates John Overington, R-Berkeley, and Virginia Mahan, D-Summers, have introduced legislation (HBl 4125) that would allow people to obtain permits to rehabilitate orphaned, sick and injured wildlife. Periodic training would be required and rehabilitators would have to pay a $25 fee to cover the cost of the DNR's oversight. They also would have to show experience in handling animals and pass a written test with a score of at least 80 percent.

Overington said he became interested in the issue because of the raccoon case in his district.

"People doing it informally because they don't want the animal dying along the road," Overington said. "This would make sure those people are following proper standards and protocols to have those animals rehabilitated to the point that they could survive."