ATLANTA — The supplicants came bearing tithes. Salted cashews, a plastic fruit cup, homemade crafts. The guest of honor, a Virginia opossum named Starfish, sat curled atop a pink fleece bomber jacket, spitting out chewed-up almond detritus. The animal appeared indifferent to the point of distraction, beady eyes staring far past the shelves of combat boots surrounding her and into some unknown realm.
“Sometimes she falls asleep with her eyes open,” said Ally Burguieres, Starfish’s caretaker, to a fan.
Starfish has no tail (it was nibbled off by her littermates), but what she lacks in appendages, she makes up for in admirers: nearly a quarter-million on Facebook and Instagram combined. Here inside Junkman’s Daughter, a novelty shop in the Little Five Points neighborhood of Atlanta, a few hundred of them were patiently lined up for their shot at a celebrity encounter.
Many attendees made the same pilgrimage last year, when Starfish’s predecessor, Sesame, hosted a similar event. Sesame died in June 2018, after which Starfish inherited his Instagram — gamely, one might say. People still hunt opossums, the only marsupial native to America, and only a century ago the critters were considered dining-room delicacies, even in the White House.
That’s not on the table for Ms. Burguieres, 36, a certified wildlife rehabilitator who shares a vegan diet with Starfish and often uses the account to promote animal rights. Her most recent efforts include a campaign to eradicate New Year’s Eve “possum drops” in North Carolina; the petition collected well over 100,000 signatures in just a few days.
Upstairs in a small loft, she and her sister Evie, 31, propped tote bags on shelves and neatly arranged opossum-themed prayer candles and charm bracelets on a card table.
Downstairs, a line that started forming nearly an hour early had serpentined past racks of fluorescent wigs and novelty socks all the way to the front door. Many attendees sported T-shirts and enamel pins bearing Sesame’s visage or their own handmade verminalia. Almost all were crowned with felt opossum ears glued to glitter headbands by the Burguieres sisters.
At the very front of the line stood Allison Sanchez, 49, and Lee Yarbrough, 47, who had arrived early, Ms. Sanchez wearing emerald green leggings screen-printed with the face of Glenda, an opossum she had nursed back to health. “It’s been really cool watching people turn around their opinion,” she said, “instead of just seeing them as creepy, hissing animals.”
Ms. Yarbrough chimed in, matter-of-factly: “Possums are the new llamas.” She noted that llamas first seemed to capture the public’s attention a few years ago; now, she said, you can find llama merchandise at Kmart. She suspects opossums and their vermin brethren are headed in the same direction, toward mass appeal. And why not? “They’re just pointy kitties.”
Rooting for the Underdog
During a meet-and-greet, Starfish’s fans ascended the steps to fawn, document and broadcast on social media. Each person spent a minute or two on the couch with the animal before stopping at the thrumming merchandise table in an oxytocin daze.
Ally Burguieres designs what’s for sale, and Evie and two other sisters, who all live in New Orleans, take turns fulfilling e-commerce orders and making sales out of three shops in the Lower Garden District and the French Quarter. Ms. Burguieres shares some proceeds with wildlife rescue organizations under the name Sesame’s Treat Fund.
Standing in line, three friends who had driven about an hour from Gainesville, Ga., breathlessly angled for a glimpse of Starfish from below. They were considering getting matching opossum tattoos afterward.
Mary Ward, 24, appreciates the opossum’s underdog status. “People are, like, horribly repelled by them, but they actually do a lot of good, and they’re cute,” she said. “And … their little hands!”
Seth Cordell, 28, took out his phone to show off some of his favorite Instagram accounts, including ones dedicated to a pet beaver and a raccoon. Soon, everyone in the vicinity was swapping the handles of their favorite celebrity vermin.
“It’s a social movement,” said Victoria Armour, 25. She was half-joking, but she does think that these long-maligned critters appeal to the self-deprecating, vaguely misanthropic worldview she shares with many in her generation. “We can all relate to an animal who’s just focused on eating and rummaging through trash. We’re no longer liking the fluffy animals. We want the weirdos. We want the jaded ones. We want the ones who were kicked out of society.”
Online, vermin historically considered pests are being remarketed: raccoons become “trash pandas”; opossums are “trash cats”; skunks are “fart squirrels.” Know Your Meme has an entire page dedicated to opossum subculture.
Owners of raccoons, skunks, prairie dogs, pigeons and opossums are racking up millions of views on YouTube, amassing Instagram followings in the thousands or millions, designing and selling their own swag, and sometimes even shilling for brands.
From humanity’s perspective, these are the lowliest undesirables of the animal kingdom. They feast on the garbage we create; they invade our spaces. In their 2013 anthology of essays, the anthrozoologists Kelsi Nagy and Phillip David Johnson II called them “trash animals” — a caste of animals deemed largely worthless and vulgar.
“Even among so-called nature and animal lovers,” the authors wrote in the book’s introduction, “the term ‘trash’ opens up a moral loophole through which slip the creatures that are deemed ugly, gross, problematic, alien, or insignificant.”
Now, however, a quick search on Etsy for the very same term yields T-shirts that read “My Spirit Animal Is a Trash Panda” ($14.98), stickers with a crown-adorned opossum that say “Trash Queen” ($4), and sweatshirts printed with a raccoon surrounded by the phrase “Live Fast Eat Trash” ($29.45).
“It’s Called Trash Can, Not Trash Can’t,” reads one $3.99 opossum sticker on Society6. Ally Burguieres herself has received piles of fan art, including one drawing of Sesame marrying the Babadook. “Someone commented that Sesame and the Babadook were ‘the gay icons we needed,’” she said. “I loved that.”
Over the weekend, a Twitter thread from the Museum of English Rural Life lovingly depicting the capture and adoption of a stray bat went viral.
It’s a considerable shift from cooing over cute corgis or piglets.
The first question people tend to ask Megan Borgmann about Gizmo, her 12-pound pet skunk, is the most obvious one. “Yeah, he’s de-scented,” she said. If done at an early age, Ms. Borgmann said, the procedure is about as invasive as a spay or neuter. Gizmo can’t spray anyone with that signature sulfuric cologne, but his long claws still freak people out a little.
Ms. Borgmann, who is 33 and lives outside of Indianapolis, first encountered and became infatuated with pet skunks in her former job as a vet tech. (Indiana is one of 17 states in which it is legal to keep skunks as pets.) After some research, she and her husband, Thomas, found a breeder, joined a wait list and welcomed Gizmo into their home in July 2017.
Gizmo is “extremely affectionate and opinionated,” meaning that he loves to snuggle, but will bossily nibble Ms. Borgmann’s toes when he wants to be picked up. She trained Gizmo to use a litter box mostly, though sometimes he goes on their dog’s bed and will occasionally defecate inside a shoe in apparent spite after a nail trimming.
Jackets, socks and dog toys have gone missing, only to be found in his “den” underneath the Borgmann marital bed, which is shared with Gizmo.
“Skunk-proofing” the house has required some redecorating. “We’ve gotten used to keeping stuff above toddler height,” she said. Ms. Borgmann buys grasshoppers and mealworms to mimic what Gizmo would eat in the wild. Sometimes, she lets him chase the grasshoppers around in the bathtub.
Danielle Stewart, 33, lives in Wills County, Ill., with her boyfriend, two horses, a dog, a cat and a raccoon named Rocket, whom she purchased from a breeder four years ago (though, as with Ms. Borgmann, not before spending some time on a wait list).
Like many Instagram influencers, Rocket has a knack for posing, long sharp nails and a penchant for avocados. He also has a flair for swiping things; past larcenies include hairbrushes, water bottles and, one time, a spatula, plucked from the counter as it was being used. “That was probably the highlight of his career,” Ms. Stewart said.
Petty theft is one of the many day-to-day challenges Ms. Stewart has encountered on her journey of vermin stewardship. Travel is problematic. “It’s harder for me to find somebody to watch Rocket than it is finding someone to watch my horses,” she said. Family members, like Ms. Stewart’s mother, often step in, “but every time we’ve gone on vacation, he’s had an absolute temper tantrum back home.”
Ms. Stewart tries to use Instagram to educate her 40,000 followers about such challenges, but this too is difficult. Raccoons have only one litter per year, and last year Ms. Stewart was inundated with inquiries from internet strangers who stumbled upon a kit in the wild and “rescued” it.
“I get DMs every spring, and I’m just like, ‘Find a rehabber. Do the right thing by this animal,’” Ms. Stewart said. “I don’t think anybody listens to me, unfortunately.”
Removing a raccoon from the wild is not only illegal, she said, but it also may prevent the animal from having access to veterinary care, since vets won’t treat animals that lack necessary permits.
A lack of paperwork can make hormone-induced behavioral issues worse, too, as vets won't neuter or spay a permit-less raccoon. At six months, raccoons enter puberty, during which Rocket was “an absolute demon.” Those issues subsided with time because Rocket is neutered, but if they aren’t, “they just stay that way.”
Ms. Stewart is an old hand at humans welcoming vermin into their habitats. “I know people that had raccoons 20, 30 years ago as pets,” she said. “It’s not really a new thing. It’s just new as in, everyone else is seeing it on the internet for the first time.”
Does our newfound appreciation for the trash pet signify a sort of existential zeitgeist, a newfound empathy for the misunderstood, a mirror of the millennial condition?
“It’s popular now because these guys are cute,” Ms. Stewart said, “and they take cute pictures.”
Still, in the history of animal-human relationships, it’s rare to find examples of such a swift rebrand. Humans have been acquiring animals to display wealth and get attention for centuries, but often those animals are spectacles, like peacocks or pythons.
Even today, the exotic pet trade is big business, but one that typically traffics in flashy, unfamiliar specimens like bearded dragons. For vermin enthusiasts, the appeal isn’t showiness or rarity; it may be their very banality that resonates.
Linda Kalof, a professor of sociology and animal studies scholar at Michigan State University, sees precedent in cats. For centuries, Christian cultures repudiated them as evil, until the 16th century, when cats imported to Europe from the Mediterranean became a status symbol.
“They were considered much more beautiful than common cats, which were still considered pests,” Dr. Kalof said.
Rats, too, enjoyed a rare status upgrade in the collective cultural bestiary around the time of a savvy fellow named Jack Black, who worked in 18th century London as a rat catcher. “Eventually, Black began keeping unusually colored rats, which he decorated with ribbons and sold to women as pets,” Dr. Kalof said.
He taught them to ride in his shirt pocket and run up and down his sleeves. Trained to do tricks and trussed up in bows (foreshadowing the pet clothing of today), the brown rat became a desirable curio among Victorian gentry.
Two centuries later, their domesticated successors (a subspecies known as “fancy rats”) are commonly sold in pet stores and kept in homes around the world, even in New York City, whose feral population of brown rats numbers in the millions.
But this permissiveness toward rodentia took decades — certainly a slower evolution than the steady uptick in interest around “pet possums” that Google Trends can trace over the last five years.
“We have these innate predispositions to look at animals, to pick them out in our environment,” Dr. Kalof said, citing the biologist E.O. Wilson’s biophilia hypothesis, or the idea that humans are naturally inclined to seek out nature. On Instagram, we have an infinite two-dimensional zoo in the palms of our hands, where the spectacle of animalia is on display and caged behind glass 24/7.
With permits from the Indiana Department of Natural Resources and the United States Department of Agriculture, Ms. Borgmann has taken Gizmo to a handful of educational events and pet expositions as a sort of ambassador of the species. Like Ally Burguieres and Ms. Stewart, she feels a responsibility to teach people about the risks and regulations inherent in keeping these animals — “so it isn’t just some Joe Schmo that doesn’t know anything about husbandry keeping an animal that fell out of a tree.”
But that IRL diplomacy isn’t without its own risks, like the threat of rabies. “If Gizmo were to bite someone, it would be reported to the health department and he would be immediately euthanized,” Ms. Borgmann said. “It does kind of hinder or change how we would interact or how he could interact with the public.”
Online, though, Ms. Borgmann can educate and proselytize freely. Her Instagram account for Gizmo has nearly 30,000 followers and adds a few hundred each day. She senses that attitudes toward critters like Gizmo are changing thanks to online platforms, where “you’re not seeing them in your trash can, or cleaning up their mess the next morning.”
Instead, people are learning that they have emotions, quirks, preferences. They live on the margins: weirder than dogs or cats, but too pedestrian to be prominently featured in zoos or coloring books.
For the most part, we only talk about them when we’re complaining about them, or narcing on them to pest control companies. “You see these animals, or you’ve heard of these animals, for years, but you’ve never actually seen them, in a sense,” Ms. Borgmann said.
Or, at least, not up close and wearing pajamas. “People think possums are ugly, but when I see Starfish, I'm like, that’s the cutest freakin’ thing I’ve ever seen.”
Published at Thu, 28 Feb 2019 05:00:01 +0000