The Role of Ambassador Animals in Wildlife Conservation

Sarah Lynn Bowser

There are two Virginia opossums (one pictured right) who are residents at the Chattahoochee Nature Center, a non-profit organization in Atlanta, GA, that is dedicated to the mission of connecting people with nature. These two opossums serve as animal ambassadors, where they play an invaluable role in connecting the public with conservation issues influencing their species & their native habitats. 

According to the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums, an ambassador animal is defined as “an animal whose role includes handling and/or training by staff or volunteers for interactions with the public and in support of institutional education and conservation goals”. They are important in representing their species when traveling to classrooms, during demonstrations, and for educational programs at facilities like the Chattahoochee Nature Center.  

The Wildlife Department at the Chattahoochee Nature center focuses on education and rehabilitation of native wildlife. The staff provide medical assistance to injured birds of prey, reptiles and amphibians in the hope of releasing them back into the wild. Many ambassador animals are non-releasable wildlife, meaning that they have permanent injuries, either physical or psychological, which have left them incapable of surviving on their own in the wild. Unfortunately, these two opossums are no exception. 

The male opossum was brought to the Wildlife Clinic at the Chattahoochee Nature Center in 2018 from a mammal rehabilitator. He was orphaned after a dog attacked and killed his mother but was taken in by the dog’s owner. He was then raised in a household around other pets for over a month, causing him to hyper-socialize to humans and domestic animals. Due to this abnormal socialization, he wasn’t able to be released. 

The female opossum has a similar background. She was brought to the Wildlife Clinic in 2016 from a mammal rehabilitator. While her mother was killed in a dog attack, she was also attacked and it resulted in the lower third of her tail being bitten off, with the remaining tail being broken. Prior to being taken to a rehabilitation center for proper care, she was kept for three weeks. This resulted in her tail being fused into a position where she cannot lift it fully when climbing or walking, making her incapable of surviving on her own in the wild. 

It is important to note that not just anyone can possess native wildlife. In fact, it is illegal in most states to possess these animals without the proper permits. The Wildlife Department, which has been a part of the Nature Center since it opened in 1976, is licensed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S Department of Agriculture, and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

Studies have shown that the presentation of ambassador animals in educational programming is a powerful catalyst for learning by enhancing the delivery of cognitive and empathetic messages, which promotes a change in attitude. This is particularly important for animals like the Virginia opossum, who often get a bad reputation due to misinformation, which in turn can lead to them being unnecessarily killed. 

For example, some people fear the spread of diseases from opossums, like rabies or Lyme disease. Unlike other mammals who carry ticks and are the main vectors of Lyme disease, opossums consume up to 90% of the ticks that attach to them. According to the National Wildlife Federation, a single opossum can consume up to 5,000 ticks per season. In addition, while opossums aren’t exactly immune to rabies (some rare cases have been documented), finding an opossum with the disease is extremely unlikely. As the only marsupial in the U.S., they have a lower body temperature than other mammals, meaning their bodies aren’t a suitable environment for the rabies virus. 

These two animals play an invaluable role in connecting the public with wildlife conservation issues. This is also the case for many of the other animal ambassadors at the Chattahoochee Nature Center, from the Great Horned Owl to the Eastern Kingsnake. 

Animal ambassadors are an extremely important resource for educating the public on wildlife conservation issues. They help people develop emotional ties to their native wildlife while fostering an appreciation for the natural world and promoting a sense of stewardship. For young children and adults alike, the opportunity and excitement of being close to a wild animal can ignite a life-long interest in wildlife conservation. These changes in perception can help prevent more human-wildlife conflict, and ultimately help prevent more wildlife from being harmed and finding themselves in the Wildlife Department at Chattahoochee Nature Center. 

Sources: American Association of Zoos & Aquariums, Chattahoochee Nature Center, Georgia Department of Natural Resources, San Diego Zoo