For a while, it seemed, nobody cared about the opossums in Orange County. They were left to fend for themselves against a bureaucracy that put thousands of the captured creatures to death because officials feared the animals carried a life-threatening disease.
Then in late 1986, the Opossum Society of California came to the rescue and took on the bureaucracy, eventually convincing it last year that the misunderstood marsupials didn't deserve the death penalty.
But now, new warfare has broken out--this time between the Opossum Society and a newly formed splinter group calling itself the Pouch Protectors.
And the county's bemused opossums look on--no doubt confused over which group is the true defender of their rights.
Irene Hoferitza, an Anaheim housewife and former secretary-treasurer and board member of the Opossum Society, said she and about 15 other members have broken off from that group and formed the Pouch Protectors. The differences, she said, are both professional and personal.
In general, Hoferitza said, she disagrees with the society's opinions regarding diet--especially that dog and cat food are acceptable for opossums--and the recommendation that captive opossums be neutered. She said she also believes that the society too readily encourages people to adopt opossums instead of leaving them in their natural habitat.
Dr. Anita Henness, the veterinarian founder and president of the Opossum Society, said the society agrees that opossums should be left alone when found in residential areas. It only favors relocation if the animal is endangered, she said. The society favors neutering any opossum that someone plans to keep as a pet, she said.
The animal's dietary needs are still a subject of debate, she said, noting that opossums are "opportunistic omnivores," which means they eat a variety of foods. While their diet shouldn't consist solely of dog or cat food, opossums have shown an affinity for it, she said.
The Opossum Society did not want Hoferitza to leave but, Henness said, "she (Hoferitza) is a difficult person to work with." Hoferitza's demeanor, Henness said, has "alienated every vet she's ever approached with a patient."
Henness said she initially defended Hoferitza but "after a while I had apologized to so many people I said, 'Irene, you've got to change your attitude because you're turning people off.' "
Hoferitza said she defected because the society was giving bad advice. "I simply said if something's wrong, I'm not going to say it's right," Hoferitza said. "Either the truth or nothing. I'm not going to go out and tell people what isn't right. That's been going on for so long. That's why coyotes have a bad reputation."
Then, Hoferitza said, Henness sent her "nasty letters and phone calls," saying she couldn't speak for the society any longer.
"She tried to tell me who I can talk to and not talk to, who I could write to and not write to. I said, 'When I went to bed last night this was America. When did we go to a Gestapo regime where I can't talk to who I want to?' I told her she won't rule and run my house and my life."
Henness, whose veterinary practice specializes in animal cancer, said Hoferitza has only been involved with opossums for a year. "I don't pose myself as an expert (with opossums)," Henness said. "Certainly, I don't think one can be an expert in a year's time. She feels differently. That's fine."
Hoferitza, while not having formal animal training, said she has raised a number of pets, including two opossums. "I told her (Henness) if she thinks her methods are so right, with spaying and neutering and with that diet, why are so many captive opossums dying? They should be living five to 10 years, and they're not living anywhere near that long."
Somewhere in the middle of the controversy is the Animal Assistance League, another nonprofit organization that agreed to handle opossum calls for the Opossum Society. But that became a problem, according to Ruth Murphy, one of the hot-line handlers, because they were getting hundreds of calls from the public and inadequate followup from society members.
"We've been asked to do the job, not really knowing what's going on from one day to the next," Murphy said. Worse, she said, is that all the opossum calls in past months took time away from the league's primary focus, which is on cats and dogs.
The original Opossum Society has about 110 members, Henness said. Hoferitza said her splinter group will start with between 15 and 20 people, a figure Henness questioned.
"Nobody I know has left the group," she said. "But if someone would be happier working with Irene, that's fine with us."