The adventures of Gary the Trash Cat, West Philly's most popular opossum

Katy DiSanto of West Philadelphia holds her tame opossum, known affectionately as Gary the Trash Cat.

Gary has been called a lot of things: A gorgeous beast. A cultural icon. And the hottest date in West Philly.

But most of his fans know him simply as Gary the Trash Cat, a social media-savvy opossum with a killer sense of fashion who lives with his owners, Katy and David DiSanto, and their three cats and  dog in West Philadelphia.

Between his Facebook and Instagram pages, Gary has more than 6,000 followers. He’s so popular on the West Willy community Facebook page that he was once nominated to be the group’s cover photo (but eventually lost to a picture of a Dumpster).

Katy DiSanto said what she appreciates most about people taking a liking to Gary is that he helps them realize opossums are not scary.

“They are our friends and they actually do a lot of good … they eat ticks, mice, bugs, and garbage,” she said.

Camera icon Katy DiSanto
Gary the Trash Cat in a turtleneck sweater.

At a Project MEOW fund-raiser, more than 70 tickets were entered for a meet-and-greet with Gary, making a visit with him the second-most-popular raffle item after a four-pack of Phillies tickets, said Jennifer Sweda, a West Philly resident who organized the event.

Camera icon Jessica Griffin
Owner Katy DiSanto holds her tame opossum, known as Gary the Trash Cat.

Wild opossums are quite prevalent in Philadelphia, though there are no statistics on just how many there are, said Rick Schubert, director of wildlife rehabilitation at the Schuylkill Center Wildlife Clinic. 

“It’s like asking how many rats are in the city,” he said. “They adapt well to Philadelphia because of vacant housing and trash.”

Schubert, who said he does not condone owning an opossum as a pet, estimates the Schuylkill Center takes in about 500 injured or orphaned opossums a year from Philadelphia, Chester, and Bucks Counties. A spokeswoman for Philadelphia’s Animal Care and Control Team said the group had 196 opossums come through its doors last year, and 182 so far this year.

Gary the Trash Cat did not start his life as a city animal. He was just a wee opossum still in his mother’s pouch when she was hit by a car outside Philadelphia in August 2016, DiSanto said. Out of a litter of seven, only Gary and one sister survived.

Camera icon Katy DiSanto
Gary the Trash Cat as a baby with his dad, David DiSanto.

The two survivors were taken in by a rescue that DiSanto had previously contacted about a young opossum her dog had gotten hold of in her backyard. She took the opossum inside, fearing it was injured.

“This is how I found out to call the professionals first. Don’t do what I did and bring it inside,” DiSanto said. That opossum was fine within a day and was sent back outside.

But a few months later, when Gary arrived, the center remembered DiSanto. She got an email, asking her if she’d like to adopt him.

DiSanto’s first thought: “Sweet!”

She got a caretaker license from the Pennsylvania Game Commission, which was required to bring a wild animal into her house. She took Gary in at six weeks old and bottle-fed him for a few weeks, then started trying solid foods. Today, Gary eats fruits, veggies, and high-quality dog food — but his favorite snack is grapes.

Gary is wee-pad-trained and strictly an indoor opossum. On an average day, he sleeps, eats, and cuddles with his family. DiSanto said the “trash cat” moniker, which she first saw in a meme, reflects Gary: He wants attention sometimes, and other times just wants to do his own thing. Much of the time, that thing is sleeping.

“They’re not very adventurous,” she said.

Gary has about a dozen outfits and has been dressed up as a leprechaun, a bunny, and Santa Claus. He has his own line of greeting cards that can be purchased online, as well as at Vix Emporium and Hunter Gatherer Tattoo & Piercing, both in West Philly. DiSanto said she donates a portion of the proceeds to the Schuylkill Center.

Camera icon Katy DiSanto
Gary the Trash Cat’s 2017 Christmas photo.

“I didn’t just want to be pimping my possum,” she said.

According to Schubert, opossums have been around about 70 million years, since the age of the dinosaurs. They are the only marsupial in North America, and they do not chew, dig, or carry rabies. They have very short life spans: one to two years in the wild and three to four in captivity. Schubert said people are frightened when they find opossums, but the best course of action is to leave them alone.

“It’s not going to bother you,” he said.

As for why Gary the Trash Cat has become so beloved, Sweda, of Project MEOW, has a theory.

“I would say it’s the ugly-cute phenomenon. Let’s be honest, Gary has a face only a mother could love, but we all end up being Gary’s mother because we all love that face,” she said. “He gives us a chance to see and interact with an animal you usually only see in a parking garage at midnight when it scares the crap out of you. And those little outfits don’t hurt, either.”

Camera icon Katy DiSanto
Gary the Trash Cat’s Easter photo.

These are the Philadelphia zip codes with the most opossum intakes by ACCT in 2017:

  1. 19120 (Olney): 25 opossums
  2. 19124 (Juniata/Frankford): 22 opossums
  3. 19140 (Hunting Park): 20 opossums
  4. 19143 (Kingsessing): 19 opossums
  5. 19149 (Oxford Circle/Mayfair): 14 opossums

If you find an injured or orphaned opossum, call ACCT Philly at 267-385-3800 or the Schuylkill Center Wildlife Clinic at 215-482-8217.