EDEN — Connie Cuozzi spent the better part of last summer running around her house doing chores and paperwork with a possum in her hair.
Little did she know she was grooming a marsupial social media star.
"He would cling to my hair up in rubber bands like I was his mama,'' Cuozzi said.
Indeed, her adopted rescue possum “Podrick” has Rockingham County buzzing and scrolling for the four-legged fuzz ball’s latest fashionable outfits and antics.
Informally dubbed the “Official Animal of the South,’’ the possum as a species hasn’t enjoyed much time in the glow of celebrity limelight, save the now-defunct “Possum Drop” held annually for more than 20 years in Brasstown, N.C., on New Year’s Eve.
But Podrick is poised to join an elite roster of history’s most notable possums if his current popularity is any indication.
The critter’s already got 186 Instagram followers and scads more fans on Facebook.
Sure, President Benjamin Harrison had “Mr. Prosperity” and “Mr. Protection” — two pet possums he toted on train rides and allowed to live in the White House. But those critters didn’t have Podrick’s panache or the benefit of the Internet.
Bon vivant Podrick made the scene on Halloween wearing a bespoke pair of felt bat wings along with his master Cuozzi, also fanged for the occasion and dressed as a vampire.
At Christmas, Podrick delighted small children by posing with a local Santa Claus.
And Rockingham County Sheriff Sam Page, a devoted Instagram fan, summoned his prehensile tailed friend to his Wentworth office for some face time, an invitation Podrick happily accepted as his human dad Tom Cuozzi is a department staff sergeant at the county jail.
Downtime — 20 hours a day for sleep — finds Podrick relaxing downtown on The Boulevard at his parents’ gym, TEAM ROC, where they coach and he entertains students and poses for selfies.
If the weather’s warm, the five-pound puffball enjoys a swim and shows off his “dog paddle’’ in the family pool.
The paper-trained character is afflicted with a common metabolic disorder found in about 80 percent of male possums which makes his bones weak. Because of that, Cuozzi must feed him custom meals by baby fork.
Under the care of wildlife rehab experts and veterinarians, Podrick will never be able to live in the wild due to his bone condition, but the Cuozzis say they're happy to lodge him for the rest of his charmed life.
Home videos show Podrick, chomping through his favorite cheese and chicken with what appears to be a true grin. Drool oozes from his wee alligator jaw and the rhythmic smacking sounds “like a dishwasher,’’ Cuozzi and her husband note.
Since his human sister Ashley recently wed and left home, Podrick’s inherited a large corner of her room where he frolics and rests in a cloud of polyester fiberfill that used to be the innards of a throw pillow, Cuozzi says.
Civilized living seems to agree with Podrick, but the tale of his trip to town is a doozy.
“It was the Fourth of July at about 5:30 in the morning, and I was looking out the window and saw this mama possum with all of these babies hanging on her,” Cuozzi said. “She was so weighed down, she was like, ‘You want one?’’’
The family dog Katie, a large mutt with likely Spaniel heritage, spotted the possum and rushed out and grabbed her up in his teeth.
“I saw Katie hauling across the yard and I’m like, ‘No!!!’ Katie loves wild animals. She thinks they’re hers,’’ said Cuozzi. “So she grabbed mom and she started flinging, and mama’s babies went flying everywhere.’’
When Cuozzi saw the mother possum laying stock still and appearing dead, she called her husband to ask for advice.
“I said there are baby possums everywhere and the mama’s laying here dead. Then she jumped up! She was literally playing possum! Then she gathered up all of the little babies, and I mean, I really thought she had gathered them all.’’
But eight hours later, Katie the dog emerged carrying a wee possum by the scruff.
“I told her to drop it, and I picked him up and his leg was all funny and he was so tiny and kinda pale and dehydrated with dirt in his mouth,’’ Cuozzi said.
The little guy weighed just over a quarter pound.
And it turns out that the dog who brought her to Cuozzi would develop maternal feelings of her own for Podrick.
“ Katie thinks Podrick is her baby, and she will follow him around everywhere.” Plenty of photos of the pair show them relaxing on the lawn together and playing hide and go seek with Podrick ducking beneath furniture.
Reviewing photos of Podrick with Cuozzi is like combing through a baby book with a new mom. “ That’s his first little bath. That’s the first day we had him,’’ she says with a light laugh. She chose the name Podrick because he likes to nestle close like a “pea in a pod.’’
Podrick, who walks in a twitchy fashion like “a Claymation character’’ because of his bone disorder, waddles over to Cuozzi who offers him his favorite snack, fresh almonds.
They have a sweet kind of communication with his signals that sound like sneezes to cue her if he’s distressed or if it’s his toileting time.
“He eats what we eat, a lot of meat and vegetables,’’ Cuozzi said. Podrick takes his evening meal at around 8:30 p.m. with the family.
His first feasts as a baby were egg yolks and baby food, but these days breakfasts are usually fruit sauce baby food mixed with rice formula cereal and a calcium supplement, Cuozzi said of the docile Podrick.
Podrick’s growing up, Cuozzi says, wincing briefly at his breath, whispering, “It’s really bad.’’
He used to sleep with a little stuffed bunny, but now finds entertainment with his human friends and a routine that has him regularly traveling to mixed martial arts competitions throughout the region.
“There’s a picture of him on the bed in our hotel,’’ Cuozzi says of Podrick, who is super clean, regularly bathed and carries no diseases. “When we go to matches, there are people we see over and over who follow Podrick and they always want to come to the room to see him.’’
Possums get a bad rap and are widely misunderstood, it seems.
Turns out possums cannot carry rabies because their basal body temperature is too low to host the disease. And they do a big job of eradicating disease-carrying insects, as well.
Asked if he was ever put off by Podrick, Cuozzi’s son Tommy, 20, says, “No. At first it was a little odd having him around the house, but I guess it’s normal at this point.’’
“Podrick is great,’’ Cuozzi said, admiring his photos. “And he’s so gentle and he just loves being around people.’’
Reach him at podrickpossum on Instagram.