I like opossums. I’m sure this is probably an unusual statement coming from me, a person who has lived all of her life in an urban area. I am rural at heart, but alas, I was born, raised and continue to live in the concrete jungle. Still – I adore, admire and remain amazed that nature finds a way to persistently integrate into our manmade world. I embrace this fact, actually. Having said this, I’m sure I will not succeed in convincing some of you that opossums are indeed very good to have around, in both rural and urban settings, but I’m going to try nonetheless.
First of all, while some folks find opossums ugly, scary-looking, and/or rat-like – they are not big rodents despite their general gray appearance and hairless tails. In fact, they are most closely related to the koala and kangaroo, their marsupial cousins. As for their tails, they are prehensile; used as a fifth limb to assist the opossum with climbing, balancing and anchoring. Think of how its cousin, the kangaroo, uses its tail for balance.
Opossums have the honor of being North America’s only marsupial, defined by carrying and feeding their young in a pouch immediately after birth. Up to 10 newborn opossums may migrate to the mother’s stomach pouch instinctively. It is thought this primitive, but successful, method came about for the mother to be able to protect and feed her young, all the while allowing the numerous babies to grow in an expanding, external pouch versus an internal womb. As the young opossums grow, they will periodically go in and out of the mother’s pouch. When outside the pouch, they wrap their tails around their mom and hang on tightly to her back as she scavenges for food. Incidentally, young opossums are called “joeys” – yet another kangaroo reference.
Opossums are about the size of a cat and have a distinctive long, white, conical-shaped face with a pink snout. They are nocturnal by nature and non-territorial. They are not aggressive, however when they are startled they will hiss and bare their rather numerous, sharp teeth to attempt to ward off predators. Of course, when they experience extreme fear they “play dead” as the adage goes. This “playing dead” or, “playing opossum”, is an involuntary reaction that can last from a few minutes up to four hours. When in this shock-like state, the opossum’s body goes completely limp, its mouth gapes open and oftentimes foams. Usually the opossum’s eyes remain open as well. The animal may also excrete an offensive odor when in this state, further feigning death.
I’m sure the description immediately above didn’t help my argument that opossums are good to have around, so I’ll get right to the many benefits they bring. Opossums, sometimes referred to as North American or Virginia Opossums, eat countless types of undesirable insects such as cockroaches, water bugs, ticks and garden-destructive beetles and slugs. They also eat mice and are one of the few predators of moles. Opossums will not dig in your yard for food, but will take advantage of “meals” that cross their paths. They also enjoy cleaning up overripe fruit and veggies that have fallen to the ground from orchards and gardens. They will eat overripe carcasses as well, including the skeletons. I suppose you could sum it up this way – if you come across an opossum in your yard or garden, consider yourself lucky as you’ll have a natural pesticide and garbage disposal at your service for a little while!
Speaking of, opossums are generally transient by nature and usually stay in an area only for a few days or weeks, moving onto other food sources in the next yard or field. They usually take shelter in the abandoned nests of other animals. They are not aggressive and will not attack humans or pets although, as mentioned earlier, they will attempt to defend themselves if necessary. If for any reason you, a family member, or a pet has been in direct contact with an opossum, keep in mind they have an incredible immune system and are 8 times less likely to have rabies than other wild animals. They are also rarely affected by botulism (even though they eat almost anything) and have an uncanny natural immunity to rattlesnake and cottonmouth venom!
Regarding the rabies information, I learned this the hard way when my self-declared “predator” Shih-Tzu, Barney, decided to take on a baby opossum that had wandered into our sunroom one evening a couple of years ago. Perhaps due to its youth and the lure of the aroma of left-over dog food, the opossum innocently wandered inside via Barney’s doggie door. He quickly escaped Barney’s aggression by wedging himself between the wall and a shelf. The opossum then proceeded to play dead – upright! Fortunately for the animal, Barney is only interested in things as long as they continue to squeak, thus he lost interest once the opossum feigned death. After closing the doggie door off from Barney and waiting a couple of hours, the little creature “awoke” and moved on to never appear again. Just to be on the safe side, I called the vet regarding this minor exposure and was then informed of the distant likelihood of any disease being passed onto Barney by an opossum.
While I certainly don’t expect you to welcome opossums into your home, even as I did unwittingly, I remain convinced they are very valuable to have around. To avoid indoor episodes such as mine you should feed pets only what they will eat in one day, the same practice with food items at bird/squirrel feeders, and keep your garage and shed doors closed at night. Essentially, these practices are best done to deter any type of wildlife (mice, rats, coyotes, bobcats, etc.) from coming too close or sticking around too long near our domiciles.
In conclusion, the North American Opossum is a mammal that aids those of us that garden with natural pest control and rotten fruit removal. While the opossum’s appearance is somewhat rodent-like and the animal has developed some rather interesting behaviors for survival, it lives in harmony with mankind and has certainly gained my respect. As such, I leave you with one of my most favorite photos –
Baby Opossum – North Texas
Until next time,