An Opossum Primer

The other day I overheard a conversation about ‘possums.   (FYI, I wasn’t eaves-dropping. I was three feet away.  I couldn’t help it!) When a woman remarked that ‘possums are scary, I wanted to run over and exclaim, “they are not!  They are really misunderstood!”  I didn’t, of course, because it wouldn’t have been appropriate.

So, I figured the next best thing would be to write a blog post, just in case any of my dear readers may be laboring under the same misunderstanding about our friend, the opossum.  By the way, opossum is the proper spelling.

I can understand why people may make assumptions about opossums based on their appearance.  They look rather intimidating with their long thick, rat-like, bald tails and a mouth full of impressively sharp, pointy teeth.  However, oppossums rarely attack attack humans or other animals.  When threatened, they are far more like likely to go into a catatonic state, looking like they are dead or sick…thus the expression: “playing ‘possum.”  In fact, they can even secrete a foul-smelling liquid making them smell as if they have passed on.

Now that we know opossums aren’t scary, let’s address another common misconception: ‘possums probably have rabies.  Unlike raccoons, cats, foxes, coyotes and dogs, opossums are unlikely to get rabies because their body temperature is too low.  So, if you see one even during the day, don’t freak out.  It may be a hungry mother with up to 20 babies in her pouch.

That’s right-pouch.  Opossums are North America’s only native marsupial or pouched mammal.  How cool is that?  You don’t have to go Australia to see a marsupial.  Just watch your garbage cans at night.  Here are some other neat facts about opossums:

  • The opossum has opposable thumbs and weak nails, much like primates.
  • They use that rat-like prehensile tail for climbing and gripping things. They can even carry things with their tails, making it similar to a fifth hand.
  • They have a built-in venom antidote.  They can eat rattlesnakes without getting poisoned.  Personally, I am down with any creature who eats snakes.  (I know I am a vegetarian but snakes freak me out!)
  • Opossums actually eat a lot of insects and pests that you don’t want in your garden like slugs and snails.  So, you should be happy if you spot one in your yard.  If you have any blackened fruit, leave it out for their dessert.

I hope opossums will seem a little cuter, or at least, cooler to you now.  And if you see one that is injured, please contact your local wildlife rehabilitation center to see if they can retrieve the animal or advise you on proper way to capture the opposum and bring it to them.

* Photo by Norman Curtis

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