The Kenwood Press
: 08/01/2013

Living with Wildlife

The awesome opossum

Sharon Ponsford

The Virginia Opossum is one of my favorites, so when people tell me they donít like them or are afraid of them, I canít imagine why. These little guys are very beneficial.

Our dog, Mimi, recently tipped us off that a young opossum was showing up in our garden, and now we find ourselves looking out the windows around dusk hoping to get a glimpse of it. Whether we see it or not, it is more than welcome here.

Opossums are the only native marsupial (animals who have a pouch for their young) in the United States. While they are not native to California, opossums are an animal frequently seen here. They were probably brought to California over a hundred years ago for fur and food. Opossums are part of the earthís oldest surviving mammal family; fossil remains have been found from 70 million years ago. That could be why some think they look a little prehistoric!

There are so many amazing things to say about opossums, starting with the fact that they have more teeth (50) than any other North American mammal. They also have a prehensile tail, which they can use for grasping limbs when they are in trees or to gather sticks, grasses and leaves to make a nice nest. Opossums have a low metabolic rate and body temperature making them immune to many diseases such as rabies and distemper. I find it especially fascinating that they are also immune to the bite of a rattlesnake, the only poisonous snake in our area.

Opossums are exceptionally non-aggressive and non-destructive. They will not harm people or pets unless forced to defend themselves and even then they much prefer to flee rather than fight. In fact, they are pretty defenseless. If they feel threatened, they will often open their mouth and show you all 50 of those teeth. They may also hiss, growl, drool or screech. Sometimes they may lunge, but they are not capable of jumping. Extreme fear can cause them to ďplay possum,Ē which means they actually faint. They become stiff and emit a terrible odor, hoping that the predator will lose interest and go away.

They could be given the title of natureís little sanitation engineers, as the omnivorous opossums help maintain a clean and healthy environment by eating carrion and food discarded by man. They are also beneficial to gardens as they eat insects, snails, slugs, mice, and rats. There is not much these nomadic animals donít eat as they meander through life, often with their babies on their back or running beside them. Being opportunists, these nocturnal animals will be attracted to backyards with pet food left out after dark. And you donít have to worry about them killing your cats Ė more than likely you will see both cat and opossum sharing a bowl of food together during the night.

Although I work mostly with raccoons, I have had the pleasure of raising orphaned opossums over the years. Their behaviors are fascinating and I love inspecting their tiny bodies. They have hands with five fingers that are very strong and good at grasping. Their hind feet have an opposable thumb, which is handy for climbing down trees head first. These animals have a very small brain, but when they are born they are totally hard wired to know just what opossums need to know. Some people think they look dirty, but that is probably because their coat color varies from off-white to dark grey. They love water, are very clean, and are constantly grooming themselves just like our cats do.

So, next time you see an opossum, think good thoughts, and send them a thank you as well for doing such a good job of cleaning up our environment. If you are driving, give them a brake!