Alongside my front door is a glass panel the same height as the door. My cat frequently sits outside the panel since it is a good place to see and be seen – particularly in the morning since I have to walk past the front door when I exit my bedroom to go anyplace else in the house. Part of my morning routine is to open the front door to let him in. Sometimes he’ll peer inside there at night, too, though more commonly he shows up at the back door by the kitchen at night. So, last night when I walked past the front door and saw two little eyes looking in the panel, I assumed it was my cat. It wasn’t. It was an opossum. He was looking inside the house, apparently just out of curiosity. When I opened the front door, each of us looked at the other’s face silently. When I re-shut the door he turned his head back to the pane and continued to stare inside for several minutes before moseying off.
It was once thought that opossums were stupid. The critter does have a small brain for its body mass, and it is a primitive marsupial that hasn’t changed much since it co-existed with the dinosaurs: 70 million year-old fossils of its nearly identical ancestors have been dug up. Yet their brains must be organized differently from those of more modern mammals, because tests show surprising mental agility. Opossums navigate mazes much better than rats and can remember where they left things (food particularly) better than dogs.
I like opossums – and I don’t mean for dinner, though I’ve been told they are tasty. I mean as part of the wildlife on my (woodsy) property, which is fortunate since I see one there almost every night. I doubt it’s always the same one. Opossums have two litters per year of at least a half dozen each, so if you have one you probably have a passel – which, by the way, is the correct term for a plurality of them: a passel of ‘possums. Since the animals are solitary by nature, you rarely see a passel, however, unless it’s a jill and her joeys (little’uns) – male ‘possums are called jacks. Almost always you just see just one, typically nosing around the garbage can. Their solitary ways, along with natural resistance (not complete immunity but resistance) to disease, keep rabies a very low level threat for them; they are less than one-eighth as likely to contract rabies as unvaccinated dogs. They also are resistant to snake venom, surviving bites by rattlesnakes and cottonmouths. They put the “omni” in the word omnivorous: they eat almost anything, plant or animal, carrion or live, including rats and other small rodents, so they are great for keeping other pests under control. Better yet, opossums are non-aggressive to creatures close to their own size or larger. They don’t run away (they may saunter away) but they don’t come after you. They usually ignore you completely even if you walk past them only a few feet distant; they ignore cats and dogs, too, if the cats and dogs ignore them. (I’ve seen my cat walk right by one without either looking at the other.) If threatened, they’ll hiss and show off their 50 teeth, but that’s about it. If severely threatened, they play ‘possum, which is a charming strategy and a remarkably effective one, albeit not with cars. (An aunt once commented to me, “If I had a face like that I wouldn’t walk in traffic.”) If you don’t actually touch one, the risk of getting bitten by an opossum is negligible.
Christopher Columbus brought one back as a present for King Ferdinand (I don’t know how Ferd felt about that), but Captain John Smith fixed the name in English by adopting the Algonquian name. He wrote in 1608: "An Opassom hath an head like a Swine, and a taile like a Rat, and is of the bignes of a Cat. Under her belly she hath a bagge, wherein shee lodgeth, carrieth, and sucketh her young." True enough, and it hints at their one drawback for many people: opossums are ugly. I won’t argue this common assessment, but there are far worse faults a creature could have than that.
An Animal Control vid from north of the border