Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The ‘Possum Peepers

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

Judith Holofernes - Opossum


  1. Yeah, I saw an opossum about a year or so ago in my neck of the piney woods. At first I just saw its tail and being more a city boy, thought it was a huge rat at first. Good to know they are more friendly than they appear to be, though I wouldn't try picking one up like in the above video. I won't chase them off next time, though like you said it was more a mosey off. We have raccoons out here as well, and I think they can be more destructive to your property especially if they happen to get up into your attic (happened to my aunt recently). Though cuter, they are more angry in disposition, or will run away when confronted.

    We had a baby raccoon when growing up, which a friend found three of them while hunting. We divided them up and ours was the only one that made it, but it didn't like to be picked up or handled, otherwise it was okay. We eventually took it out and let it go as my parents were afraid it might get out and bite someone.
    I guess opossums are kinda ugly, though Walt Kelly drew a pretty cute one. Nice poppy music too.

    The other day while doing dishes I listened to this radio show about birds and found it more interesting than I would have imagined: http://www.kera.org/2014/03/25/bird-is-the-word/

    1. Raccoons can indeed raise havoc inside a house – and though they’ll usually run away, they can be aggressive if they feel cornered. Moreover, unlike unsociable ‘possums, raccoons are gregarious and readily spread diseases among themselves – and potentially give them to us. In my area there was 90% raccoon die-off from a rabies epidemic about a decade ago. Only recently has the population come back near normal. The die-off pretty well burned out the disease, but it could flare up again among them at any time. I have known people who kept them as pets, but they are rascally; they get into cabinets, tear open cereal boxes, open up drawers, and otherwise cause trouble.

      Re: the link, “The bird is the word” was a favorite phrase of my ex’s African Grey Parrot.

  2. We used to have a lot of 'possums over at my parents place. We'd see the shuffling along the dividing wall, or watching us from the bushes.

    When I was about 10 I had a close encounter. I was taking out the kitchen garbage, and had to walk through the backyard to get to the outdoor cans. Well, it was dark, and I wasn't really paying too much attention. I turn the corner to the niche where the cans were, and I see this dark shape moving around the cans. I stopped dead, it stopped dead. I thought, "Oh its the neighbor's cat, she's probably looking for some tuna". My sister fed the cat all the time, so it became a regular visitor.

    "Hey there Peaches, you looking for-" I realized it wasn't Peaches, but something else. I couldn't see it very well, but as I leaned over to pet "Peaches" it crouched back in a decidedly non-feline pose.

    Then "Peaches" hissed. I jumped back about three feet and dropped the garbage bag. Then the little beasty shuffled away through the gate. I saw it clearly as it escaped, a 'possum!

    So I think we both gave each other a nice scare.

    1. One of its best defenses is that it looks and sounds like a nasty scrappy critter that can give you a serious fight -- it's not and it can't.

  3. But they have such a friendly disposition; whenever I see a member of our usual passel, he always flashes me a wide friendly grin!!

    Pretty as a rose,
    Pretty as a blossom,
    If ya want yer finger bit,
    Go and poke a possum!!

    1. Better to poke a 'possum than a polecat.