My first up-close encounter with an opossum was one evening many years ago when I went to get feed for our horses. I had seen many of these hairy creatures flattened on the road, their lives abruptly and unceremoniously ended while out on a nightly prowl, but I wasn’t expecting to run into an 18-inch opossum wedged under the feed bin. I don’t know who was more surprised—the opossum or I. When I approached it, ever so slowly, it hissed at me with lips drawn back in what looked like a grin, revealing a huge number of needle-sharp teeth. I stopped to assess the situation.
I thought back to earlier in the day and remembered that I had unwittingly put out the welcome mat for this particular visitor when I left the feed-room door open that morning. After a few minutes, the hissing stopped. I gingerly got my feed and left, leaving the door open so the hapless creature could leave the same way it came in.
About the size of a large house cat, the Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana) is North America’s only marsupial, a mammal that carries and nurses its young in a pouch. One of Earth’s oldest surviving mammals, opossums have been around for at least 65 million years, first appearing in North America about the time dinosaurs went extinct. With little need to evolve for survival, the modern-day version of this marsupial is somewhat of a living fossil, retaining many of the features of its ancient ancestors. Despite its rat-like appearance, the opossum is closely related to other pouched mammals, such as the kangaroo, koala, and wombat.
The critter got its unusual name in 1608 from Captain John Smith, one of the British settlers of Jamestown, Virginia. The colonists traded with the Algonquin Indian tribes, and the opossum was named for their word apasum, meaning “white animal.” Opossums are found in the United States east of the Rocky Mountains, along the West Coast, and in portions of Mexico, Canada, and Central America. In North America, they are typically referred to as the North American opossum, or merely ‘possum.
The oft-maligned opossum is actually a fascinating creature that suffers from an image problem. Frequently perceived as a dim-witted, rat-like scavenger whose most impressive trick is playing dead, there’s actually a lot more to this creature than meets the eye—virtues that just might transform the aversion of some to this odd, waddling mammal into, at least, tolerance.
Turns out opossums are the unsung heroes in the fight against Lyme Disease. Ticks that carry the Lyme Disease bacteria are found on mice, shrews, squirrels, and chipmunks, but not so with the opossum. Research by scientists at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, New York found that opossums eat over 95 percent of the ticks that land on them during their meanderings. “We found that the average opossum kills thousands of ticks every week as they wander through the forest,” says Felicia Keesing, ecologist and Professor of Biology at Bard College, and Adjunct Scientist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies. “The opossum wanders through the woods and ticks get on them just like they might get on any animal wandering through the woods, but opossums groom them off and kill them in the process.”
These solitary scavengers will eat almost anything. Besides consuming gargantuan amounts of ticks, the opossum’s diet includes snails, slugs, and beetles, making them a welcome addition to the garden. They’ll also catch and eat pests such as mice, rats, fire ants, and cockroaches, and they’re one of the few animals that prey upon shrews and moles. As if that isn’t enough, opossums are immune to snake venom, and actually kill and eat snakes on the homestead, even venomous ones like rattlesnakes, copperheads, and cottonmouths. They also eat roadkill, making them an important part of nature’s cleanup crew.
Perhaps the opossum’s most well-known characteristic is the ability to feign death when confronted by an enemy. Opossums use several defense tactics when threatened, including running, climbing a tree, growling, baring its 50 sharp teeth, and hissing. When these tactics fail, the opossum has one last trick up its sleeve—”playing ‘possum.” In an involuntary response similar to fainting, the opossum rolls on its side, with lips drawn back, teeth bared, and tongue hanging to the side, mimicking a dead animal. In this unconscious state, they also secrete a foul-smelling liquid like that of a rotting carcass. Because most predators prefer live prey, the enemy will interpret these signs that the opossum is dead and lose interest.
Opossums are non-aggressive, reclusive animals that only want to be left alone. Unfortunately, they often fall victim to misinformation, and the results can be disastrous for them. Not exactly the cutest animal, they’re further burdened by the misconception that they’re rabid when they drool and hiss, which is actually a bluff tactic to scare off predators. In fact, opossums tend to be resistant to rabies, a trait thought to have something to do with their low body temperature (94 to 97 degrees Fahrenheit), which doesn’t provide a suitable environment for the virus to live.
Having no defenses, opossums are often the target of inhumane acts to get rid of them, especially in urban areas where they are cruelly trapped or poisoned. They have a life expectancy of only 1 to 4 years due to their many predators, which include foxes, bobcats, coyotes, owls, and dogs; however, their habit of eating roadkill results in far more being killed by automobiles than any other predator.
Opossums are increasing in numbers and expanding their range throughout North America. Not particular where they take up residence, and highly adaptable, they can thrive in almost any habitat where there is food, water, and a denning site to meet their needs. Because the living environs of wild creatures often overlap that of humans, a better knowledge and understanding of all wild animals and the role they play in the greater ecological scheme are essential to a peaceful coexistence with humans.
That couldn’t be truer than in the case of the opossum. These harmless creatures pose absolutely no threat to people, and they are far more beneficial as scavengers than harmful for any damage they might do. The good news is, if you can keep them out of the places where you don’t want them, opossums are actually pretty amazing creatures to have on the homestead. Typically, they go about their business so quietly that you won’t even know they’re around. Should you happen to encounter one, do nothing! These reclusive animals seldom stay in one place long. The best thing to do is watch from a distance and enjoy one of nature’s most beneficial wildlife species.
If, despite all the good that opossums do to rid your property of pests, you would prefer that they move on, there are simple, non-lethal ways to discourage them.