Opossums don’t get any respect. The Rodney Dangerfields of the wildlife world were recently featured in a Wall Street Journal article that touted the pelts of New Zealand opossums as “eco-fur” because opossums are allegedly overpopulated in Kiwi country. Ironically, opossums’ bad rap has actually served them well in this case—just the word “opossum” is enough to make people recoil in revulsion from a muff made of marsupials. Score one for beady black eyes and a bald, pink tail.
If we could just get past that prehensile tail and scraggly fur, we might discover that opossums are actually quite amazing—and beneficial. Opossums may not be long on intelligence as we humans measure it, but they must be doing something right, because they have survived in their present form for millions of years. Contrary to many people’s misconception, opossums aren’t rodents; these prehistoric fellows are North America’s only marsupial. Because of their low body temperature, rabies is virtually unheard of in opossums.
Opossums are nature’s janitors. They clean up what many other animals wouldn’t lay a paw on: roadkill, rotten fruits and vegetables, rancid meat, snails and insects. If you see opossums in your yard, rest assured that they aren’t doing any harm. They aren’t digging (opossums’ tender pink feet are too delicate), trying to nest in your attic (mother opossums carry their young in their pouches, so they don’t need to nest) or eating anything you’d want for yourself—in fact, they’re probably performing a valuable service by gobbling up plant-eating slugs or home-invading cockroaches.
When injured or threatened, opossums sometimes hiss and spit, but it’s all a big act. Instead of biting, opossums are more likely to roll over and play dead in a performance that would put Sir Lawrence Olivier to shame, complete with glazed eyes, lolling tongue and even a rank odor that discourages anyone from even thinking of eating them.
My doctor can verify this. One evening, his golden retriever came in from the back yard and proudly dropped a vile-smelling “dead” opossum at his feet. “Get that out of here!” he ordered his teenage son, who gingerly carried the animal out into the yard. The next day, there was no trace of the opossum. The moral of this story is, never presume that an opossum who appears to be dead actually is. Leave them alone for a few hours and, more likely than not, they will have revived and moved on.
Whatever you do, don’t put an opossum in a garbage can, which they will not be able to escape from if they are only “playing ‘possum.” I once found a baby opossum, barely big enough to be on his own, in the bottom of a garbage can that I had left outside without a lid. Apparently, the opossum had fallen into it from the tree limb above. The youngster was sound asleep, tuckered out from struggling to free himself from a plastic six-pack ring that he was entangled in. I carefully snipped away the plastic with a pair of scissors, then I turned the garbage can on its side and tiptoed away. When I returned an hour later, he was gone.
I’m not the only one who admires opossums. One woman I know allows an opossum to come in through her pet door and eat with her cats. Another family allowed an opossum who had gotten into an unused side porch to sleep in a box during the winter and come and go as he pleased. They were rewarded for their hospitality with the cleanest yard on the block. So what should you do if you see opossums in your yard? Smile and thank them for the good work that they came to do.
Carla Bennett is the author of Living in Harmony With Animals . She wrote this for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; www.HelpingWildlife.com.