The Opossum is indeed a unique animal, and deserves our admiration.
The opossum is a marsupial, an animal that carry’s it young in a pouch. Kangaroos and Koalas are other examples. They are not related to rats. Opossums have a reputation as chicken killers, egg stealers, and raiders of cat food left out on porches. Sadly this slow moving, non-aggressive animal is often killed on the spot. In fact the opossum has many likeable qualities. Opossums eat mainly “bad bugs” such as beetles, cockroaches, grasshoppers as well as snails, mice and carrion. They are also voracious eaters of ticks. One study found that one opossum could eat 4000 ticks in a week! The opossum does the community good by cleaning up undesirables and lowering disease carrying vectors. And they are a great helper to organic gardeners!
The opossum has an excellent immune system. Opossums will open their mouths and drool when cornered giving the impression that they have rabies. In fact, they rarely get rabies, distemper, or parvo and this behavior is just a defense mechanism.
Opossums have been instrumental in helping scientists develop anti venom because they are immune to bee strings and snake bites. Opossums will actually hunt and kill rattlesnakes and are encouraged residents where these snakes are a problem.
· Opossums have the shortest gestation period (11-13 days) and are born so tiny that 16 of them would fit in a teaspoon!
· Baby opossums, like baby kangaroos, are called Joey’s.
· The pouch can seal so completely that the babies inside will remain dry even if the mother is swimming.
· The name “opossum” is from the Native American Algonquian word “apasum” meaning white animal.
· The opossum has 50 teeth, more than any other North American mammal.
· The opossum has opposable thumbs (like us) on their hind feet.
· Ancient fossil remains of the opossum have dated to 60 million years ago.
· Possums have few natural defenses and will play dead to try and fool predators.
Do you have an opossum in an unwanted area? There are several things you can do. Make sure you close up holes along foundations securely with hardware cloth. Close cat and dog doors at dusk and keep tight fitting lids on garbage cans. Don’t feed cats and dogs outside in the evening and clean up under bird feeders. Do you have an opossum getting onto your roof or attic? Trim tree limbs that overhang your house. Opossums cannot jump and will no longer have access. Opossums are very mobile and change dens every few days to avoid predators so it is often possible to wait out a resident guest.
Poultry houses should have secure locks and latches and hardware cloth (not just screening) on windows. Opossums have very dexterous paws and are very good at opening latches. Keep in mind opossums can climb wood and wire fences. Use wire with smaller than 3 inch spaces. Trapping and removing opossums does not work as this will just leave a void soon to be filled by another opossum.
If you are interested in supporting the opossum build a brush pile in the back of your yard away from neighborhood dogs as a daytime hiding place.
Baby opossums are sometimes in need of rescue. An opossum hit by a car or killed by dogs may have babies living in the pouch or still clinging to her back. Occasionally a baby possum falls off and becomes separated from its mother. An opossum less than 7 inches long, not including tail, is too young to survive on its own. Do not feed the babies at all. This can be fatal. You can carefully place these babies in a box with a towel. Add a bottle of warm water wrapped in a towel and secured to the side of the box. Transport to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. It is illegal to keep opossums as pets.
Ame Vanorio is the founder/director of Fox Run Environmental Education Center in Falmouth, Ky. We teach environmental education programs and serve as a licensed wildlife rehabilitation center. Call us with wildlife emergencies at 859-242-1037.