The poor opossum: loved by few, scoffed at by many, and labelled as little more than a dumb animal that merits either a shotgun blast or bludgeon. He is rabid, hisses, eats children, defecates where he wants, runs one out of house and home…The list goes on. But, is he actually a pest of the highest order? This poor creature is often misaligned, keeps to himself, and seldom sticks around to cause trouble. Let’s take a deeper look at one of nature’s old-school mammals and see what we can learn.
So, what exactly is an Opossum?
Opossums (commonly known as possum) actually make up the largest order of marsupials in all of the western hemisphere. The originated in South America and did not expand northwards until north and south america connected, close to three million years ago (note that opossums date back to over 70 million years)!
Opossums are omnivores by nature and will generally eat almost anything that they can get their paws around. They are semi-aquatic thanks in part to webbed rear limbs, and can also take to the trees. They are a well-rounded marsupial that has adapted rather well to their environment. Opossums groom in a manner similar to house cats. They have five fingers on the front limbs, while the rear limbs include an flexible thumb and only four fingers.
Opossums can give birth to large numbers of babies, with a rather high attrition rate considering the limited number of young that can feed on mother’s teats (usually no more than 13). The newborns must make their way to the mother’s pouch, then hold on for dear life and nurse as needed. The young tend to hang around mummy dearest until around 4 months of age, when they start foraging on their own over greater distances.
Quiet by nature, opossums don’t make much noise but will usually hiss if they are threatened (which can be a bit unnerving, albeit usually harmless and essentially a warning that states ‘hey, I am scared and don’t want to be messed with!‘). The young make a rather dry clicking sound when searching for mom (who will usually respond with a clicking sound of her own).
Opossums eat a wide variety of food, ranging from insects, fruit, small mammals, frogs and crayfish, roadkill (even other opossums), and snakes. Almost all of the creatures that we call pests, the opossum will eat. They have no problems in raiding vegetable gardens. An interesting dietary side note: opossums are practically immune to most snake venom, so they are quite adept at thinning out snake populations without fear or risk of poison. Unfortunately, when food sources get scarce, the opossums becomes a bit more bold and can raid bird feeders, pet food, and even garbage. On a positive note, this can be a good thing: eating garbage and other less desirous food sources helps to keep a potential rodent population from cropping up.
As far as predators go, the list includes many larger mammals such as dogs and coyotes, as well as larger birds such as the owl. Automobiles are also not kind to Mr. Opossum and account for many the demise of our marsupial friend.
Opossums are actually edible and offer highly sought meat in some parts of the world. I can think of many, many other meals of which to partake before I resort to possum stew, but this might give you some insight as to how long possums have been around…Long enough for some cultures to develop an appetite for our slightly unattractive little friend.
But he looks dead!
Opossums provide the source for the notorious playing possum anecdote – when faced with a threat, their best survival option is to simply play dead. They fall to the ground, drool, relieve themselves, and emit a greenish fluid near the underside of the tail (from a special sac, just for this purpose). For all purposes, they look and smell dead. This is actually a great survival mechanism (outside of humans, which were really only a threat for a small portion of the opossums’s evolutionary ladder), as most predators dislike feasting on ‘spoiled’ carcasses. Note that, once an opossum initiates this stage of playing dead, it is literally a seizure that he can no longer control; as such, he could be in this stage for a few minutes to an hour or more.
What to do when an opossum pays a visit
The opossum is best described as a loner nomad, slow (they cannot run) and overly cautious: he rarely shares the company of other adult opossums outside of mating. He is most active at night, preferring to sleep away the day in a hideout or shelter (under porches, attics, abandoned sheds…See the picture that is forming?). Due to low body fat (a trait that many mammals also want…), he is always in ‘forage’ mode. Contrary to popular belief, opossums rarely contract rabies.
This should give you some important insight on our friend the opossum: they are usually alone, have to forage for survival, and are generally active only at night. When spooked, they have a habit of acting (and smelling) dead, and they cannot control the duration of this behavior, once initiated. What this means is that spotting an opossum should not raise an alarm that a ‘possum invasion is about to hit. He will most likely dig around for food and then move on. And stumbling across a ‘dead’ opossum in your yard might just mean that he is only acting dead and will move on as soon as he is able. Based on these factors, your best bet is to simply ignore your invading opossum: he will move on soon enough.
There are many proactive measures you can take to ensure that any visiting opossum’s stay will be a brief one. This includes:
- securing garbage cans with a well-fitted lid
- putting up mesh wire or lattice work to keep them out of decks and attic access
- don’t forget to clean your grill on a regular basis, as the smell can also attract opossums (not to mention the wayward hobo, which is another matter entirely)
- you can place spikes around gutters in order to keep them from being used as ladders for the opossum
- keep tree limbs trimmed up so they don’t give direct access to your attic
- keep pet droppings picked up in the yard
Most important of all: don’t feed the opossum or other wildlife, as this essentially gives them a ticket to come back again and again.
If you have rolled out a welcome mat for an opossum with ample supplies of food, such as piled garbage, pet refuse and food, or cozy shelter opportunities, then you might have to resort to trapping in order to keep the opossum away. When trapping, one should release the captured opossum in a nearby area. Otherwise, their chance of survival is greatly diminished due to an unfamiliarity of the new environment: unknown nature of predators and predators’ habits, questionable food sources, and so forth. This may seem counter-productive, but chances are that the opossum will not come back, provided that you take the time to opossum-proof your yard and home.
You can check with your local conservation department for traps that you can either rent or borrow. If this is not an option, there are many traps available commercially. I have had the best luck with the Havahart 1079 Live Animal Professional-Style Cage Trap. Here is what is looks like:
I recommend it highly, or a similar model that allows for both easy entrance and exit for the opossum. Plus, you can use it for other pests (even the neighbor’s cat…But I digress and will save that story for another day). Bait your trap with fruit (apple slices, for example), or boiled eggs. You will want to place the trap in the same area where you have seen the opossum. Alternatively, place it near a food source or potential shelter. Check the trap regularly, if you please.
When you catch the opossum, put on some gloves and carefully carry or drive the trap to a new location; open the hatch and move back until the animal leaves. It is not rocket science, but since you have an animal in captivity, and against his will, you want to be sure that there is no opportunity for him to sneak in a bite or scratch. In short, be careful and diligent, and your trap relocation will be a success.
Always check your local laws before attempting to trap and/or relocate an opossum (using live traps is usually OK, but relocating them outside of the local area can be illegal in many places). Slight disclaimer: once an opossum has been trapped and released, chances are that it will be that much harder to trap again.
Opossums are fascinating and ancient creatures that are worthy of both our curiosity and respect. With minimal precautions on your end, such as limiting the opportunity to find food and shelter around your home or structure, the rambling opossum will simply pass through, hopefully ridding you of a rat, snake or refuse pile along the way.