COMMON OPOSSUM MYTHS AND PHRASES:
"Eww it's a big rat!"
"They carry disease."
"They are worthless!"
"They kill my chickens and attack my pets!"
I could go on and on with the horrible things I have heard and read about Opossums. I'll get back to debunking these myths later on. Let me start by telling you all about this fantastic Mammal!
North American Virginia Opossum FACTS:
These mammals are found all over North America.
They are Marsupials (pouched animals) and the only Marsupials we have in North America.
Opossums have a Prehensil tail. This hairless tail is used to grip onto mom as a baby and tree branches later in life when foraging for food.
N.A. Virginia Opossums have a lifespan of about 2 years in the wild and up to 3 years in captivity.
In California and some other states they are a Protected Species (they should be everywhere).
Opossums are healthy for our ecosystems.
Opossums are omnivores. They eat fruit, snail, slugs, some insects, small rodents and lizards, and the occassional egg. They are scavengers not hunters.
Female Opossums have a pouch, the males do not. They have 13 nipples in their pouch and can give birth to 1-50 babies but only the first 13 to crawl into their moms pouch and latch on have a chance of survival. The average litter that survives is about 3-6 babies.
Opossums have a great sense of smell but poor eyesight.
Opossums are Nocturnal, coming out in the night and sleeping by day.
Opossums are great climbers and will climb trees to get fruit and food, however they choose to sleep on the ground in holes, dense bushes, or burrows they find.
Opossums are excellent for keeping a healthy ecosystem.
Now lets continue with facts and debunk some common Opossum myths.
While opossums do have a "rat-like" tail they are NOT rats and they are NOT rodents. They are Marsupials.
They do not hang by their tails from trees and attack or sleep that way (only in cartoons) Opossums can NOT carry rabies or other diseases because they have one of the lowest body temperatures of any mammal. The worst thing they might have is fleas (and lets be honest everyone has fleas at some point).
They are not worthless. Opossums clean up rotting fruit, keep pest species like snails under control, and play a valuable role in every ecosystem, even in the city.
These next two deserve an entire section to themselves: "They kill my chickens and attack my pets!"
"They're mean!". Let us take a moment for an important Opossum Lesson:
Opossums are scared of everything! They are not very fast and can often get cornered by a person, dog, or other animal. The first thing they do it sit still thinking "maybe it won't see me", when that doesn't work they open their mouth to show you all 50 of their sharp pointy teeth (great for cracking nuts and snail shells) they hope that when their attacker sees their impressive teeth the attacker will leave them alone. When this doesn't work they puff up to look big and hiss (sounds like a cat hissing), hoping with all their might to be left alone.
THEY ARE BLUFFING!
Most people have heard of the term "playing opossum" or seen it on a cartoon. The fact of the matter is they are not pretending. When all of their bluff tactics don't work, some Opossums get so freaked out that they faint! They actually pass out from fear. When this happens nature kicks in and sets off a scent gland that releases a horrible odor (to make them smell dead). Smelling dead is good because if you are going to be helplessly passesd out for a few hours you don't want a passing Mountain Lion or other carnivore to eat you. Since Carnivores only like fresh meat they pass the stinky Opossums by. A great defense for a scared animal. In the city people see a "dead" Opossum and toss them in their dumpsters only to be surprised when they hear it moving around later in the night.
Opossums only bite if cornered and something touches them, bites at them, or physically attacks them. They have no other choice (I would bite too). They do NOT chase people or pets or livestock. A lot of times people say "but I saw it chasing..." what they saw was a terrified Opossum trying to escape, and because they are slower, their pursuer usually gets ahead of them making it look like they are the one's chasing.
Most living things on the planet like eggs, Opossums are no exception. They are tasty, easy to eat, and can't fight back. I want to really stress that Opossums are scavengers, NOT hunters. If you have chicken coops lock your chickens up at night and all will be well. The only confilict here is when Chicken owners do not have properly protected coops (standard chicken wire works), or when they don't lock them up at night.
If You Do Not Want Opossums To Affect You:
Keep Your garage and sheds closed.
Keep all your pets in at night (this is a must for their safety from all nocturnal wildlife)
If you have chickens, have their coops properly wired and lock them in at dusk for the night.
Keep all your trash cans sealed, properly recycle (Opossums and other small animals get heads caught in yogurt containers and other plastic waste).
Do Not Feed Your Pets Outside! (this protects them and ALL wildlife)
You Do Not Have To "Like" All Wildlife. Please Respect That ALL Wildlife Is Important!
Some Mexicans and other cultures believe that eating Opossum can cure illness and disease. This is NOT true. I had a long conversation with my friend Reyes about this but there was no convincing him to not eat them. In the end I pointed out that they are protected in California and killing them was illegal.
On the subject of food; Yes people still eat Opossums. When I was 17 I visited my grandmother in Alabama and was offered Opossum stew at a friends house. I declined. As with any scavenger animal, their meat is not the healthiest for you. (neither is squirrel, a true rodent, but thats another blog) If you like meat, I reccomend healthy farmed meat that comes from animals whose diets are known.
If you go to ebay and type in a search "Opossum" like I did one year (I was looking for a Christmas ornament) it will amaze you how many hats, scarves, body parts, and stuffed Opossums are up for auction. Their body parts are NOT Lucky, Have NO magic health benefits, and I for one do not find Opossum Head hats funny or stylish.
Opossums are not the smartest of mammals, they are one of the most ancient, and the slowest to change and evolve. Dogs, cars, and people taking shots at them for fun, decrease their numbers at a rapid rate every year. Opossums live their short lives running on instinct, scavenging for food, and hiding from all the "scary" things they encounter.
As a rehabilitator. I occasionally get babies that need help. The goal is to rescue, raise, then release back into their natural environment. I love them. Because they have such bad short term memory you can hold, cuddle and play with them but after a couple of days with no human contact they completely forget you and revert back to "fear humans" instinct. This makes them easy to raise and release successfully.
YOU CAN HELP!
If you don't like them, I'll repeat: Keep Your garage and sheds closed. Keep all your pets in at night (this is a must for their safety from all nocturnal wildlife), If you have chickens, have their coops properly wired and lock them in at dusk for the night. Keep all your trash cans sealed, properly recycle (Opossums and other small animals get heads caught in yogurt containers and other plastic waste). Do Not Feed Your Pets Outside! (this protects them ans ALL wildlife).
If You WantTo Help:
Do all of the above. Do Not Feed Them. Know Opossum Rescues near you in case you see one in distress.
Educate others. Learn More! If You Have More Questions Please Ask!
I have not even come close to sharing everything Awesome About Opossums! I will however, leave you with the story of Little and Lucky. This is always on the 'Rebecca' page so many may have already read it.
Remember All Wildlife Is Important! Remember Wildlife, Rebecca
some teeth. He should still be with his mom. We brought him up to my place and hand picked every flea off of him. A quick run to the pet store to get a bottle and we were ready to take care of him. "He sure is lucky that we found him" Margo said. Yes he is Lucky, and the name stuck. So commenced the bottle feeding every two hours. I made him a pouch he could crawl in an out of just like on mom. I was in love. Feeding every two hours I was tired when there was a knock on my door the next morning. I opened it to see our apartment's handyman, an avid animal lover, "found another one under the trash" and he hands me the this tiny opossum. He was cold, almost bald, no teeth, and barely moved. He was so little. I got him cleaned up and fed and he joined Lucky in the pouch. I had a vet tech friend of mine come look at him. It doesn't look good she said, he won't last long. I wasn't going to give up. As long as they weren't suffering I would try. For over a month I fed and played with them. The great thing about opossums is that you can humanize them and still release them back into the wild
because they forget they know people once they are free. Little was much slower growing then Lucky. When it came time to release them, Lucky left without a second glance back, and Little climbed back into his bed. Ok I though he isn't quite ready yet. A week later we tried again. Margo and I said our goodbyes and I placed him near a bush outside. He walked a few inches and sank down shaking. "I know it's probably just me", I told Margo "but I can't do it he doesn't look right". Margo agreed. When I got home from class the next day she said "I finally found a vet that will look at him, my treat". It amazed us how many vets considered them rats not worthy of care. Opossums are specialized marsupials and the only ones we have in North America. We found an amazing vet. We took my poor Little to the vet and it turned out he had a malformed spine. Instead of growing bigger his spine was zigzagging in his little body. This was slowly cutting off his nerves and making his front legs eventually paralyzed. The vet assured me he was not in any pain, said he was healthy weight, and that although he was not releasable, he could live a happy life in captivity. Lucky had very specific white markings on his ears and we would see him from time to time wandering outside, bigger each time, and looking good. Little stayed with me, well loved. He lasted a year, not to bad for a disbabled opossum. He is buried in a giant pot under a rubber plant as
unique as he was. I cried and cried. He had been a wildlife ambassador for my classes and my beloved companion.
I miss him.
Opossums usually live about two years in the wild and up to three years in captivity. They are not legal pets and require wildlife permits. Although many people don't like them they play an important part in our environment.
If you see a baby opossum don't assume it needs help. A little opossum between half a pound and a pound is capable of being on it's own. All they need is fur and teeth. If they are smaller but look healthy, no worries, mom is usually not far behind.