Man’s (Solitary) Other Best Friend
Story and Photo by Kim Doner
Over the years, I’ve lost count of how many people insist they want to turn wildlife into pets (or, worse, they bragged they had done so). The list has been endless: crows, raccoons, squirrels, owls and bunnies are the most common species desired. I have a standard reply to all: No. It is illegal and immoral. End of story.
But occasionally, someone asks, “So, is there any wild animal that could make a good pet?” While my answer is the same, i.e., a definitive no, I say so with pause. There is one species, a truly gentle animal, that contributes far more to our lives (with less threat) than any other. Although most folks shudder when I answer: the opossum.
It’s really kind of funny. The predictable response is a wrinkled face, rapid step backward, and “Eww! But they’re so ugly—they look like giant rats!” at which point I shake my head in resignation. I’ve found that, far too often, those who ask about making a wild animal into a pet often want do so for status alone. They seldom consider what life would be like if and/or when they committed to genuine care of a species nor do they want to learn. What matters is the “cool” factor, and I get it: possums aren’t exactly “cool.”
Why the Possum Is Awesome
However, I would like to defend my choice with reasons as to why possums are pretty spectacular anyway. And, yes, I know the accurate term is “opossum,” but here in Oklahoma, the culture accepts the shortened version as possum for North America’s only marsupial. Let’s go with that.
To begin with, they are survivors. This species of mammal hung out with dinosaurs, and their ancestors can be traced back around 70 million years. They have changed very little in that time, which has certainly been to their benefit; studies of their diet show them to be opportunistic, flexible and quite enthusiastic about eating whatever comes their way. If one has ever catered to a picky eater (pet or human), this particular trait is quite attractive.
Next, possums are the freebie funeral coordinators of the wild. They have highly sensitive noses, which help with cleanup jobs needed from road kill (a service often putting them in danger due to slow reaction times to what created the road kill in the first place, tragically setting them up as a next victim). Possums also have great hearing, which guides them to discover nests of rats, mice and snakes, along with grub worms, grasshoppers, roaches, crickets, snails and slugs.
I would think snakes might intimidate possums, but they are highly resistant to snakebites—an ability currently being tested for antivenin treatments. Since nearly 100,000 people die from snakebites annually, deciphering why possums don’t could lead to breakthroughs in saving lives. Thus, one can always count on pest control if a possum is around.
With more teeth than any other mammal (an impressive count of 50), possum power resides in the jaws. They have a constant need for calcium, so chomping bones into bits is a favorite pastime. If they don’t get enough calcium in their diet, they can manifest metabolic bone disease, which is painful and eventually fatal. I probably sound like a broken record, but it’s illegal to keep wildlife without a license, and this only underscores another reason why: avoidable cruelty.
Once a possum has cleared your yard of unwanted mammals, reptiles, slugs and bugs, it’ll move on to take out the smaller invaders who pose a growing threat to gardeners and nature-lovers: ticks. As fastidious groomers, they will sashay through the backyard, luring those nasty little parasites down to dinner, presenting themselves as a moving feast—only to halt the process with a lick-a-thon to take out the offending vermin. This act will happen multiple times all through spring, summer and fall months, divesting yards of disease-laden suckers in the thousands (goodbye, Lyme disease!). Not a bad deal for simply leaving possums alone, is it?
Solitary, Nocturnal Creatures
And speaking of leaving them alone, they are solitary by nature. Unlike raccoons, who are quite social, possums will partner up only to mate or, upon rare occasion, to stay warm. Other than that, they enjoy not only solitude but a slightly nomadic lifestyle, kind of like folks who flip houses. These marsupials will have standing sources for finding meals in a territory, bringing to mind those who know all the Starbucks or QuikTrip locations around their neighborhood, but they only sleep in one nest for a few nights at a time. Their long, naked tails have mistakenly been used as handles for lifting possums (and please don’t do that—it hurts); they don’t hang from their tails to get around but, rather, use them as support for climbing and as tools for carrying bedding.
Being as how possums are nocturnal, once the sun is about to rise and one gets sleepy, the possum will gather leaves in bunches with its front paws and tuck the wads underneath its belly into the tail, which wraps around and secures the bundle for transport. After several trips, this architect oozes into a cozily engineered nest and covers up, blocking out sunlight, noise and intruders with the final bundle pulled in last as a seal.
The surprising thing is to find how small a hole can be but still admit a large possum (something homeowners with cat doors have discovered to their dismay). Possums are extremely agile. Thus, if the head can get through, so can the rest of the possum. People often call wildlife rehabbers with the wish to get rid of an imposing possum, usually one who has found a nice hidey-hole in the garage, so here’s the trick: use a large trash can and some of last night’s leftovers: fruit, bones with a little meat, applesauce or even some pet kibble (fruit or meat being the best draw). Put a few scoops in the bottom of the trash can and arrange steps up to the edge. Tip the can to lean against the steps, so when the possum reaches the top and climbs down inside, the trash can rights itself.
Now go to bed. In the morning, you will probably have a rather disconcerted critter in your up-righted trash can. Pour the possum out into nearby bushes and be sure to block the way it got in. You might want to rinse out the trashcan, too—just a thought. I realize many will be grossed out at the possibility of being so close to such an invader, but let me assure you: possums fear you far more than you need to fear them. Consider this: more people die annually from bee stings (an average of 62) than possum bites (an average of 0).
They hiss, pretend to charge, and, yes, they would bite you if you pushed hard enough. But chances are you would terrify said possum to the point of fainting instead. This is an involuntary response to raw fear after they’ve used up their repertoire of flashing all their teeth and copiously leaking at both ends to mimic being diseased. These defenses often deter an attacker, but as a last resort, possum bodies shut down. The ruse, truly a physical response they can’t control, allows them to appear dead and not too tasty. Their attacker usually leaves, and after a time (anywhere from 10 minutes to four hours or so), the possum awakens and waddles off.
Your Turn to Be Awesome
But what if they aren’t playing possum? Seeing as how so many are hit by cars, odds are the one lying by the side of the road is dead. For the brave-hearted, caring souls willing to do so, here is a true challenge: check for a full pouch. I realize this requires nerves of steel and, sometimes, a strong stomach, but if this is a mama possum who has expired, she could well have babies. That means you would be their only chance of survival.
Some rescuers have wrapped the carcass with its live babies in a towel and delivered the entire set to a vet; others will gently pull the babies out of the pouch instead. Note: the most important part of rescue is warmth. Baby wildlife have no body fat or temperature controls; if it’s 80 degrees outside, they will still be chilled. Your own body heat, a towel on the front seat with the seat heater turned on, or a hot water bottle/warmed rice bag/heating pad on low heat beneath the towel will usually do the trick; just be sure it’s not too hot for you first as a safety measure. Then, start looking for a rehabber ASAP.
I’ll save my fascinating information as to how baby possums get started for another day (such as the next issue) and, for now, will add my last assurance on why the possum is a cool dude: disease. Feral cats carry a multitude of contagious illnesses that will affect your own pets; other wild mammals (bats, coyotes, skunks) can carry rabies. Raccoons share distemper, parvo with pets and roundworms with people. Granted, one doesn’t want a possum using the stored grain you have as a public latrine since it can infect horses with salmonella or other illnesses, but, most often, the possum is a quiet, helpful neighbor.
Bottom line: the possum is awesome. Love ‘em and leave ‘em alone!