This is the time of year when our organization receives many emails and phone calls regarding wildlife in custody. One of the most common questions is about a certain frequent backyard visitor.
This visitor is drawn to people’s yards by the pet food they leave out, the garbage they put out for pick-up, or simply to prey on delicious creatures like roaches, bugs and slugs. The visitor is commonly found living near humans in gardens, under decks, in sheds, and occasionally in the swimming pool. This native Texas critter is the basis for the urban legend about rats “as big as cats” being found in big cities. In reality, it is not a rodent at all, it is actually the only marsupial native to Texas. That’s right, marsupial, as in related to the kangaroo. It is the opossum or as some people call it, the “possum” (the O is optional).
The Opossum may be one of the most misunderstood and underappreciated animals to frequent people’s yards. People seem to fall into two categories: They love to watch them, or they can’t stand the sight of them. Though they are known for “playing possum” (feigning death) when threatened, when startled they open their mouths wide, hiss, snarl, lunge and drool. This is typically the first defense in the presence of perceived danger.
Maybe if they had the charismatic good looks of some of their Australian cousins (like Koalas and Wallabies) they would get more love. However, they have something important going for them—something their “mates” from Down Under don’t. They help people.
Don’t believe it? Here are the facts.
These are just some of the neighborhood pests that opossum regularly feed on, thus providing an important balance: Beetles, Carrion (carcasses of dead animals), Cockroaches, Mice, Rats, Slugs, Snails, Snakes (including venomous species), Ticks and more. The opossum is starting to look pretty attractive now, isn’t it?
Tips and Tricks
Some scientists refer to opossum as “living fossils”. Due to a lower than average body temperature (94-97 degrees) they have partial immunity to venomous native snakes, allowing them to recover quickly. While an encounter with a hissing, snarling, lunging, drooling opossum will leave you thinking it is rabid, their lower-than-average body temperature is why they rarely ever contract the Rabies virus so many other native mammals do.
If you find an opossum in your backyard, the best thing to do is to leave it alone. If you want it to move, the best chance is to eliminate why it is there in the first place. Remove pet food, secure garbage in cans with locking lids, eliminate standing water and access to shelter under decks and in backyard sheds. The Opossum Society of the United States is a great resource for advice on the best way to deal with unwelcome opossums.
If you think you have found an “orphan”, your best bet might be to leave it alone. The juveniles are surprisingly small when they strike out on their own. Generally, if it is more than 7” long they can survive on their own. If they are less than that, or appear to be sick or injured, visit Texas Wildlife and Parks' website to find a licensed and experienced rehabilitator near you.
I myself am a huge fan of the Opossum. Having worked with many of them in wildlife education programs over the last 30 years, I have found them to have quite a range of personalities. While they are not widely recognized for their intelligence, they have outfoxed both cats and dogs at remembering where food is located in a blind maze.
Furthermore, I have barely scratched the surface about just how truly unique this native species is. You don’t have to like opossum, but I hope you will appreciate and respect the role they play in keeping humans a little safer from venomous snakes and other dangerous critters!
‘Til next time, David “Critterman” Kleven