Yesterday on D-Listed, there was a hilarious video of a snowboarding opossum from Pennsylvania. It reminded me of something I hadn’t thought about in while: opossums are my favorite varmints. In fact, they’re one of my favorite animals, next to hedgehogs, porcupines, and the honey badger. Opossums are grossly misunderstood animals which live up to almost none of the preconceived notions about them.
Possums – let’s face it, nobody says the “o” and it sounds pretentious – are mostly thought of as nasty, aggressive creatures with vile temperaments and an even more loathsome appearance. Most of this, however, is an urban myth. I’m convinced that 98% of the shade thrown at possums has to do with their tails. Yeah, I know they look like rat tails. Rats are another one of nature’s misunderstood critters, but I don’t find them quite as endearing as possums.
In the first place, possums are not naturally aggressive. Yes, they have more teeth than any other mammal in North America. Actually, they might have more than any mammal in the world, but I’d have to check on that. Anyway, they have a mouthful of knives, and they look terrible when they open their scissor bills. Of course, all wild animals can and do bite. It doesn’t take a genius to work that one out. Yes, possums do bite, but so dogs and cats.
In fact, possums are so keen to avoid confrontation that their first line of defense is…. hissing and drooling. Yes, they drool uncontrollably when threatened. It looks repulsive, but it’s hardly something to haunt your dreams at night. They do this to appear rabid though interestingly, possums are extremely resistant to the rabies virus. Why is this? Their body temperature is too low for the virus to survive. Animals such as raccoons and bats, however, are far more likely to be carriers.
The possum’s second line of defense? Play dead and emit an offensive odor. Wow. Terrifying. I guess if you’re afraid of zombies or roadkill… The possum can fall into a self-induced coma for minutes to hours, depending on the amount of adrenaline produced by its system. This can lead to unfortunate accidents with cars or lead to the possum being eaten alive by a predator that isn’t scared of bad smells and drool. Still, when all is said and done, possums are far more likely to take a the coward’s way out than to fight for their lives. Most of them just want to run away.
Another common misconception about possums is that they’re dirty. Well, most animals that live outside won’t smell like a rose garden, but possums are no more or less dirty than your average critter. They have acquired this reputation because they will eat just about anything: bugs, fruit, cat food, carrion, and other unseemly tidbits. Possums are like one of nature’s garbage disposals. That is to say, they will clean up things that other animals won’t, and that doesn’t make them dirty; it makes them a useful part of the ecosystem and food chain.
Possums haven’t evolved much in the last 70 million years. They are extremely well-adapted for survival. There are possum fossils dating back to dinosaur times. They must be doing something right, or they wouldn’t have been around so darn long! They also have opposable thumbs on their back paws. They are great climbers, though past a young age, they can’t hang by their tails from trees like everyone thinks. Apparently, they are also good at killing real pests, like mice and snakes. (I actually don’t think snakes are bad, though I wouldn’t want them in the house unannounced!)
Some people have even been known to keep possums as pets. They are usually found as babies who have been injured or lost their mother. They are rehabbed and live an indoor life. They can be litter box trained, and they are not particularly demanding, although they live extremely short lives – about four years, maximum. They sleep most of the time. The rest of the time, they are looking for food. Once their caloric needs are satisfied, they will generally go back to sleep. They spend even more time snoozing than our feline friends, which makes for a pretty lazy animal.
In fact, possums have more to fear from cats and dogs than the other way around. As previously stated, possums are pretty docile creatures. They respond well to human contact when they become used to it, and they seem to enjoy cuddling and petting. Not exactly the stuff that giant rat-monsters are made of, huh?
Am I saying that you should trap and adopt a baby possum? No. Unless they are in need of medical attention, wild animals are best left in their proper habitat: the wild. However, I think it’s really sad that people abuse and kill these animals just because they have been trained to think of them as ugly, predatory, aggressive beasts that carry rabies and spread the plague. None of these things are true, and it is pointless to go around killing possums for sport. It is a waste of resources to trap them and bring them to animal control shelters, as there are other, more dangerous animals that pose real threats for which that money might be better used.
Yes, this is totally a pet cause of mine, but I like to think outside of the “statist quo,” as one of my favorite writers, Jeffrey Tucker, would say. You don’t have to believe something just because everyone says you should. Drink bourbon in your coffee on a Sunday morning. Turn your water heater up above the “safety zone” so that you get steaming hot water that actually cleans things. Be kind to your neighborhood possums. They’re not hurting anyone or anything, including your yard, your flowers, or your pets. In fact, possums are docile, timid creatures that want nothing more than to survive and coexist in their environment. And judging from the fact that they’ve been around several million years longer than we have, it sounds like they have the right idea!