Opossums have been around for about 65 million years and they are common garden visitors. But, before you sick your dogs on the only North American marsupial, take a minute to learn about the benefits of this cat-sized rat lookalike.
Opossums (Didelphis virginiana) may have a terrifying set of 50 scraggly teeth, but they provide more help than harm. Opossums are estimated to eat 5,000 ticks each year, along with other garden pests, such as snails and slugs. They also eat frogs and bird eggs. [This can be a problem if you raise chickens. A secure coop goes a long way to prevent disaster.] While an opossum may occasionally eat fresh fruit or vegetables, they usually prefer rotting plant and animal material, so they are helping keep the garden clean.
If opossums have become combative with cats or dogs, it is commonly because they are trying to get at your pet’s food. The easiest solution is to feed pets indoors and remove the temptation.
Everyone has heard of “playing ‘possum” but the truth is even stranger than the fiction. When an opossum is scared or hurt, it literally becomes uncontrollably catatonic, baring its fangs, foaming at the mouth, and releasing a foul-smelling stench from its anal glands, presumably to deter predators. Opossums’ maximum speed is only 7 m.p.h., so this is their only real defense, besides growling or biting. It can take an opossum up to four hours to recover from this involuntary state. Their tiny brains do not have the processing ability to decide to take this action - it is automatic. Opossums do have a surprisingly strong immune system. In fact, they are resistant to snake venom and, unlike raccoons and skunks, are not prone to rabies infections. [Wild dogs are 8 times more likely to have rabies than an opossum.]
There are over 100 varieties of opossum throughout the Americas. All opossums have a semi-prehensile tail (one that can be used for grasping, but not for hanging from) and opposable thumbs. Opossums only live 2-4 years, but females may produce dozens of offspring during that time. Opossums start out as bumblebee sized babies that crawl to their mother’s pouch (like a kangaroo), where they will spend the next 11 weeks, nursing and growing. If you’ve never seen a baby opossum, be prepared to be delighted. Seriously! Opossum young are as playful and heart-warming as any kitten or puppy, if you just give them a chance.
In the Deep South, opossum grease was believed to cure respiratory problems when rubbed on the chest, and the meat was commonly eaten. [I think I’ll pass on both counts…]
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!
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