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Views and opinions: Opossums: Friend or foe, often depends on where you stand

I recently helped remove some juvenile opossums from an office building. Over the course of two weeks, juvenile opossums began appearing in work spaces, giving quite a fright to the workers who discovered them.

The first two appeared in a trash can, where they had become stuck. Then one was found peering out from a closet. Days later another one was discovered in another trashcan.

Noises could be heard coming from a ceiling and, after some investigation and placing a can of cat food in the ceiling, I located three more juveniles. We talked to a rehabber who said the animals were big enough to live on their own. The problem was getting them to figure out how to get out of the building and into a more natural habitat.

I used a live trap and got two of the juveniles at the same time. After posting a photo of them in the trap on my personal Facebook page, I discovered there was a huge difference between the comments from my city friends and my farmer friends.

City friends noted “oh, they are so cute, I love the pink noses.” Farmer friends asked “why didn’t you kill them?” along with various comments about how bad they are for killing chickens. A man told of growing up on a cattle ranch in Florida and moving a dead cow, and seeing multiple opossums running out of the stomach of the cow. That definitely scarred him for life.

Luckily, most of my Facebook friends are polite and the conversation did not become heated, but there were exchanges between the two groups.

Whether you think of the opossum as a friend or a foe most likely depends on whether you have had them predate your chickens or cause other issues, or whether you view them as great for the environment due to the number of ticks they consume.

First, I need to let you know there is a difference between an opossum and a possum. The opossum is North America’s only marsupial. The possum lives in Australia and is so much cuter than the opossum. They are not closely related, although both are nocturnal; an explorer thought the animal in Australia looked like the animal he saw in North America and that’s how those similar names came about.

The opossum greeted the settlers at Jamestown, which is where they were first recorded in print in the United States.

You may rethink your views on the opossum when you learn they can eat up to 5,000 ticks in a season. With the spread of tick-borne diseases, the opossum starts to look a bit more useful. They also have a low body temperature; this makes it unlikely they will carry rabies, as their body temperature does not support the virus.

They also eat cockroaches, rats, and mice and clean up carrion. They have a high need for calcium and will eat the bones of dead animals. They are resistant to snake venom and are known to prey on venomous snakes, such as rattlesnakes and copperheads.

Opossums are considered extremely intelligent and have proven to be better than cats at locating food. They are also extremely clean and groom themselves often.

The problem with the opossum is largely one of perception: Face it, they are ugly. They have 50 teeth and most of them seem pointy. If they are cornered, they will show all of their teeth and hiss. If that doesn’t work and if they can’t run away, they may fall over and appear dead.

Because just about anything can outrun an opossum they have developed a unique way to protect themselves. They become stiff, excrete a horrible odor, and appear dead. A predator can carry around the stiff opossum and it won’t move. The opossum can’t control this behavior. It is an automatic behavior. It generally takes 1-4 hours for the opossum to suddenly come out of this and scamper away.

Earlier this year my dog Skywalker suddenly took off while we were hiking and I saw him shaking a large animal. It was an opossum. I got him to drop it and I was sure it was dead. It just laid there – super stiff, all the teeth showing, the lips pulled back and black, and there was a line of blood dribbling out of the animal’s mouth.

I took the dog away, put him in the car, and went back later … and the opossum was nowhere to be found.

Opossums do spread Equine Protozoal Myeloencephalitis (EPM). According to the website of the American Assoc. of Equine Practitioners, more than “50 percent and in some areas as high as 90 percent of horses in the United States may have been exposed to the organism that causes EPM. Fortunately, only a very small percentage of horses which have been exposed will ever develop the disease we call EPM.”

The opossum is the definitive host of the organism that causes EPM. It acquires the organism from cats, raccoons, skunks, armadillos, and sea otters.

If you want to see something super cute, look up photos of Australia’s possum. If the opossum was that cute, more people would probably like it.