- By Rose Kennedy For the AJC
If you think possums are funny-looking, threatening pests that should be destroyed if they set so much as a paw on your property, you're probably in the majority. However, you are still sorely mistaken.
Granted, with their 50 sharp teeth − more than any mammal in North America − and naked tails, possums certainly do look strange, but their other negative qualities are sometimes exaggerated.
Although, a recent report of an opossum breaking into liquor store and getting “drunk as a skunk” doesn’t support the theory of the animal’s positive qualities.
Still, as the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife attests, in urban areas, possums are beneficial as rodent and eaters of carrion (flesh of dead animal).
Mother Nature Network lauded possums for their pest control attributes, explaining, "Since their diet allows them to indulge on snails, slugs and beetles, they are a welcome addition to the garden. Opossums also keep rats and cockroaches at bay by competing with them for food. In fact, it's common for opossums to kill cockroaches and rats if they find them in their territory."
Not only do they take care of pests, they do so without spreading disease to humans.
"They are far less of a health risk to you or your children or pets than nearly any other wild animal," according to The National Opossum Society (which is run by human advocates, not the marsupials themselves).
Possum or Opossum?
Technically, the North American animal is called an opossum, while possum refers to a similar Australian species. According to Garner's Modern American Usage, however, the terms are used interchangeably. In fact, "possum" is twice as likely to appear in print and is even more common in speech.
Possums are North America's only marsupials
That means the undeveloped young they give birth to just 12 days after breeding then crawl into their mother's pouch and attach to a teat, according to WDFW. When they're 80 or 90 days old, the young start riding on their mother's back, sometimes five or 10 of them, with feet and tail firmly attached to her fur.
Possums are smart
Sure, they're not so great at looking out for cars, but they have a remarkable memory. According to MNN, when possums were tested for the ability to remember where food is, they scored better than rats, rabbits, cats and even dogs. They can also make their way through a maze more quickly than either rats or cats.
When they're just hanging out, possums constantly groom themselves, sort of like house cats, according to WDFW.
Possum tails are cool
Their tails are able to wrap around and grasp tree limbs and can support the animal's full weight for short periods. Contrary to myth, opossums do not hang upside down by their tails when sleeping.
As for "playing possum," that's a real thing
"When threatened, opossums run, growl, belch, urinate and defecate," according to MNN. "And when all else fails, they 'play possum' and act as if they are dead. It is an involuntary response (like fainting) rather than a conscious act. They roll over, become stiff, close their eyes (or stare off into space) and bare their teeth as saliva foams around the mouth and a foul-smelling fluid is secreted from glands. The catatonic state can last for up to four hours, and has proven effective as a deterrent to predators looking for a hot meal."
How to prevent human-possum conflicts
While you may benefit from possums' pest patrolling skills, that doesn't mean you want them in or around your house. According to WDFW, there are fairly simple ways to prevent possums getting too close.
It recommended these steps:
And if one of these critters does end up in your house or too close for comfort in the yard, WDFW reminded people that as long as you limit their interactions with your pets, possums are not dangerous. The fish and wildlife experts suggest staying calm if an opossum gets too close. If necessary, homeowners can use a broom to coral possum outside.
For more information, the National Opossum Society serves as a resource for current and correct diet, medical and general knowledge of opossums.