After her livestock guardian dogs get the better of an opossum, author Sue Weaver finds herself deep in an unexpected wildlife project.
Possum up a ’simmon tree,
The raccoon on the ground.
The raccoon says, “You son of a gun,
Shake them ’simmons down.”
— Boil Them Cabbage Down (American Folk Song)
Last Tuesday morning, when John went out to feed our animals their hay, he spied something furry and gray piled in our yard. It was a small opossum, and she’d been mauled by our livestock guardian dogs. Her injuries initially seemed superficial, so we treated them and set her up in a roomy airline crate with food and water, thinking she could rest a while and then be on her way.
It was not to be. When I looked in on her a few hours later, she was dead. I checked her pouch and found babies. What to do? I brought them in, placed them in a blanket-lined plastic tote and Googled wildlife rehabilitators in our area. There are only two. One was away on vacation and the other isn’t licensed to rehab opossums. Fortunately, my daughter volunteered with a Hoosier wildlife rehab center for many years and when she did, she hand raised an array of baby mammals for release, including opossums. With her assistance, and since it’s legal for Arkansas residents to keep captive opossums, we settled in to raise and then release our new little brood.
I spent Tuesday afternoon researching opossums online. I’ve always liked them but I had no idea what fascinating creatures they truly are.
Did you know that our everyday opossum, the Virginia opossum, also known as Didelphis virginiana, is the only marsupial found wild in North America north of Mexico? And that it has more teeth (50 of them) than any other terrestrial North American mammal? Or that a mama opossum can give birth to and raise three litters of up to 13 babies per year? Or that almost everything in nature considers opossum meat delicious, so the life expectancy of an opossum in the wild is only 1 to 1.5 years? It’s true!
Based on fossil records, we know that opossums evolved in the Americas roughly 70 million years ago. They migrated between North and South America until the two continents separated after the end of the Cretaceous period some 66 million years ago. North American marsupials went extinct during the early Miocene, about 20 million years ago. When the Isthmus of Panama emerged to reconnect North and South America about 3 million years ago, two marsupials hoofed it back to North America: our Virginia opossum and the southern opossum (Didelphis marsupialis) of South and Central America.
When European settlers arrived on America’s eastern shores, they found opossums. Captain John Smith wrote in Map of Virginia, with a Description of the Countrey, the Commodities, People, Government, and Religion (1608) that, “An Opassom hath a head like a Swine, and a taile like a Rat, and is of the biggness of a Cat. Under her belly she hath a bagge, wherein she lodgeth, carrieth, and sucketh her young.”
And the opossum’s “bagge” is a wondrous thing. She gives birth to up to 20 honey bee-size babies just 12 to 15 days after mating. Though the babies, called joeys, are essentially embryonic, they have strong front legs and a special claw they use to make their way to their mother’s pouch. Once there, each fetal joey latches onto a teat that swells, creating a bulb-like structure that attaches it to its mother for the next two months. A female opossum has only 13 teats (arranged in a circle with one in the center), so only joeys that find a teat survive. They live in her pouch until they’re fully developed, then venture out and ride on their mama’s back until they’re weaned at three or four months of age. Virginia opossums are among the world’s most variably size mammals. Northern opossums are generally bigger than their Southern kin, while urban opossums tend to be larger than country opossums. They measure 13 to 37 inches long from snout to the base of their naked, prehensile tails, which add another 8.5 to 20 inches to an opossum’s total length. Adult males range in weight from 2 to 14 pounds and females, 1 to 8 pounds. They have short, thick bodies; opposable thumbs on their back feet; large, delicate, mostly naked ears; and grayish-brown fur with white-tipped guard hair, except on their mostly-white faces.
Virginia opossums can be found in most of the United States east of the Rocky Mountains, and also along the West Coast. They’re likewise found in Mexico, Central America, and in British Columbia, Canada. They are solitary and nocturnal, beginning their evening activities at dusk and remaining active until morning’s light. They don’t hibernate and they don’t dig burrows, preferring to hole up under buildings, in hollow trees, and in tunnels excavated by other wildlings like rabbits and groundhogs. They line their temporary quarters with dry leaves and shredded paper. Opossums change dens often, the exception being females with weaning-age young. They’re peerless climbers and excellent swimmers, though relatively clumsy on the ground.
Opossums are slow-moving creatures with few means to defend themselves. If cornered, they hiss, screech, snap, and lunge but rarely bite, and if an opossum is tremendously frightened it might collapse into an involuntary catatonic state colloquially known as “playing possum.” The opossum lies on its side with its eyes and mouth open and with its tongue hanging out. It drools and emits a noxious-smelling substance from its anal glands. Its heart rate drops by half and its breathing rate slows about 30 percent but its brain activity is unaltered and the animal remains fully conscious. It lies in this state until the perceived threat goes away, sometimes for as long as six hours.
Two huge pluses: opossums eat vast numbers of ticks, including the ones that cause Lyme disease, a trait that makes them popular with hikers and rural homeowners (and they’re excellent mousers besides). On the down side, they are also known to raid henhouses, and they sometimes carry a parasite that causes a serious, potentially fatal neurological disease in horses called equine protozoal myeloencephalitis (EPM), making them unpopular with poultry keepers and horse owners. One thing opossums rarely is carry rabies. Their low body temperature, 94 to 97° F, makes it extremely difficult for the virus to survive.
Opossums are opportunistic eaters, meaning they consume just about any kind of flesh, bug, or plant matter they can find (yes, persimmons are a special treat). Rural opossums eat mice, birds, frogs and toads, snakes, eggs, insects, slugs, snails, earthworms, grains, and every kind of fruit and vegetable, cultivated or wild. Urban opossums eat all these, along with garbage lifted from trash cans, seeds and suet from bird feeders, and food left outdoors for pets. All dine on carrion and, as a result, sometimes become road kill themselves.
Conversely, many species consider opossums prime eating, including owls, coyotes, domestic dogs, foxes, raccoons, bobcats, large snakes, and man. Vintage cookbooks, especially cookbooks originating in the South, generally offer opossum cooking tips. Older editions of The Joy of Cooking rhapsodize about baked opossum, and dressed opossums were sold in meat markets as far north as New York City well into the 1900s.
But we don’t want to eat our little opossums. We want to raise them until they can fend for themselves and then release them to live their lives in the Ozark woods. In my next post, I’ll show you how.