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Opossum on the Run
Credit: Tony Alter on flickr / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

Opossum in Rose Webster's BackyardRose Webster on Paw Mane Fin / All rights reservedThis week, I was visited by an opossum in my backyard. It was a first for me. My cat Kady alerted me by scurrying about from window to window. So, I had to find out what was so interesting.

It was the wee hours of the morning and all I had was a flashlight to shine outside. At first, I thought is was an albino raccoon, until I saw its tail.

Then I wondered, since I'd never seen one in my area of Canada before, how common (or uncommon) they are and whether I needed to take any special precautions.

 Virginia Opossum (Didelphis virginiana) range 2010IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, species assessors and the authors of the spatial data. [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsTurns out, for the most part, opossums are beneficial for our gardens and they help clean up our environment.

They eat beetles, cockroaches, crickets, slugs, snails, every type of garden pest. The consume dead animals of all kinds (carrion) and are even partially to totally immune to the venom of cottonmouths, rattlesnakes, cottonmouths and other pit vipers.

Opossums will catch and eat smaller creatures and rodents like frogs, rats, and mice. They even eat plants, grains (including bird food), over-ripe fruit, berries, and grapes. But they are particularly fond of cat food. It's never a good idea to leave pet food (of any kind) outside since it can attract far more aggressive animals (like raccoons) onto your property. Oh and they will eat human food too.

Horse Livery | The Horse Livery at Foster FallsPROvastateparksstaff on flickr / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

Birds, Horses, and Sea Otters Can Contract Sarcocystosis

All fur no blubberPacific Southwest Region usfws_pacificsw on flickr / CC-by-2.0On a FAQ Possum Page, I found out that birds, horses, and sea otters are at high risk of contracting a deadly disease known as sarcocystosis if they ingest opossum feces.

It would definitely be prudent to keep a watchful eye on barns or stables if you see an opossum in the area. 

And for goodness sake, keep your sea otter away from an opossum. (What are the chances, I wonder.)

According to ExoticPetVet, the birds affected are primarily parrots, especially Old World species (those of Australian, Asian and African origin), such as cockatoos, eclectus, African grey parrots, parakeets, and Poicephalus sp. parrots.

Cockatoosrggoldie on flickr / CC-by-2.0The birds do not eat the opossum poop, the route of infection is from cockroaches or flies that land on it and then either crawl into a nest or dish or bird food.

Some birds, like cockatoos, enjoy catching and eating bugs – another way they become infected. 

The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture recommends the following for horse owners:

  • Prevent opossums from entering horse barns and feed-storage facilities.
  • Keep grain bins tightly covered. 
  • Bury any dead cats, skunks, raccoons found in and around your farm. This will prevent scavenging by opossums and the possible transmission of the disease-causing agents.
  • Arrange for a licensed trapper to remove any nuisance opossums from your property.

I couldn't find any recommendations or preventative measures to protect sea otters from sarcocystosis. It's believed to be spread by runoff into coastal waters.  

Opossum
Credit: born1945 on flickr / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

But Opossums Are Otherwise Harmless

It seems opossums get a bad rap. Since they are slow-moving and cannot jump, they are often the one humans see (and blame) for the destruction caused by other critters (often raccoons). Opossums are the ones who are cleaning up the mess left by others – including the bones of carrion. (Apparently, they require a high amount of calcium in their diet).

What About Rabies?

Interestingly enough, opossums are highly resistant to rabies. It's believed to be because of their below average body temperature that the rabies virus cannot thrive. Beware, though, all mammals can carry the rabies virus.

Up next is a short video by The Humane Society of the United States that was published on September 26th, 2014. It shows a young opossum who became trapped in a store being rescued, nursed back to health and released back outside.

Opossum, Where Art Thou? Rescue, Rehab, and Release

Humane Wildlife Services and City Wildlife Help Out an Opossum

Fascinating Facts and Myths About Opossums

PossumsPeter Firminger (wollombi on flickr) /CC-by-2.0Opossums are North America's only marsupial. Their scientific name is Didelphimorphia

Sometimes, they are referred to as possums (like those in Australia, shown at right) with the scientific name Phalangeridae. The two are both marsupials but are otherwise not related.

So opossums and possums are not the same thing.

However, with an apostrophe at the beginning 'possum, it might be more clearly understood. After all, there is that age-old expression (I heard on Bugs Bunny): "Playing 'possum are ya?"

According to BobinOz: "The big difference [between the two types] is that the American possum has pointy teeth and looks scary and the Australian possum is a real cutie." I suppose it depends on who you talk to, I like my backyard opossum.

Slow But Smart

mom opossum and babiesMonica R. on flickr / CC-by-2.0I have to admit, I didn't think that opossums were particularly intelligent animals. I read that they lack a well-developed frontal lobe. The possible reason is that they were one of the first mammals to appear around the dinosaur age. Fossilized remains have been estimated to date back 70 million years.

But I am wrong.

In The Opossum: Its Amazing Story by William J. Krause and Winifred A. Krause it states: "In spite of their apparent primitiveness and small brain size, opossums have a remarkable capacity to find food and remember where it was found."

When tested, they scored better than rats, dogs, rabbits, and cats. And in maze learning tasks, mature opossums beat rats and cats.

Opossums Kill Harmful Ticks and May Hold the Secret to a Powerful Antivenom

opossumJames Gates (jgates513 on flickr) / CC-by-2.0I think this is particularly important, since Lyme disease is on the rise here in Canada. The National Wildlife Federation says:

"A single opossum might kill an astonishing 4,000 ticks in a week."

At the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in New York, scientists discovered that opossums are like vacuum cleaners when it comes to ticks – including those that carry Lyme disease to humans (and other animals).

In fact, I found a fascinating June 13th, 2015 article by Seth Koenig on their website called: Use wild opossums to rid your property of ticks.

And since opossums can eat rattlesnakes (and survive), researchers are looking into how their blood neutralizes venom. Perhaps this information can help develop an antivenom for humans and other animals.

I also discovered that opossums appear to be unharmed by the sting of scorpions, honey bees, other venomous serpents. Even the strong toxin botulism has little to no affect on their health.

Opossum visits the back porch and eats cat foodHelena Jacoba on flickr / CC-by-2.0Short Life Span

I was surprised to learn that opossums are one of the shortest lived animals for their size.

They usually only live two to four years and are killed by numerous predators such as: humans (especially cars), cats, coyotes, foxes, owls, dogs, and larger wildlife.

Do They Really Play 'Possum?

Yes. And here's what I did not know: this is an involuntary response. According to the article Facts on Opossums Playing Dead by Bethney Foster:

"The stress of the confrontation facing the opossum causes him to go into shock. This shock induces a comatose state that can last from 40 minutes to four hours."

Up next is a wonderful mini-documentary by James Knott. In it, he explains some of the advantages that "playing 'possum" serves.

Virginia Opossum - HD Mini-Documentary by James Knott

Uploaded on May 26th, 2009

What Should I Do If I See an Opossum?

Everything I've read seems to point to this: do nothing. Just enjoy watching him (or her) but do leave them alone. However, you should keep lids on garbage cans and close off any potential entrance points to your garage, home, or shed (or other structure).

It seems that they are quite transient. I've only seen my backyard opossum two nights this week.

a 'possum in a crabapple treenormanack on flickr / CC-by-2.0Do They Make Good Pets?

No. The National Opossum Society warns:

  • Their diet is specialized and needs a proper calcium-phosphorous ratio. If it isn't adhered to, they become quite ill.
  • Opossums walk up to half a mile a night and they will not do this in a cage (or in a house). They do not do well in captivity and they need to explore outside.
  • It's highly unlikely a veterinarian will accept them as a patient. Their physiology is quite unique.

Bottom line: The fact is, it is practically impossible to keep an opossum as a pet. They are wild animals (even though they are peaceful). We should just keep a respectful distance from them and enjoy them as one of the most helpful little creatures to have around.

opossum
Credit: Dawn Huczek on flickr / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic
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