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OPOSSUMS

     Opossums are solitary, reclusive animals that often are not understood or appreciated and the result can be traumatic and disastrous for them. Because they are basically defenseless, despite giving the appearance of being able to defend themselves, they have often been the target of unnecessary cruelty, especially in urban areas. A better knowledge and understanding of opossums and the benefits of having them as neighbors are essential to a peaceful coexistence. Listed below is some opossum information that may not be widely known.

     Although it looks like a big rat, the opossum is North America’s only marsupial and is related to the Kangaroo and Koala. A female gives birth twice a year, 13 days after conception, to 5 to 8 babies that remain in her pouch until able to walk around on their own by about 4 months of age. Baby opossums are so tiny at birth that 10 can fit in a teaspoon! The opossum’s long pink tail is prehensile, meaning it can be used as a fifth hand.

     Opossums are exceptionally non-aggressive and non-destructive. They will not harm people or pets. However, they are wild animals and should not be handled. A opossum will use its 50 pointy teeth to defend itself if necessary.

     Opossums do not dig into the soil nor do they destroy property.

     Opossums help maintain a clean and healthy environment. They eat all types of insects including cockroaches, crickets, beetles, etc. They catch and eat rats and mice. They consume dead animals of all types. They like overripe fruit, berries and grapes that have fallen to the ground and they think that snails and slugs are a delicacy. They are one of the few animals that regularly prey on shrews and moles. They are known as "Nature’s Little Sanitation Engineers!"

     In general, opossums present a far lower health risk to humans than dogs and cats. They have a naturally high level of immunity to diseases. Opossums are more resistant to rabies than any other mammal. They can carry fleas and will bite if provoked.

     Learning and discrimination tests rank opossums above dogs in intelligence and more on the level of pigs.

     Opossums are transient staying only 2-3 days in an area before moving on. They do not have a territory but are always on the move, going to wherever the food is. Females stay in a smaller area while they care for their young. Their dens are located in a variety of areas including stumps, vine tangles, attics, garages, hollow trees, rock piles, under buildings and in the abandoned burrows of other animals.

     If attacked and unable to fight or run from danger it puts up a terrific bluff and can give the appearance of being really good at defending itself. As a last resort, it will collapse and play dead. This involuntary response causes the opossum to become comatose for a period of from 40 minutes to 4 hours. Give a "dead" opossum the benefit of the doubt and do not dispose of the body until you are sure it is dead.

     Few opossums survive to become adults and those that do have a life expectancy of from only one to two years due to its many predators, man being the worst.

     If there is an opossum in your area, just leave it alone, it should move on in a couple of days. However, if you find an opossum continues to return to your area, try eliminating the things that are attracting it:

    • Do not leave pet food out at night.
    • Pick up fallen fruit.
    • Clear away bushes, woodpiles and other hiding places.
    • Do not leave garage doors open at night.

     If an opossum gets into your house or garage, it can be safely trapped by leaning an empty, tall kitchen trash can at a 30-45 degree angle against something the opossum can climb onto. Place cat food or ripe fruit at the bottom of the trash can. The opossum will be able to climb into the trash can but will not be able to get out. Immediately take the can outside. Tip the can on its side and the opossum will leave when it feels it is safe. You can also try to leave a trail of cat food leading to an open door. Observe quietly at a distance. Once it leaves, shut the door. Do not try to push the opossum out with a broom. The frightened animal will freeze and not move.

     If there is an opossum in your yard, leave it alone. If it is in your garden, it is helping you by eating the harmful pests that do damage.

     If you find an injured or orphaned opossum, contact the State Department of Environmental Conservation for assistance. Ask for referral to a wildlife rehabber who will humanely capture and relocate your visitor. Be aware that they may refer you to an exterminator which in many cases will result in the death of the opossum. Municipal Animal Control Agencies often euthanize wild animals also.

     If you find a baby opossum, keep in mind that where there is one orphan, there may be more. Be very quiet and listen for the "sneezing" sounds the young make to call the mother. Don’t try to care for the animals yourself. Unless you are a trained wildlife rehabilitator, you could do more harm than good if you don’t know what you are doing. If the baby is at least 7 inches from nose to rump, it can survive on its own and should be left alone.

For more information, contact the
National Opossum Society
P.O. Box 21197
Catonsville, MD 21228

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