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 Americas 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 opossums 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 "Natures Little Sanitation
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
- 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
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. Dont try to
care for the animals yourself. Unless you are a trained wildlife rehabilitator, you could
do more harm than good if you dont 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