Ours are opossums. Our west coast opossums, originally from Virginia (Didelphis virginiana), first arrived, or were presented, in Los Angeles, in 1906 or 1910, depending on the source, perhaps as exotic pets. Opossums’ relatives, possums, spelled without that opening o, live in Australia.
Just lately, in the evening while trying to strategize about how to get rid of ever-present rats, an opossum passed through the back garden. Though the prevailing opinion on opossums is not good, possibly because of their looks—with their sort of rat like face, but looks aren’t everything. It turns out that opossums excel at controlling pests including those aforementioned rats. Opossums eat them—along with their skeletons. Gone! Omnivorous, opossums also opt for a diet of mice, snakes, slugs, insects, rotting fruits and such.
Also, opossums do not attack or fuss or worse as do raccoons and skunks when scared. An opossum will first try escape. It does not move fast possibly because of the opposable thumbs on its rear feet. It can climb and try hiding, hanging up high via its prehensile tail. (My visitor simply walked away.) Or it may just stay still hoping that any danger will disappear. If not, it will perhaps hiss. Lastly, it will look lifeless, swooning into a comatose state aka “playing possum” (yes, incorrect spelling).
Nocturnal, opossums range from 2 to 3 feet long, including their prehensile tail. They weigh an average of 4 to 7 pounds but can bulk up to 15 pounds within their three year life span. As the only marsupial living in the wilds of North America, females come equipped with a pouch for pups, Joeys, just like kangaroos, koalas, for their litter.
Not only do they consume rats and pose little danger, opossums are almost as good at self grooming as house cats.Their strong immune system fends off many diseases including rabies (they do not carry the rabies virus). They may, however, be hosts to parasites, fleas, carrying leptospirosis, a bacterial disease that can be transmitted to humans. What gets them? Few live to their first birthday due to constant threats from dogs, garden pesticides and cars.
If an opossum comes your way, maybe let it do the good work it can do for you. Or be in touch with the Opossum Society: OSUS@OpossumSocietyUS.org.