Opossums are not the cutest of the mammal species, but they do seem to cause a stir when found near homes. A recent question about the safety of having an opossum near pets and children prompted this story. This person had been told that this opossum must be sick since it did not run away from them or their pets. That is not necessarily true, but we will get to that in a bit. First, let’s learn about these marsupial mammals.
Opossums are about 2 ½ feet long from nose to tail. The tail varies in length, but is hairless as are their ears. They weight up to about 13 pounds, and they are mostly grayish-white in color. They are scavengers, which means they will eat food left in our garbage cans or food left out for our pets. They will eat roadkill, grass, nuts, fruit, mice, birds, insects, worms, snakes, and even chickens sometimes. As with most animals, they can become habituated to the presence of humans and pet – making them seem less afraid if they no longer see us as a threat to their survival.
If they do feel extremely threatened, an involuntary comatose-like state will be induced. This involuntary reaction actually will often help it survive, because predators don’t want to eat something they didn’t actually kill. That means they will leave the opossum alone if it does not move. Somehow the opossum’s body knows when danger is gone, and it will regain consciousness. Someday scientists will figure out how that happens. Until then, it will remain nature’s mystery.
Opossums are great climbers due to sharp claws and that long, prehensile (aka gripping) tail. They will use holes in trees or dens of other animals for their nesting area. Opossums give birth to as many as 20 babies per litter, and they are about the size of honeybees. Being a marsupial, they babies crawl directly to the pouch to continue developing. They will later be able to go in and out of the pouch until they are able to move out on their own. Fewer than half of each litter will survive to adulthood.
So are they dangerous? All animals are dangerous if threatened – especially those with teeth. I have read that opossums are very unlikely to contract rabies. They do have a defensive technique of working their jaws until excessive drool forma, and it will actually blow bubbles out of its nose. It is grow, but it often keeps predators from eating them because they think it is sick. If an opossum is not acting aggressive to you or your pets in any way, then there is no need for fear. They eat ticks so they are okay in my book.
If you don’t want them around, you can stop putting dog or cat food outside for a time, which will send them in search of food elsewhere. Or you can live trap them and move them away from the area near your house. And if you see them in the winter, that is normal. They do not hibernate, but go into winter torpor. So they sleep a lot more, but it also means they will be more active during the day when it is warmer.
Don’t fear everything nature places around you, but instead try to enjoy it. Nature can put on one heck of a show if you only take the time to watch and listen.