The snow we’ve been getting lately provides visible clues to who’s been out and about in the park. Bird feet don’t usually offer much insight into genus and species, fox and coyote paws are hard to distinguish from those of domesticated canines, but the Virginia Opossum lays down a track that’s easy to recognize.
Opossums are hip to urban living, in part because they are the penultimate omnivorous opportunists. Their “traditional” cuisine features insects, small vertebrate animals, wild fruits (including persimmons, a favorite treat), and carrion. But they’re equally willing to partake of bird feeder spillage or feast on the caloric jackpot found in garbage cans and dumpsters (not without risk, as they may fall in and become trapped).
If ever there was a creature in need of a good spin-doctor, it’s North America’s only marsupial. The Aussie cousins — kangaroos, wallabies, koalas, sugar gliders, even wombats — have somehow garnered a higher charismatic ranking than poor old Didelphis virginiana.
The root of their public relations problem may be their attire. Sporting a long snout, ash-gray fur, and long, naked tail, is it any wonder that many city and suburb folks mistake them for giant rodents?
Opossums have been known to venture through a pet door now and then, especially if there’s a beckoning bowl of kibble on the other side. This can come as quite a shock—to ALL parties—when a homeowner or fur-family member wanders into the mudroom or kitchen to discover a wild thing helping themselves to a snack. Back in the mid-90’s, I ran large non-profit wildlife rehabilitation center in Houston, Texas, and I’ll never forget the day when one of my Wildlife Hotline volunteers frantically waved me over to help him with a woman who was in a panic over a ‘Possum in her laundry room.
Using my best imitation of a New Age guided meditation voice, I was eventually able to steady her breathing and convince her that the startled, hissing creature standing like a statue in front of the dryer was not a freak-of-nature rat.
I’m sorry to say, however, that my instructions for how to use a broom to politely show her uninvited guest to the door fell on deaf ears.
Agitated Woman: “I’m sorry, but I can’t go back in there! I can’t even stand to look at him! He’s just so UGLY!”
Indignant Wildlife Biologist (that would be me): “Well, ma’am, for all we know he’s has the same opinion of you.
Not one of my finest Wildlife Hotline moments, I’ll admit, but the words tumbled off of my tongue before I had a chance to bite it.
I happen to think Opossums are quite handsome but there’s no denying the rodent resemblance. Let’s face it, if you are mouse-and-rat adverse you’ll probably never come to think of ‘Possums as pretty. Plus, they’re up against another persistent PR problem — it’s a common misconception that members of this species are clumsy, dirty, and not all that bright, with poor vision and hearing to boot.
Don’t believe it.
Opossums are actually quite clean. They carefully groom themselves during and after eating—even the little one (which, btw, are cute as kittens). When it comes to the acuity of their senses, common knowledge has it all wrong. These marsupials have excellent hearing and can easily detect the rustling of prey hidden under dry leaves or tree bark.
A wildlife rehabilitator friend who works extensively with Opossums tells me they evolved with a focus on olfactory sensitivity and, as a result, have an extraordinary sense of smell. Their sight is about average for mammals but, because they are primarily nocturnal, their eyes are adapted to working under low-light conditions. Day is night for an Opossum and, as a result, they can appear rather dazed and confused in sunlight… kind of like me when my dog asks to go out at 2 a.m.
Personally, I think any species that’s managed to survive, relatively unchanged, since the Cretaceous deserves a more than a little credit. After all, modern Homo sapiens is a relative late-comer, arriving on the scene 90 million years post-‘Possum. It has to be said that humans are, at times, clumsy, dirty, and not all that bright, with poor vision and hearing to boot. Plus, we’re not doing such a great job living within our planetary means.
So perhaps we should follow Aretha’s admonition a show our elders a little more R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
Kieran J. Lindsey, PhD, is an urban wildlife biologist, writer, and personal assistant to her wire-fox terrier, Dash. Kieran is co-author of Urban Wildlife Management, the first textbook on the subject. Additional wildlife career experiences include: Executive Director of the TWRC wildlife rehabilitation and education center (1997-1999, Houston, TX); former columnist for the Houston Chronicle newspaper (The Urban Jungle, 1998-2001); producer, writer, and host of Wild Things Radio!on KUNM-FM (1999-2001, Albuquerque, NM); Emmy® award-winning documentary producer. Currently, Kieran is Director of Virginia Tech's Online Master of Natural Resources program, Managing Editor of the peer-reviewed Journal of Wildlife Rehabilitation, and blogger at nextdoornature.org. She lives and works in Lafayette Square (because the Internet is amazing).