In June 2017, I came home from a late-night shift in the newsroom and found a surprise waiting for me in the garage.
Somehow, a baby opossum Houdini’ed its way inside and was perched on the hood of my husband’s car.
It took some work to shoo this guy out of the garage. Particularly since it adopted an “If I can’t see you, you can’t see me” method of hiding and tucked its nose in the corner farthest from the door to cower. Some gentle nudging with a broom eventually steered it out the door.
Having grown up in rural soybean-and-cornfield Illinois, ‘possums and I are no stranger to each other. They were frequent visitors to my childhood home year-round, often displacing our barn cats from their warm pet houses in the winter and forcing us to regularly evict them from the straw-and-blanket-lined pet homes.
In fact, they’re still frequent visitors to my parents’ home. That’s where my niece, Katy, first encountered them … and was terrified by them and “their ugly triangle heads,” as she put it.
Katy’s fear of opossums is what inspired the opossum army in “Sarah & Katy and the Imagination Blankets.” In the imaginary land of Katarah, opossums are the antagonist who are trying to take over the kingdom.
The Sarah & Katy books were written for my nieces Sarah and Katy, so the incorporation of fearsome opossums was a nod to the real Katy’s fear — and the book gave her a chance to see read about herself overcoming them in the story. Unfortunately, I’ve also done opossums a disservice by reinforcing the scary stereotype.
Even though opossums are fierce on the surface (I have to confess it’s a little off-putting when you’re in close quarters with a hissing ‘possum who seems to unhinge its entire face when it opens its mouth), they get an unnecessarily bad reputation.
The National Opossum Society reports this North American marsupial keeps a clean environment from which we benefit, calling them “nature’s little sanitation engineers.” They eat insects, carrion, and overripe fruit, plus catch and consume small rodents around the yard. They also eat 90 percent of ticks they encounter, consuming as many as 5,000 in a season, according to the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies. If there’s one critter I consider my mortal enemy, it’s a tick … so the enemy of my enemy is my friend, right?
Like most wildlife, they can carry fleas, but they don’t carry rabies and are impervious to Lyme disease. And they’re not likely to bite you, anyway. The Cary Institute reports their first line of defense is drooling and hissing as a bluff. The big-bad-possum act works … especially on Katy. But when it fails, the opossum’s next line of defense is fainting and … well, playing possum.
Sure, possums aren’t cute and cuddly looking like cats, rabbits, and raccoons. At best, they’re just so ugly they’re almost cute. But they’re largely harmless, beneficial, and pretty interesting fellows. (Did you know opossum ancestors were alive while dinosaurs roamed the earth? Read more here.)
A few more tidbits, courtesy of the Opossum Awareness & Advocacy blog:
- Opossums are North America’s only marsupial, carrying their newborns in a pouch. (Fun fact: They can have around 25 babies, or joeys, in one litter. Not so fun fact: Only about a dozen survive.)
- Female opossums are called jills. Males are called jacks.
- They’re nomadic and nocturnal.
- The O at the beginning of their name is important. The possum is a mammal native to Australia; the opossum is native to North America.
As an apology to making out opossums as a vicious army, I’m taking two steps. The first is a donation to the Opossum Awareness & Advocacy nonprofit based in Vermont, which shares the following mission statement:
Our mission is to spread awareness about opossums’ many attributes, including the fact they kill ticks and mice that carry Lyme and other infectious diseases, and in doing so to improve the public’s regard and treatment of this very undervalued marsupial.
We also seek to complement other awareness and advocacy efforts, including but not limited to, the appreciation and preservation of wildlife, and the awareness and amelioration of Lyme Disease.
The second step is sharing opossum education and advocacy groups, including:
- Opossum Awareness & Advocacy: An opossum advocacy group launched in May 2017. www.opossumpower.org Follow on Facebook at fb.com/opossumawarenessandadvocacy.
- The National Opossum Society is full of trivia and information to help you learn about our marsupial friends at opossum.org.
- Opossum Society of the United States: Under the General Information tab on this group’s website, there’s information about what to do for orphaned or injured opossums, tips for coexisting with them, and information for wildlife rehabilitators and veterinarians. Follow at opossumsocietyus.org.
- See the cute and loveable side of opossums at fb.com/possumcore. You’ll find photos and memes galore.
A final note
You’ll be happy to know my niece no longer finds opossums terrifying. In fact, the last one Katy found wandering around my parents’ property was christened Louise. Who could be afraid of a critter named Louise?