Opossums of Alabama Pasty-faced, long-nosed, with a crooked toothed grin, the opossum is nature’s blind date gone horribly wrong.
ranted, the white-headed wonder’s beauty rivals its intelligence – zero. But we don’t even give the critter enough respect to spell its name right. Whose idea was it to start possum with an “O”? But I digress. Like it or not, possums - I mean opossums - are here to stay. Alabama’s only marsupial (an animal carrying its babies in a pouch, like a kangaroo) loves it here.
“There are no accurate Alabama opossum population surveys,” concedes Dr. Jim Armstrong, wildlife specialist/professor at Auburn University. “But there is no danger of extinction. Few animals adapt environmentally better than these guys.” Nothing makes them sick. Opossums show remarkable resistance to disease, rarely carry rabies, and are practically immune to rattlesnake and water moccasin bites. The little fellow can live 10 plus years but seldom makes it past age three. Predators like dogs, coyotes, and 18-wheelers are a opossum’s grim reaper. “We treat hundreds annually,” says Susan Clement, biologist with Mobile’s Environmental Studies Center. The facility cares for and releases locally injured wildlife. Susan, the compound’s wildlife 16 october 2012
rehabilitation supervisor, notes, “Most opossums brought in are babies, orphaned by mothers killed by cars.” Sadly the little ones are often found still clinging to their dead parent. “Opossums can’t jump very well,” adds Armstrong. It isn’t quick, and doesn’t have the speed to get out of the way.” They don’t get out of the way of food either. “It eats anything,” he notes. Delicacies include insects and vegetation but it is also a connoisseur of garbage can cuisine. Leave a bowl of dog food out overnight and Fido has competition. Like diet, habitat is no problem either. Opossums lodge comfortably in the deepest forest or your attic. They bed down near woodland streams or snuggle under automobile hoods. And then there’s this “hanging from their tail thing.” “They don’t,” answers the Auburn professor, about the tail tale. “I’ve been around opossums all my life and have never seen one suspended upside down.” The naked rat-like appendage provides balance but a 10-pound adult is too heavy to hang by its tail. Here’s more opossum pondering: If provoked, it will play dead but don’t count on it. Opossums have 52 razor sharp teeth, more than any other animal in North America. “If cornered, their first response is to snarl, hiss, and flash its toothy smile” says Armstrong. It’s where the expression “grinning like a opossum” comes from. Call its bluff and “Operation Playin’ Possum,” is deployed. The involuntary shock/fainting/death-like state is a good idea in theory. Unfortunately, playing dead may fool humans but dogs find the possum’s ploy hilarious, just before ripping it apart. “And beware,” Armstrong warns, “A possum may attack when provoked,” coming at the aggressor biting, clawing with 52 teeth locked and loaded.
“But they are generally good natured, even sweet,” says Fruitdale resident Richard Petcher. More than 10 years ago Richard had one as a pet. “Percy” would sit on his shoulder as he walked through town (New Brockton, Ala.). “I’d take him to various church functions and civic events.” Occasionally Percy traveled in Petcher’s briefcase, especially inside the town restaurant. The diner had a sign, “No dogs allowed,” which Percy was not. So in they went. “It loved the restaurant’s pork chops,” Petcher recalled, about his marsupial dining companion. “His little snout would stick out of the briefcase and grab pieces of meat I fed him. In those days one could legally keep wildlife pets.” Today there are fines for harboring a concealed opossum without a license. “Even if legal, they would not make good pets,” Susan Clement responds. “’Opossums are loveable but oh man, they are dumb.” Boomer, the center’s resident house opossum, illustrates her point. As I sit on the ground, the center’s mascot approaches me, pauses, and crawls over my leg, continuing its journey to nowhere. “He thinks you are a log.” A opossum may
hiss and growl but it also says “duh” a lot. Boomer doesn’t worry about predators. The bigger than a housecat adult male is the Mobile Environmental Center resident “House Opossum.” A www.alabamaliving.coop
Photos by Emmett Burnett
By Emmett Burnett