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Opossums are common but misunderstood

Associated Press//August 2, 2011

Opossums are common but misunderstood

By Associated Press

//August 2, 2011

LOS ANGELES — People have been calling Leslie Bale about opossums since 1982 when she started on the graveyard shift as a 911 dispatcher for the Irvine Police Department.

The calls came from homeowners or security guards who thought they had prowlers. Call after call turned out to be opossums, she said.

Bale still gets calls about opossums, but these days it’s as a wildlife rehabilitator and president of the Opossum Society of the United States, which has about 300 members.

North America is home to millions of Virginia opossums, but for a creature so commonly found in backyards and along roadways, this nocturnal marsupial is the subject of many myths and misperceptions.

Colloquially, Americans sometimes use the terms opossum and possum interchangeably. But while Virginia opossums are native to North America, possums are native to Australia.

The opossum’s relatives include other marsupials from Down Under — kangaroos, koalas and wombats. But because opossums look like rats, they don’t share the other mammals’ popularity.

“It’s the furless tail that sets people off,” said Barbara “Missy” Runyan, a wildlife rehabilitator who runs Friends of the Feathered and Furry Wildlife Center in Hunter, N.Y., and who thinks opossums are “adorable.”

But they don’t hang by their tails, Bale said. Their tails can’t support their weight.

Poor eyesight is why so many are hit by cars. “The opossum does 90 percent of its searching through scent,” said Runyan. “They can only see six to eight inches in front of them. They can’t smell a car coming. And since they are nocturnal, they cross the road when it’s dark.”

They can make hissing, sneezing or growling sounds, sometimes described as a purr. They aren’t likely to dig holes in your yard because they have delicate paws with nails that can be easily ripped out, Bale said.

Despite 50 razor-sharp teeth, opossums are generally docile and prefer to avoid confrontation, said Kim Ashby, a wildlife rehabilitator in Raleigh, N.C.

They can bite, but they prefer playing possum. If confronted, they fall over, start drooling, emit a musky odor that smells like decay, induce diarrhea and slow their breathing so it appears to have stopped, said Ashby, a retired emergency room nurse. “Most predators will walk away because they won’t eat anything that has been dead for a while.”

They eat cockroaches, crickets and beetles, snakes, slugs, mice, rats, rotting fruit, human garbage, dead animals and small reptiles. Bale calls them “nature’s little sanitation engineers.”

They like dog and cat food too. “If people are feeding dogs and cats outside, they are probably feeding their local possums as well,” Ashby said.

Baby opossums start out the size of raisins. A mother can have one to three litters a year. A grown female will weigh between 7 and 9 pounds and a male up to 12 pounds.

They are solitary, transient creatures, seldom staying in one place more than a few days. Babies stay with the mother for 4½ to five months. If they fall off while riding on her back or get left behind when the mother takes off, they are on their own because the mother won’t come back, Bale said.

Rabies in opossums is rare because their body temperature is too low to support the virus.

They are good climbers, using their tail for balance, but they can fall into swimming pools when trying to get a drink and into trash cans when going after food.

Ashby says some people set out to kill opossums. She was recently called for one that had been stomped to death and nursed another that had been beaten with a baseball bat. A call to animal control is a better option, she said.

But you can also take steps to keep them out of your yard. Cover pools and trash cans, remove food and water sources, keep trees and shrubs clear of fences and don’t let fruit from trees rot on the ground. A few companies sell repellent granules made of fox urine that you shake on the ground. Manufacturers say the product, $15 to $20, is 100 percent organic so it won’t hurt your cat or dog.

While dogs and cars are the possum’s main predators in cities, foxes, coyotes, bobcats, owls and other animals prey on them in the wild.

Bale works with 10 backyard rehabilitators in Southern California. They get about 1,000 calls a year to help with orphaned opossums.

Besides those she has accepted in upstate New York, Runyan has found 14 babies this year. Ashby and fellow members of Wildlife Welfare, Inc. in the Raleigh area have taken in about 150 opossums this year.

Bale and her fellow volunteers save about 85 percent of those they take in, she said. “Opossums are very resilient,” Bale said. Their life expectancy is around two years in the wild and up to seven years in captivity.

Rehabilitators release them once they are healed or old enough to make it alone. “Release is the hardest part, because you don’t know if they will live that long,” Bale said, “but it’s also the nicest part because you got them that far.”


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