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When one hears the word “marsupial,” the opossum doesn’t usually come to mind. But the Virginia opossum is actually the only marsupial native to North America. These passive animals are often quite misunderstood. Usually only spotted around trash after the bin was knocked over by a raccoon or dead on the road after a car strike, the average person rarely gets the opportunity to observe these unique animals that are shy, gentle and offer many benefits to humans.
If you’re an organic gardener, you should love opossums. Yes, you may have to share ripe fruit with them, as they have a major sweet tooth. But they’ll also clean the ground below your fruit tree of dropped, overripe and sometimes downright fermented fruit. More importantly, they love to snack on all kinds of garden pests, including rats and mice, slugs and snails, crane flies and moths. Opossums are a gardener’s best friend. They are also useful scavengers and will eat a variety of dead animals they find in their travels.
Opossums often get blamed for nuisance behavior of other wildlife. An opossum is unlikely to knock over a garbage can, but it will take advantage of spilled garbage after the raccoons are done. Opossums don’t dig, but they will take advantage of worms and grubs unearthed by a digging skunk.
Your domestic dog or cat is a far bigger threat to an opossum than the opossum is to them. The second most common reason (after car strikes) that opossums come to WildCare’s wildlife hospital is that mama opossum was grabbed and shaken by a domestic dog. Mother opossums carry their babies in a pouch on their stomach, called a marsupium. Often, when mom is killed by a car or a dog, her pups are still safe inside her pouch. If you see an opossum dead on the side of the road, and it’s safe to do so, check the pouch for living pups. If you don’t feel comfortable checking a dead opossum for babies, call Marin Humane. If babies are present, bring them, still in the mother’s pouch, to WildCare right away. You can also call our “Living with Wildlife Hotline” at 415-456-7283 for advice.
Another reason to love opossums is that they eat ticks, and can consume about 5,000 per season. They truly are champions in the fight against Lyme disease. Opossums are essentially immune to the rabies virus. Their average body temperature is about 94 to 96 degrees, too low for the rabies virus to take hold. They don’t get distemper (that’s a canine disease). And they’re essentially immune to pit viper (i.e. rattlesnake) venom.
Opossums are great climbers. They have a prehensile tail, which they use as a safety line but they don’t hang by their tails to sleep — Disney made that up. They do use their dexterous tails to carry dried leaf litter and grasses back to their den for bedding. To help them climb, these amazing animals also have opposable thumbs on both their front and back feet.
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Opossums are good mothers. They’ll carry up to 13 babies in their marsupium for more than three months until they are old enough to emerge and ride on Mom’s back. Once they get too large, they will fall off her back, usually one or two at a time. At that point, the young opossum is on its own, ready to get to work eating the ticks, slugs, snails and other unwanted garden pests in your yard.
WildCare and Marin Humane encourage you to appreciate these amazing animals, and to keep an eye out for injured and orphaned opossums this time of year.
Kate Lynch is the opossum team leader for WildCare. Marin Humane contributes Tails of Marin articles and welcomes animal-related questions and stories about the people and animals in our community. Go to marinhumane.org , Twitter.com/marinhumane , or email firstname.lastname@example.org.