Pretty as a ‘Possum?

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Ilean, AWARE’s ambassador opossum

Pretty as a ‘possum? Now, that’s a phrase you’re unlikely to hear. In fact, whenever I see posts on Facebook by friends who have encountered an opossum in their backyard or carport, a stream of comments inevitably follows about what ugly, rabid, nasty overgrown rodents they are. Recently, a friend who spotted one on her carport (attracted by cat food which had been left outside, but that’s a grievance for another day) received advice to “whack the sh*& out of  it with a board.” Really?! I’m always saddened when I see such posts because if more people understood opossums better and knew what a benefit they are to the environment, they would have a very different perception. I tend to love animals that get a bad rap — like opossums, crows, vultures, coyotes — because once you get to know them, you understand that each species has its own unique intelligence and dignity, as well as its special role to play in the environment. Opossums are actually one of the coolest kids on the block.

Contrary to many people’s beliefs, opossums are not rodents. The opossum has the distinction of being North America’s only marsupial. As a marsupial, females bear premature young that migrate to the mother’s pouch (with a swimming motion) to continue their development. Opossum infants are tiny, about the size of a bumblebee — a typical litter of 8 to 9 young fits in a teaspoon. Once inside the pouch, they latch onto a nipple for approximately two months, at which time they begin to venture out. At this stage they will sometimes be seen riding on their mother’s back. By four months of age, they are living on their own, leading mostly solitary lives. With numerous predators and threats from urbanization, the opossum’s average life span is only about 2 years in the wild. 


An injured opossum and her young, rehabilitated at AWARE Wildlife Center and returned to the wild.

Opossums are exceptionally non-threatening and shy.  In the presence of a threat, they will flee if possible. Having worked with hundreds of opossums during my four years rehabilitating animals at AWARE Wildlife Center, I can tell people firsthand that they are one of the least aggressive animals I know. They may have a nasty hiss, but they rarely bite unless tightly cornered. Moreover, opossums are one of the least likely mammals in North America to carry rabies. The reason for this may be that opossums have a lower body temperature than many other mammals, making it difficult for the rabies virus to survive in their bodies. In fact, the occurrence of rabies in opossums is so rare that a cow is more likely to carry rabies than an opossum!


Just admit it — I’m cute!


Opossums are incredibly beneficial to the environment. Their diet consists of all types of insects (roaches and beetles are delicacies), snails, and slugs, keeping our gardens free of pests. Because they catch and eat mice and rats, they also help keep rodent populations in check. By eating rotting fruit and carrion, too, they help to sanitize the environment.  Opossums are also immune to the venom of poisonous snakes and will feed on snakes such as rattlesnakes and copperheads. Not only do they eat many things considered pests by humans, they typically go about their business late at night,  unseen and out of the way.  Because they do not dig, burrow, or destroy property, most people never even realize an opossum has been in their yard. 

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Sebastian, another AWARE ambassador

The opossum has several interesting defense mechanisms. First, it will hiss and bare its 50 teeth (more than any other North American mammal). If this doesn’t work, the opossum may then wobble and begin to drool excessively, tactics intended to make potential predators believe that the animal is sick, and therefore, unappetizing. When these defenses fail, it will “play ‘possum,” slipping into an involuntary comatose state resulting from fear, which often causes predators to lose interest in it. While in this state, the opossum may also release a foul-smelling anal fluid that further deters would-be predators.

Opossums have opposable thumbs, and along with primates, are the only mammal with opposable first toes. This trait give opossums the ability to grasp their food and makes them adept climbers. Opossums also have prehensile tails, which help them to balance in trees and grasp bundles of leaves and grass for bedding materials. (They do not hang from their tails, though – this is a misconception).  In addition, opossums are smart at finding food and navigating mazes, outperforming dogs, cats, and rats in laboratory tests.

Surviving in the wild is tough business, but clearly the opossum is doing something right. In fact, opossums have been around since the time of dinosaurs; their fossils have been found dating back 70 million years!

While the opossum’s often grizzled appearance may not win people over,  hopefully knowing more about this smart, unique animal will help you to see its beauty. The non-releasable opossums I have worked with at AWARE, (like little Ilean, pictured below and at top of page) have been the most docile, sweet animals you could imagine. And they sure are good about eating leftovers! So, the next time you hear people talking smack about an opossum, set ‘em straight, would you?

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Ilean, AWARE’s non-releasable educational opossum, teaches the public about the benefits of her species.




33 thoughts on “Pretty as a ‘Possum?

  1. I ❤ possums! There used to be a few that would come eat out of the squirrel feeder on my porch, but and it was great fun watching them. Haven't seen them in a couple years, though ….. 😦

    • Thanks for your comment! Opossums are pretty resourceful about finding food. But they are solitary and transitory, so they move on from one place to the next.

  2. Melanie, you really have a talent for turning my thinking around on critters that I previously was not fond of! I think you could base your whole blog on “rethinking critters.” They are cute indeed and I have been converted!

    • Thanks, Joy! You offer a good suggestion. Maybe I’ll have to test my skills and try my hand at roaches next, lol. 🙂 Sometimes I do wonder if I need to focus the blog exclusively on animals, but I do want to suggest ways people can be more eco-friendly, too, so that they can make changes that will benefit the earth and all its critters. Thanks for reading and responding. Appreciate you!

    • Thanks, Christy! Opossums do have soft tails (when not subjected to the hardships of life outdoors), and they use them so expertly to stabilize themselves in trees and to carry things. Glad to hear from another person who appreciates ‘possums!

  3. Thank you! I get so upset hearing and seeing the way people view the wildlife around us. Where I live any animal can be killed on private property and I know people who grab a gun at the first sighting of a crow, ground hog or even a possum. It is hard to express to them how I feel about these animals, your article has given me more information to pass on.

  4. As a long-term ‘possum fan I enjoyed the article and the tidbits about it’s beneficial eating habits. And those pics are indeed adorable. Who could resist those whiskers and pink toes? 😀

    • Thanks, Lori! I appreciate your taking the time to read and respond. Most people don’t realize how beneficial they are, and they’re always impressed by the fact they can eat venomous snakes (another type of animal that could use some good PR!). You’re right indeed about those irresistible toes. 🙂

  5. Lovely post! I had no idea they were immune to snake venom. Thanks for that tidbit! We love our Percy. Our Boston terrier is learning to leave him alone as he roots around the compost pile. He used to like to roll Percy–just barrel into him, roll him over, then trot away. Pfft. We don’t let him do that any more. Percy has a job to do. And he is quite fat, which is how you want your possums.

      • I figured something like that but wasn’t sure since Percy tolerates the rough-housing from your dog, lol. You’d get a kick out of some of the names we have for our educational animals at AWARE. Our three-legged opossum is named Ilean (I “lean”), our corn snake is named Legs, and we also have Steven “Hawk”ing and “Owl”bert Einstein. We have a nonreleasable black vulture for whom I am proposing the name “Chuck,” so that we tell him to hop on his perch we can say, “up, Chuck!” Haha!

  6. Wonderful post about ‘possums that I intend to share. I do love them and was distressed that I had to bury one today. S/he probably succumbed to our floods two weeks ago. The vultures flying low over the house knew he was there before I did. I have to say that the barred teeth hissing is a very effective deterrent. It makes them seem so very fierce. So… the message for friends, fear not the marsupial.

    • Thank you, Kathy, and I appreciate your sharing the message! Actually, speaking of vultures, I was considering them as the subject of my next blog. They, too, are part of nature’s best sanitation crew! 🙂

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  8. Well I’m a convert! Though have never seen one “live” in my backyard. I have an inclination to let nature be. They each serve a purpose and play a role here on earth. Great article Melanie!

  9. Delightful! I’m giving a presentation on gardening for wildlife tomorrow to a group of master gardeners, and have a few spare minutes. I think I’ll print out the highlights to share with them-another example of seeing with a different lens!

    • Wonderful! So happy you found my post and will spread the ‘possum love. Would be thrilled if you directed folks to my blog and corresponding Facebook page, too. Thanks! Happy gardening!

      • BTW, just recently learned, too, that opossums help control populations of ticks that carry Lyme disease! (b/c they are hosts that eat the ticks)!

  10. Wonderful expose on the true nature of ‘possums. I’ve shared my farm with many creatures over the years and have recently learned that ‘possums are some of the most beneficial neighbors you can have…control of Lyme disease and poisonous snakes are just a few of the services they provide.
    My interest was piqued when I saw a very young injured ‘possum on my back porch eating cat food last Thanksgiving. Looked like some larger animal, guessing a coyote since our dogs are not free range, grabbed her by the nape and she somehow escaped. Bad wound, down to the muscle.
    Called a local rehab person who recommended Duramycin mixed with yogurt…they love yogurt! Started seeing her grow with great healing and then she was apparently grabbed again about a month later, same area, but much larger wound (some kids just don’t get it I guess). Back to the Duramycin and she’s looking much better. She now has a sibling and guessing, mother?, whom she actually shares her food with. Interesting since I’ve always read that they are singular creatures. They definitely have personalities and apparently families.
    Although I have dogs, cats and horses, watching my ‘possum friends has been a very unique and rewarding experience. Thank you so much for educating and de-bunking myths regarding these wonderful animals!

    • Thanks for sharing your story. How incredible your ‘possum survived those wounds! She’s lucky to have you looking out for her. Opossums do like yogurt! That’s what we always feed them at the wildlife center where I volunteer to get them to eat their veggies. 🙂

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