Ancient opossums deserve respect, not fear | Island Wildlife | Jan. 6

Despite a rather imposing appearance, Virginia opossums generally do all they can to avoid predators, including humans and their pets. - Photo by Dottie Tison
Despite a rather imposing appearance, Virginia opossums generally do all they can to avoid predators, including humans and their pets.
— image credit: Photo by Dottie Tison

This past Dec. 10, West Sound Wildlife surpassed a dubious milestone when we admitted our 1,000th patient of the year. Never before has West Sound Wildlife taken in 1,000 patients or more in a year.

I call this a dubious milestone because each one of these patients is a suffering wild animal. While we’d prefer that no animals need our help, we are privileged to have the ability to give these animals a second chance at life.

Our 1,000th patient was a Virginia opossum. These misunderstood animals are actually quite fascinating. Because they are shy nocturnal mammals, you’ve probably only seen one on television or dead on the side of the road.

While the adult opossums might not be as attractive as Brad Pitt, baby opossums are amazingly cute. You can see photos of some on our website at www.westsoundwildlife.org.

Babies are a big part of a female opossum’s life. In our area, female opossums can expect the pleasure of two litters each year. And these litters are quite a handful, or should I say “pocketful,” because the babies spend part of their lives in a pouch.

That’s right – the Virginia opossum is a marsupial, the only marsupial in North America.

Thirteen days after insemination, a mother opossum will give birth to as many as 20 blind, naked and deaf babies, each the size of a small bean.

The babies must then instinctually wriggle their way up their mom and into her pouch where they will find 13 nipples. If you’re the 14th baby to arrive in the pouch, you are out of luck. Ouch.

After finding a nipple, the babies latch on and stay in the pouch attached to that nipple for two to three months.

When they emerge from the pouch, they ride on mom’s back for another month or so. What could be more fun for a new mother than 13 squirmy babies pulling your hair all day?

One reason opossums have so many babies is because they have short lifespans, living only two years on average.

Opossums are considered by some to be living fossils, with precursors to the Virginia opossum having lived as long as 140 million years ago, long before the height of the dinosaurs. The Virginia opossum itself, or a close ancestor, was living in North America as long as 20 or 30 million years ago.

They’ve managed to prosper as long as they have largely because they are highly adaptable omnivores. They eat just about anything, including seeds, greens, small rodents, insects, carrion, and slugs. Yes, they eat slugs.

In fact, opossums and some waterfowl are the only animals that eat slugs in our area. So if you’re a gardener, you should do everything you can to encourage opossums to live in your yard.

There is no reason to fear opossums. They will not attack humans or our pets (unless a human or pet attacks them first). Rather, if they see a human or a predator (like a domestic pet), they will do everything they can to quietly and secretly slip away.

If they are cornered, they do in fact “play dead.” This is an involuntary fear response that causes them to basically go into a coma that can last for up to four hours and during which time they will froth at the mouth and ooze a nasty smelling, green-colored substance from their rear-end.

And they do not generally carry diseases that can transmit to humans or, except for horses, to our domestic pets.

In fact, opossums are possibly immune to rabies; they are certainly much less susceptible to rabies than humans are. Also, opossums have been proven to be immune to toxic snake bites, including rattlesnake and pit viper bites.

A final interesting fact is that they have what amounts to thumbs on their back feet.

At West Sound Wildlife, we are great admirers of opossums, including patient 1,000, who is still recovering in our hospital. They are fascinating animals with dignified personalities that have become an important part of our local environment.

Rather than fear them, I hope that you will appreciate their role in our environment and admire their oddities.

If you’d like any more information about opossums or if you need help resolving a conflict you’re having with an opossum, please give us a call at 855-9057.

Kol Medina is executive director of the West Sound Wildlife Shelter.

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