Everybody seems to have an opossum story. My favorite is we thought it was an ugly cat until we tried to put a flea collar on it.
I have dealt with many opossum and their problems and have found them somewhat amiable and seemingly a clueless wanderer. Their search for free meals brings them closer to humans. Feeding pets outside, especially canned cat food, is inviting them to take up residence. They usually maintain and mark out small ranges and develop attitudes like an old bear’s — “You do not mess with me and I will not bother you.”
Opossum can be destructive to yards and spread harmful parasites. However, they are known to eat ticks, not be aggressive, and are active only at night. They are more interesting than the average neighborhood pest. Their bad smell and death trances as a defense mechanism are well known. They are one of the oldest mammals in existence at 65 million years.
Males are called jacks, females are jills and young are joeys. They are extremely adaptable and dine on pretty much anything. They never get bigger than the average cat and have a gestation time of 13 days. Opposable thumbs and prehensile tail makes difficult climbing and fruit picking a snap. They are not susceptible to rabies and snake bites and are quiet except for hissing and teeth snapping when attacked.
They are North America’s only marsupial and females do carry their young with them. Native to the East coast and properly called Virginia opossum, they were probably introduced to the Northwest by Southern immigrants. Much like exotic fish in the Columbia River, they were brought in and released as food. Everyone remembers the Beverly Hillbillies recipes for possum stew, possum pot pie, and possum sweet potatoes.
They naturally reside in densely vegetative swampy areas. They do not hibernate and are increasing their range as urbanization and climate change temperatures increase. I have seen them across all climates except deserts.
My latest opossum encounter was counting them on Umatilla River Road. I have seen the OPM (opossums per mile) go as high as 4. This usually counts dead ones and the running joke is: Why did the chicken cross the road? To show the opossum that it could be done. They probably use roads to eat other road casualties and are susceptible to fast moving, blinding traffic.
After trapping a live one I was in the position of disposing of it. To compromise with my co-workers, I transported it to a wildlife area and released it. Relocating problem pest usually only transfers the problem. The next morning I saw the dead opossum as road-kill next to the wildlife area.
One morning an adult opossum was laying in our yard with our Chihuahua barking at it. I concluded that it passed out from alcohol-laced rotting peaches. It is unknown whether opossum are tolerant to alcohol.
I soon realized that I had just fallen for playing opossum when I poked it with a shovel. It moseyed underneath the deck. From then on we teased the dog about his special friend under the deck.
Get used to encountering opossums. They are tough with good memories for problem solving and toxin avoidance. Their cleanliness is maintained by their constant grooming despite their rumpled appearance. After the initial surprise, you may want to put a flea collar on it.
Wes Stonecypher is a biologist and Umatilla resident.