by Sarah Kishler
There are a lot of opossums around here. We see them so often that we get in the habit of taking them for granted, but they really are amazing creatures, unique in many different ways.
The Virginia opossum is one of the world’s oldest mammals, and has evolved relatively little over time. It is the only marsupial found in North America. The female carries her young in a pouch, just like her Australian cousins the kangaroo, the koala, and the wombat. This pouch is so well-designed that babies (or joeys) often survive when their mother is hit by a car. If you see an opossum by the side of the road between March and September, check to see if it’s a female with babies in its pouch.
The defense mechanisms an opossum employs are fascinating. We all know the term “playing possum” and this is something that opossums will do in the most hazardous situations. They will slow down both their heart rate and their breathing so that they appear dead to potential predators, and then “wake up” once an attacker has lost interest and roamed away.
However, playing possum is a last resort. One of the first defenses an opossum will try is simply opening its mouth. The opossum is quite a non-aggressive animal, but a look at its 50 razor sharp teeth – more teeth than any other mammal – suggests otherwise. If the teeth don’t ward off an attacker, the opossum may try drooling and blowing bubbles through its nose to appear diseased and unappetizing.
It doesn’t take much digging to find more incredible facts about opossums. For example, they are born about the size of a honeybee, and grow to the size of an average adult house cat. They have a prehensile tail that assists them in climbing and they are excellent swimmers. The airtight pouches keep babies safe and dry as their mothers swim.
I know the next time I see an opossum, which will no doubt be soon, I will pause to contemplate the ancient animal before going on my way.
Opossums are cat-sized marsupials. Like the kangaroo, their young are born as embryos and make their way to a pouch on the stomach where they continue to develop. When they are four or five inches long, they start leaving the pouch to ride on their mother’s back. When they have reached seven to eight inches body length, they leave the parent to make their own way in the world.
Opossums are nocturnal, roaming at night, and looking for a dark, secluded place to sleep during the daylight hours. They are scavengers and eat anything. Since opossums are quiet and rarely cause damage, most people are unaware that they are around. Like all scavengers they sometimes predate on smaller mammals, birds or reptiles. Pet food left out at night often attracts them to our yards. They benefit us by eating mice, rats, snails, slugs and insects.
How Can I Prevent Inviting a Problem with Opossums?
- Pick up pet food at night
- Cover garbage cans tightly Keep fallen fruit picked up
- Close off under decks, sheds, etc.
- Make sure foundation vents are secure
- Do not leave garage or sheds open at night
Ideas for Handling Opossum Troubles
- In the Attic or Under the House: Close off the entrance when the animal is out at night. To be sure he is out put paper loosely in the entry hole and watch for it to be pushed outward, or attach a one-way door flap. The animal may leave, but not re-enter. Be sure no young are left behind.
- In the Garage: Open the door and close it after dark when the opossum has left. Do not leave pet food down at night which might attract an opossum. Sprinkle flour around the door and check for tracks to be sure he has gone.
- In the Yard: Put 24″ wide sheet metal around fruit tree trunks to discourage climbing. Bird netting can be purchased at hardware and garden departments to cover fruit and vegetable gardens.
- In the Garbage Can: Tip the can on its side. The oppossum will leave when he feels it is safe. Secure the can once the opossum vacates.
- Trapped in Window Well or Pit: Place a board or large pipe into the area so he has something to help him climb out. Cover such areas to prevent another occurrence.
- Protecting Poultry and Rabbits: Keep the bird or animal area well secured at night. There are many night predators. Removing one predator often opens the area for another.
- An Opossum Under the House or Deck: During the day, place ammonia-soaked rags or sprinkle human hair in the area they are visiting. The smell will cause them to leave on their own come nightfall.
- If the opossum is less than 6-8 inches in body length (not including tail), and you see no sign of the mother around:
Do not feed and avoid over-handling. Gently put the baby opossum into a small box with ventilation holes and close the lid. Bring to WCSV during our operating hours.
- If the opossum is 8 inches in body length or longer:
Do not feed or handle. The opossum is old enough to be on his/her own. Provided that you don’t see any obvious injury (no blood, open wound, and has not been caught by a dog or cat) this opossum will do fine and needs to stay put, in a familiar territory where it learned from its mother where to locate food, water, and shelter.
- Please do not handle, feed, or transport the opossum!
- In San Jose, Milpitas, Los Gatos, Cupertino, or Saratoga:
Call: San Jose Animal Care and Services at (408)794-7297. They will transport the animal to WCSV- it is not safe for you to handle or transport.
- In Santa Clara, Campbell, or Monte Sereno:
Call: Silicon Valley Animal Control Authority at (408)764-0344. They will transport the animal to WCSV- it is not safe for you to handle or transport.
- In the Unincorporated Areas of Silicon Valley:
Call Santa Clara County Animal Control at (408)465-2920 ext 0. They will transport the animal to WCSV- it is not safe for you to handle or transport.
- For any area not listed here:
Call WCSV at (408)929-9453. We can help you find the contact information you will need!