By Kelly Baughman
We’ve all seen them on the side of the road or tearing through our trash bags at night, but betcha didn’t know….opossums are fascinating little creatures that are more than meets the eye and they live right here in our own backyards!
Often viewed as dim-witted nuisances, opossums, or ‘possums as we refer to them in our neck of the woods, are actually very intelligent, gentle animals, and these misunderstood creatures are more interesting and beneficial to our local ecosystem than you might think.
Possums are the only marsupials found in the United States. For those of you who missed that day in elementary school, marsupials are animals with pouches like the kangaroo. When a mama possum gives birth, her babies are only about as big as honey bees!
As the continue to grow and develop inside their mother’s pouch after birth, the tiny babies emerge and ride on their mother’s back to learn how to hunt and scavenge for food. Never one to shy away from an easy meal, possums are notorious for entering human inhabited areas as we generally tend to be pretty wasteful and provide the critters with plenty of delicious leftovers to choose from.
You may have heard of the saying “playing possum” or even seen this behavior yourself (and no, I’m not talking about your husband when you want him to take out the trash). When threatened by humans or other wildlife, possums have very few defenses. Their first instinct is usually to hiss, but if that doesn’t work possums do the next best thing….play dead. Unfortunately though, this comatose-like state is completely involuntary and is triggered by stress.
These furry and social little animals have a keen memory that allows them to identify poisonous foods and to remember where they can find the best meals (think Yelp for animals), but I bet you’re still wondering “What’s the big deal and why should I care about these nasty, rabid things?” Well, the truth is…they can actually save your life.
If you’re like me, your mother probably told you not to play with wild animals because, “you might get rabies”. While sometimes true, in the case of the possum, very few cases of rabies have ever been reported. In fact, some scientists thought that the possum may be immune from the disease. While they are not, it is very uncommon to encounter a rabid possum in the United States due to their low body temperature that do provide a hospitable environment for the virus.
While not completely immune to rabies, possums ARE however immune to almost all snake venom. The only exception is the coral snake. When other animals avoid snakes or run in fear, the possum sees a fun confrontation and a delicious meal. In our area, possums help control Copperhead and Water Moccasin populations, two snakes that can kill a human in minutes of a bite. A special peptide found only in possums has been singled out, and researchers believe that it will be the key to saving millions of lives against snake venom’s harmful effects in the near future.
Maybe you’ve never seen a snake in your backyard (thank a possum), you should still welcome these rat faced little guys in your vicinity. Many woodland animals carry ticks and spread Lyme disease, however, possums eat over 90% of the ticks that attach to their bodies.
According to the National Wildlife Federation, a single possum consumes 5000 of the parasites per tick season. That means, the more possums in the area, the less chance you have of contracting Lyme disease, a condition that causes flu-like symptoms, weakness, joint pain, nerve paralysis, heart palpitations, and more.
So what can you do to ensure that our possum population stays healthy in our area? The Northwest Florida Wildlife Sanctuary suggests keeping a keen eye out while driving at night. This is when most possum deaths occur, so brake for these helpful little creatures whenever possible.
If you hit a possum or see one dead on the side of the road, pull over and check the animal for babies. Remember, these tiny babies are contained in the mother’s pouch, but you should be able to see them moving if they are indeed inside. Remove the babies and take them to the Wildlife Sanctuary of Northwest Florida, located at 105 N S St, Pensacola, FL 32505, where they will be given the best care and will be released back into the wild when the time is right.
Keep an eye on your pools this summer, and help a struggling possum if you see one. While great at killing ticks and snakes, possums are horrible swimmers and will certainly drown. Also, keep your pets away from possums. They more than likely won’t have rabies, but for the safety of all animals involved, it’s best they stay distant neighbors.
Never poison a possum. Not only does it make you just a plain horrible person, but other animals, even your own pets, may feed on the carcass and also suffer a long, horrific death. Just don’t do it.
Maybe you love these surprisingly sweet and gentle creatures or maybe you’d rather encounter a lightning bolt than see one up close, but either way, possums are more beneficial to our area than harmful. Do your part to understand their benefits, and help keep these special marsupials an amazing part of what makes our area so unique. Because betcha didn’t know….possums make life safer and love the gulf coast as much as we do!
For more information about the Wildlife Sanctuary of Northwest Florida or to drop off a sick or injured wild animal, call 850-433-9453.