Editorial: Repulsed by possums? Think again!
There we were, in the crawl space beneath a kitchen ell built before the Civil War. Our mission: to replace the light bulbs that, when turned on, keep the pipes from freezing when the temperature hits negative numbers. Something was different. Against the low wall of long, dry-laid, granite blocks, surrounding the heating duct to the kitchen, was a large pile of dry oak leaves.
We picked up a 10-foot length of PVC pipe purchased for the someday project to move the pipes that freeze away from the wall. Please, we thought. Don’t let it be a skunk. Then we poked the pile of leaves. Out came a hissing, prehistoric head baring all of its 50 needle-like teeth in its alligator jaws. We retreated to decide what to do.
Opossums, Didelphis virginiana, are marsupials, more closely related to kangaroos and wombats than any other critter in North America. They give birth to a dozen or more young just 13 days after mating. The inch-long babies mature in their mother’s pouch before emerging 6 or 8 weeks later to ride on their mother’s back. A few weeks after that, they’re on their own.
Possums, as they are more commonly called, made it to New Hampshire decades ago, thanks to bird feeders, garbage cans, man-made structures that provide protection from the cold and, perhaps, global warming. The nocturnal 4- to 12-pound animals can be seen now, raiding garbage cans or more often, stretched out on the road.
Vehicles, along with dogs, coyotes, great-horned owls, parasites and old age are the major causes of possum mortality. Few live more than a year or two.
Though some people eat them, possums prompt revulsion in folks not acquainted with them. They have white faces, pink noses and a naked, scaly, prehensile tail that allows them to hang upside down from tree limbs while eating fruit.
They don’t, however, sleep while hanging from their tails in trees. They pass the night in semi-heated crawl spaces.
Possums, of course, play possum. One we heard rattling around in the recyclables can in the barn did so when confronted with the barn’s owner, who wanted to haul the can to the curb before going to bed. The critter curled up into a ball and played dead. Lift the can, and it bared its toothy jaws and hissed like a reptile. Lift the can; hiss and threaten. Over and over again. The need for sleep is a powerful motivator. That possum did not survive the encounter. The one living in the crawl space did.
Most people fear something in nature. We fear yellow jackets and the black-legged ticks that transmit Lyme disease. Low-slung possums, we learned belatedly, are tick magnets. They are also among wildlife’s most meticulous groomers. Their toes have the dexterity of fingers. They kill hundreds of ticks per day, and by some estimates, thousands of ticks per season, by picking them off their bodies and eating them.
Possums are non-aggressive, highly-resistant to rabies and aromatically benign. They eat worms, insects, plants, seeds, carrion, and when they can, cat food. The yard is big. Lots of kids play in it. As long as it patrols the yard for ticks and eats them, the possum in the crawl space can stay.