WE NEED TO APPRECIATE POSSUMS

by Whit Gibbons

September 6, 2015

I wanted to show the grandkids one of the coolest animals in America that most people have seen more often dead than alive. Anyone who spends much time driving, day or night, has seen more dead possums than live ones because of roadkill. This is regrettable because they are one of the most underappreciated animals around. I've never met a live possum I didn't like, especially the one we named Will Rogers, and so I brought Will home for show-and-tell on the back deck.

I am not recommending that people take up raising possums for pets, but the educational outreach program at the Savannah River Ecology Lab usually has one or two around. Unharmed baby possums taken from road-killed mothers can be raised with a high success rate. They are one of the most benign mammals around. Even a wild adult possum can be safely picked up by the tail. But they will bite, so I do not recommend this exercise. As with many wild animals, adults are not as appreciative of their human handlers as those raised as babies.

When I brought Will home, he was great. All of the grandkids picked him up under his front legs and carried him around like a big puppy.

Our big sissy of a Doberman watched him eat out of its food bowl. Our daughter Susan told the story of the time she looked out on their porch to see Spencer, her fat, worthless but amiable cat and a wild possum eating out of the same food bowl. She noted that Spencer looked a little confused but kept eating. So did the possum.

I explained to the grandkids that possums are accustomed to being called dumb and that I was sure more formidable predators of the night like coons and coyotes make fun of possums constantly about how short-lived they are.

The average life span in the wild is not much more than a year or two. I told them that possums are the only American marsupials and are more closely related to kangaroos than to rats and mice.

I also told them that possums are immune to the venom of rattlesnakes and are not known to get rabies. Take that, raccoons. Because of their short life span, possums are used in gerontology research to understand phenomena related to old age.

A doddering old possum of more than 2 years is likely to have cataracts and show reproductive senility. Possums are ideal research animals because they have a lot of babies and are easily reared in captivity. Thus, within two years the researcher has a population of old individuals that can be studied for some of the same aging characteristics experienced by humans.

I also learned something myself about possums that night. I asked one of the grandkids to put Will Rogers back in his cage so we could leave him on the porch overnight. But I didn't check to see that the cage was properly closed and latched.

Later that evening, after everyone had left, I decided to do a bed check to make sure Will was OK. I stepped onto the deck, flipped on the outdoor light and was startled to see a possum waddling through the yard right at the edge of the woods.

I ran and caught up to it. Even I can outrun a possum. I scooped it up and began carrying it back to the cage with plans of later showing a grandchild how to properly lock a possum cage.

My second moment of amazement brought me to a halt as I got to the deck. Will Rogers was sleeping in his cage. The one I was holding was a wild one, which explained why it was hissing at me with its mouth open.

So, lesson learned: You can actually pick up a wild possum under its front legs like a puppy, if you don't know what you are doing.

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