Coexisting In Harmony With Wildlife: Opossums
As the landscape in Newtown and surrounding towns continues to change, wild animals are being impacted and trying to adapt to their new environment as best they can. This can mean a variety of wildlife venturing into areas they never have before — backyards, hiking trails, and busy roads — when searching for refuge or nourishment.
Residents are having close encounters so frequently that it is not uncommon for people to share photos of a bear investigating their bird feeder or a bobcat traveling across an unfenced yard. Many, too, are calling agencies to report wild animals injured on the side of the road or accidentally poisoned.
Springtime also means many animals are more visible as they are out and about gathering food for their growing families.
In a perfect world, animals would know the boundaries of what land is preserved for them and what is human-inhabited, but the reality is these creatures are just doing their best to survive.
In this miniseries, The Newtown Bee will consult animal experts to explain how to support these animals safely from afar and what to do if you encounter them face-to-face.
Opossums hold the exclusive title of being the only marsupial native to North America.
Marsupials — which include kangaroos and koalas — have embryonic births. Newborns continue to develop while inside their mother’s pouch, located on the lower belly, by attaching to the nipples.
While opossums are also referred to as Virginia Opossums or, more formally, didelphis virginiana, opossums are different than a possum.
People commonly use the term “opossums” and “possum” interchangeably, but the two are more like distant cousins. The latter animal consists of several nocturnal, arboreal marsupial species from the Phalangeridae family that live in Australia and New Guinea.
Pamela Lefferts is a licensed wildlife rehabilitator and co-founder of Ferncroft Wildlife Rescue, a nonprofit in Woodstock, Conn., that specializes in opossums. She currently cares for three non-releasable opossums and does educational programs, including events locally with the Catherine Violet Hubbard Foundation.
Lefferts explained, “In 1608, Captain John Smith coined the word opossum from the word ‘opassum,’ the Algonquian term meaning ‘white animal.’”
Opossums have been around long before that, though, with fossil records dating them to being alive the same time as the dinosaurs.
Opossums can be distinguished from other wildlife due to their unique characteristics. They have white-gray fur (that can range from white to black); large, dilated pupils that make their eyes appear black; black ears (as adults); a pink nose; and a hairless tail.
“They have prehensile tails that are adapted for grasping and wrapping around things like tree limbs. The opossum can hang from its tail for short periods of time, but the creature doesn’t sleep hanging from its tail, as some people think,” Lefferts said. “Opossums have been observed carrying bundles of grasses and other materials by looping their tail around them; this conscious control leads many to consider the tail as a fifth appendage, like a hand.”
Just like there is the misconception that opossums sleep hanging from their tails, there is a slew of other misinformation that leads these creatures to be misunderstood by most people.
For instance, there is the fallacies that opossums are mean and frequently carry rabies.
According to the Humane Society, “People often mistake the open-mouth hissing and drooling behavior of opossums as a sign of rabies. However, this is just a bluffing behavior that opossums use as a defense mechanism. In fact, rabies is extremely rare in opossums, perhaps because they have a much lower body temperature compared to other warm-blooded animals.”
Opossums are even considered to have a better immune system than other mammals and have a normal body temperature so low that it is not conducive for rabies to survive.
While healthy opossums are practically immune from rabies, people should still keep their distance out of respect for them being wild animals.
When opossums feel afraid or threatened, they have a variety of responses including running, growling, showing their teeth, belching, urinating, and defecating.
Some of these tactics can be intimidating and scare people, but Lefferts assures, “It’s not in their nature to be aggressive — if given the chance they will flee.”
These animals are also known to “play possum,” the act of going into a coma-like state to pretend they are dead.
“It is an involuntary response (like fainting) rather than a conscious act. They roll over, become stiff, close their eyes (or stare off into space), and bare their teeth as saliva foams around the mouth and a foul-smelling fluid is secreted from glands. The catatonic state can last for up to four hours and has proven effective as a deterrent to predators looking for a hot meal,” Lefferts explained.
Opossums have a variety of predators, with dog attacks being the most common cause of injury or death for opossums other than by being hit by a car.
Lefferts says opossums do not pose a threat to pets and that “cats usually get along with adult opossums, and feral cats are often seen sharing a food bowl with them.”
Opossums are both crepuscular (active at dusk and dawn) and nocturnal (active at night), so if a pet owner is letting their dog outside to use the bathroom, it is important they scan the yard for opossums beforehand.
If an opossum is seen, Lefferts says, “Do not chase them or try to pick them up, they will move on.”
Opossums instinctively seek refuge in warm, dark places to sleep, and that can mean they often find themselves in people’s sheds, garages, and chicken coops.
“We get many calls about an opossum found sleeping in a nesting box. It a perfect spot: warm and dry, and there are eggs for breakfast. They do like eggs… but rarely does an opossum kill a chicken,” Lefferts said. “If an opossum can get in the coop, so can a weasel or fox — and they will kill a chicken. The opossum will eat what’s left. In the morning, the property owner only sees the opossum and reasons [that] they did the kill.”
Opossums are omnivores and eat everything from carrion, rodents, insects, snails, slugs, birds, eggs, frogs, plants, fruits, and grains to human food, table scraps, dog food, and cat food. Their diet also consists of ticks, which can help curb Lyme disease.
Lefferts’ educational material affectionately calls them “the sanitation workers of the wild.”
Opossums are particularly smart when it comes to finding food. They have been proven to excel in remembering where food is and have great senses of smell.
Many of their favorite foods can be found in people’s garbage, so it is important to not leave trash out overnight or food remnants on recyclables, as it may lure hungry wildlife.
The best way to support opossums is to allow them to forage safely on their own. If you do decide to feed them, do not do so near your house.
“We don’t want to attract them to an area where there are free range dogs or lots of traffic,” Lefferts said. “In the winter they do need our support. Opossums are not cold weather animals and only about 30% survive the freezing temps.”
To help prevent opossums from starving or suffering frostbite in the cold months, Lefferts recommends making them a safe shelter from Rubbermaid containers insulated with styrofoam and filled with hay.
“The opening should be 5 to 6 inches, and several inches off the ground so snow does not block it,” she detailed.
Opossums can also benefit from having their water source in a heated bowl, so the water does not freeze, and a daily bowl of pet kibble.
Aiding The Orphaned Or Injured
Since opossums consume roadkill and skeletons, they often venture into traffic looking for nourishment.
In doing so, they are often killed or injured by cars. They can also become so terrified of the cars that they play opossum and are unable to move to safety.
When seeing an injured opossum, it is important to contact a wildlife rehabilitator as soon as possible for the best chance of the animal’s survival. In many cases the mother opossum has died, but her babies are still alive inside the pouch.
“If her abdomen looks swollen or is dragging low, she probably has a pouch full. But you cannot tell just by looking at them,” Lefferts explained.
Opossums mate in March and April and after a two-week pregnancy can have as many as 20 babies, called joeys. These babies stay inside the safety of the pouch for six to eight weeks. From there they leave the pouch and get carried around on their mother’s back. If a baby falls off the mother’s back, the mother does not go back for it and the baby is then orphaned. Joeys are with their mothers until they are four to five months old.
In mid-April, Lefferts says it is common to start seeing opossum babies orphaned after their mother is hit by a car.
People can check if there are babies still inside the pouch by feeling its lower belly on the underside of the opossum.
Ferncroft Wildlife Rescue recommends people travel with a wildlife roadside rescue box to be prepared if they see an opossum in need of help. Items to have are a box or pet carrier, sturdy heavy gloves, a flashlight or headlamp, a safety vest, hand warmers (to be put under a towel, never directly on the animal), and two blankets or fleeces (one for inside the carrier and one for outside to cover it).
“Gently place a blanket or towel over the opossum, carefully covering head and eyes — scoop up and place in the nearby box or carrier. Always wear heavy duty gloves,” Ferncroft Wildlife Rescue advises. “Another method is to gently but firmly wrap one hand around the base of the tail (close to the body). Slide your other hand up under the chest, behind the front legs. Lift into nearby carrier.”
Never pick up an opossum by the tail, as it can cause spinal injuries.
Gloves are crucial for the rescue process, because if a wild animal bites or scratches a person during the rescue attempt, the animal unfortunately may be killed to test for rabies, according to the CT Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP).
Keeping opossums in a warm, dark, quiet area is key while getting them to a rehabilitator.
Ferncroft Wildlife Rescue accepts injured or orphaned opossums. Lefferts says people can contact her directly at 508-864-7274 and that texting is best, because people can send a photo of the animal, too.
Newtown resident Joe Proc of Fog Pocket Wildlife Shelter is also licensed to rehabilitate opossums — as well as squirrels, rabbits, mice, chipmunks, and many bird species. Newtown resident and wildlife volunteer Peter Mihok assists him. Proc can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
People can also contact Wildlife in Crisis in Weston, 203-544-9913; the Newtown Animal Control Center, 203-426-6900; or DEEP emergency dispatch at 860-424-3333.
To find a list of authorized rehabilitators (individuals and organizations), visit portal.ct.gov/deep/wildlife/rehabilitator/dealing-with-distressed-wildlife.
“We believe education is key. We can rehab/save 60 opossums a season, but if we can educate the public about these gentle creatures, we will save hundreds more,” Lefferts said.