The North American opossum is a highly misunderstood creature, but they’re becoming a bit more accepted these days, thanks to cute viral videos and hilarious memes. Still, there’s a lot you may not know about this funny-looking critter — and why you should just let them be, should you see one in your own backyard.
Unlike unwelcome visitors like pocket gophers — 13 species of which can be found in the U.S. in specific areas — these little guys are making their way all across the nation. Even though they’re built for more tropical climates and originally showed up in Virginia, they’ve been spotted in Michigan and even as far north as Ontario. These cat-sized creatures are the only marsupial in North America, with hairless tails and ears, pointed snouts, and hand-like feet. They’re solitary, nomadic, and non-aggressive. And if they’re attacked, they really will play possum (which is similar to fainting). They might seem sort of ugly (or ugly-cute, depending on who you ask), but opossums actually don’t mean any harm. In fact, they’re good to have around.
Some homeowners are quick to place a call to animal services if they see an opossum in their neighborhood or in their backyard, but they won’t hurt your pets or your family. More than likely, they’re after some grub. While your well-landscaped yard can help reduce allergens like ragweed, opossums can help you keep other annoyances at bay — like insects. They’ll eat spiders, ticks (even the ones that carry Lyme, without ever getting the disease themselves) and even snakes. They won’t get rabies either, due to their low body temperature. They’re immune to to most venomous bites and will consume just about anything (including garbage and live chickens). If you’re worried about termites, which damage a minimum of 600,000 homes in the U.S. each year, opossums might even be better than your local pest control company.
More people are starting to catch on to how cool these creatures really are. They’re often confused for the Australian possum, but the two species aren’t even related. They’re both marsupials, but that’s where the similarities end. The Opossum Advocacy and Awareness website provides information to the public about these critters, referring to them as “nature’s clean-up crew.” Thusly, some homeowners actually want to attract opossums to their property. While it’s illegal to keep them as pets, the website makes the following suggestions if you want someone to play possum in your backyard:
- Plant a dense variety of plants and garden organically to encourage other wildlife activity (opossums need to get most of their food from natural resources)
- Do not leave out human food to attract opossums; if you do choose to leave out food (which isn’t recommended), opt for cat kibble, fruits, and/or vegetables and make sure to remove the food bowls regularly
- Provide a natural shelter material like a nest box, which mimics tree holes opossums use, and attach it six to 10 feet up in a tree; you can also provide an underground burrow or den similar to ones created by other animals
If you’re lucky, you may attract a funny little possum to do your pest control for you. You might not see them much during the day, since they’re nocturnal, but you might see evidence of them at some point. And if you do happen to catch a glimpse, make sure not to frighten them. When they play dead, the emit a stinky, unpleasant odor. Just leave them alone and let them do their thing. Both they and you will probably be delighted with the result.