The Most Misunderstood Marsupial and Other Musings

I saw a bumper sticker the other day that said “I Brake for Opossums!” I loved it so much that I grabbed my phone, went directly to the internet and ordered one. And then, later that day, I saw an actual quote on a facebook post;

Oh, what a time to be without my video camera! Had a great laugh watching my husband chase a possum with a snow shovel and his i-phone flashlight app. Now that’s high-tech redneck! (Score: John, 1; Possum, 0) 

Is she kidding!?  Sadly, I doubt it. Science tells us that the opossum (which by the way is the correct spelling) has the smallest brain per body size of any mammal. With that as fact, whoever made this discovery has yet to test the “high-tech redneck!” And they say people are the smartest animals. It makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

What upsets and saddens us about that Facebook post is not only does someone want to hurt an innocent, harmless and beneficial wild animal, but they then feel the need to send the information out to the world as a joke. Possums are an ancient animal that’s been around thousands of years, they are the only Marsupial in North America and have adapted to live quite well not only in the country but even to city life. The opossum is one of the most primitive animals, with a fossil ancestry that goes back 70 million years. That means they’ve been around since the age of the dinosaurs- A lot longer than we humans have been.

The rest of the actual “quotes” from FB:

Now that would of been a YouTube hit!

Wish I could have seen it!

Dad likes to use a fence post—headlights from the mini-van–with an audience of underage children to watch the slaughter.

Nancy was hiding her eyes on my shoulder, “I scared, I scared.” And then we sang a new version of our favorite song “Mr. Moon”…gonna shoot that possum with my big shotgun. Bang! We’ll catch that possum if he starts to run.

Just the visual I had in my head made me laugh out loud. Hope Nancy isn’t traumatized. LOL!

Possums are quite harmless, why kill them? (That was my comment, see below for the answer, which is quite incorrect).

Actually, possums are very destructive and, under certain circumstances, quite vicious. John and I really aren’t comfortable with them hanging out where our kids (particularly our baby who is no bigger than a possum) can walk out the door and meet up with one in a bad mood, trying to protect babies, etc.

Um, okay, pretty sure a possum never killed a child but this is where the fear of wildlife and ignorance of the natural world really disturbs us.

In wild animal educational presentations over the years, we have talked a lot about species that might be seen in your own city backyard.  Now, with the internet we have volumes of information literally at our fingertips. Yet in spite of it all, our only North American marsupial, remains one of the most misunderstood of urban wildlife creatures.

To set things straight the term “possum” is used in some areas of this country as slang for “opossum”. However, one may be surprised to learn that there are about 70 species of “possums” which are small to medium-sized arboreal marsupials native to Australia, New Guinea, and Sulawesi, also inhabiting New Zealand and China. Kangaroos, wallabies and wombats are marsupials, as well.

What’s a marsupial?

Sad that we have to ask that question these days but it seems most kids know the   The word means “pouched mammal” and the pouch on the stomach of the female is where she carries her young-up to 13 babies at one time! When we impart this information to an audience of families every mother in the crowd gasps loudly! But for an opossum mom it’s all second nature. Marsupial young are basically embryos at birth and, amazing as it may seem, when opossums are born they are the size of a grain of rice. In fact, an entire litter of opossums can fit into a teaspoon! The mother, operating on instinct rather than brain power, licks a path for her young who, at this stage of their life, have 2 fin-like front legs which they use to crawl, all on their own, up into the pouch. There they remain, attached to a nipple, for about 2 and a half months at which time their eyes open. Ready to see the world, they use their legs, which now have toes with claws and a thumb, to climb up all by themselves onto their mom’s back. They hold on with their prehensile tail and ride around, heading down into the pouch to nurse when needed. During this time they are learning survival skills and how to find food sources. They sneeze if separated from the mother and she clicks to let them know where she is. They are weaned and on their own at 4 to 5 months of age. The young opossums measure just 7 to 9 inches from nose to rump, excluding their long tail and are often mistaken for babies.

Never aggressive, opossums are harmless to people and pets but if need be they will defend themselves in a variety of ways. When threatened they open their mouth wide, showing 50 razor sharp teeth. This is more teeth than any North American land mammal, and sure to impress any predator. If this tactic doesn’t work, in an automatic response to danger, they simply “play possum” and appear to be dead while emitting an odor that smells like rotten eggs. Because predators are geared to kill and eat fresh food, they leave the smelly opossum in search of something more appetizing.

Opossums are the good guys. Their low body temperature of 93 degrees keeps them virtually disease free and they consume vast amounts of unwanted slugs, snails, and insect pests in the yard and rotten fruit on the ground. Now, as urban wildlife, they are born and live their lives in the city. Their great sense of smell locates our trash cans and pet food left outside. They are here because we have invited them and, for us, they are welcome guests.

Let’s talk about urban wildlife in general. Most people, when they think of coyotes, foxes, skunks or opossums, think of the hillsides surrounding the towns and cities, as prime habitat for those critters. The truth is, all of those animals have adapted really well (too well?) to living in the outskirts and many times the actual middle of the city itself.  Opossums have developed a taste for cat food and will even enter houses through the dog door to get a free meal before the kitty gets there. Coyotes have learned the unfortunate lesson that small cats and dogs are easier to catch for dinner than rabbits or mice and so, will sometimes snatch pets behind their owner’s backs when given an opportunity. We can understand how terrible that must feel to those who lose their beloved pets in such a way, but the coyotes simply do not know the difference and we must learn to live with wildlife, not simply kill it because it gets in our way. Coyotes will have litters based on the available habitat and food supply, so killing coyotes doesn’t work.

Think about the alternative to learning to live with wildlife. Should we just do away with the mountain lions because they scare us when we hike? Kill off the raccoons because they like to eat our corn crops? Shoot all the foxes because they might raid a few chicken houses? Do away with the local deer whenever they dare to nibble our rosebushes? The truth is, much of this occurs because people are not responsible when they live in areas where wildlife does exist. Keeping small animals inside or supervising them when outside would do a great deal to curb coyotes. Making sure there are lids and closed cans with pet food, remaining aware when hiking in wildlife areas, using non-lethal methods such as electric fences or loud noises are other ways to deal with “nuisance” animals. Just what does that mean anyway?

All animals have a purpose, all are inter-connected and related to each other and the environment. There truly does exist a “web of life” where the stream feeds the fish, the fish feeds the bird who in turn feeds the bear. Simply because animals get in our way does not mean they do not have their own right and purpose for existing. With over 7 billion people on earth at the moment, where would this sort of philosophy stop? Until all the animals are gone and we are finally “safe”? We don’t think any animals should be called a “varmint” a “nuisance” or “useless”. Those words are judgments made by us towards animals that maybe aren’t the most beautiful or they don’t serve us in some way or again, simply make the mistake of getting in our way when we want something.

We often hear people say  the phrase “People come first”, but what does that mean exactly and is that really true? People “came first” when 7 billion bison were slaughtered across North America, when the Passenger Pigeon and the Great Auk were hunted to extinction. That much is true. So would people come first until there simply were no more animals? Something to think about. If we waited until all the “people” problems were solved, animals would never receive any protection. We all live in the same web of interconnection.

Recently, on a local radio show, there was a discussion on the “overpopulation” of coyotes in a neighboring beach town. A city council member was calling for trapping (and killing) of coyotes. He used the phrase “people come first” and went on to say that the coyotes were killing “beloved dogs” and that they did so because they had “eaten all the rabbits” and had no other food source. Ah, no, that is not the case at all, it’s simply a learned behavior to the coyotes that domestic pets are far easier to catch. Despite what many people think about the elusive and Bambi-esque “wild”, it’s a difficult place to survive when you are a wild animal. Hunger, parasites, habitat destruction and hunting are always a threat. He further went on to say that “every nut and bolt comes out of the woodwork” when anything animal-related was brought up in city council meetings as if caring about animals or wildlife was the craziest thing in the world to actually do. However, he saw nothing wrong with killing the coyotes with trap snares, which slowly and painfully strangle them to death. That’s perfectly fine in his book, it’s those of us who think it’s not okay who are crazy.

He stated that he “wanted those things outta there”. Things? Coyotes are not ‘things”. Coyotes are incredible creatures that mate for life and sometimes walk on their toes to make as little noise as possible in order not to be detected by other predators. They can range in all kinds of habitats from the desert to the arctic regions. They are good swimmers and can run up to 40 miles an hour. The only real enemies they have are bears, wolves and of course, humans. They have up to 40 different vocalizations. Yet, it is estimated that one coyote is killed every minute and that 400,000 are killed yearly. Many of those are killed by governmental agencies or “wildlife management” agencies like Fish & Game. The main reason is simply because they get in our way. Sometimes they are killed in inexplicable “contests” where people I will never understand win trophies for killing as many innocent creatures as they can in an hour. Makes me glad for all the rehab folks I know working hard to raise babies or rehab adults to release when ready, at least they help counter-act such atrocities.

We continue our fight to help people understand the value of wildlife and we hope to see the day when we learn to live with them, to co-exist instead of kill. In some ways, we seem to have made some progress. There are many great organizations working to help protect animals. Yet, in far too many ways, we still hold the attitudes that were popular centuries ago. Please help us to spread the word that opossums are necessary and natural!

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