Can you blame them? Opossums, after all, do look like bloated rats — the scruffy fur, the flinty eyes, the bizarre little feet and long, scaly tail. And that’s their good side. Threaten one of them, and it will bare its teeth, hiss and drool.
But as disgusting as the animals may appear, they actually do quite lovely work in the garden. Opossums are nature’s clean-up crew, working the graveyard shift. Like little dust busters, they cruise the landscape, round ears tilted like satellite dishes, fleshy pink snoots to the ground. They feast on snails and slugs, perhaps even a cockroach or two.
Gardeners may blame opossums for the messes and mischief made by rambunctious raccoons, skunks and squirrels rooting out insect grubs, but the reality is that opossums don’t dig. They can’t. The soft pink skin on their paws is too delicate for such manual labor; their weak nails are built for tree-climbing.
Though opossums are excellent at scaling trunks, they rarely sample the fruit above. Instead, they might salvage a fallen peach or munch avocados knocked down by squirrels. Opossums prefer their produce at ground level and well rotted — all the easier to sniff out as they forage the night garden.
The animals are effective scavengers, says Jim Dines, collections manager of mammalogy at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. It may not help their image problem, but opossums do eat the really gross stuff too: stinky carrion that other wildlife simply won’t consider. Lest you get too disgusted, just remember that this is the detritus that no gardener wants to handle, even with gloved hands.
IF opossums are so docile, harmless and downright helpful, then why are so many people — even sensitive gardeners who have designed their landscapes to attract wildlife — so intensely repulsed by this animal?
The average person thinks they’re so ugly, they’re scary, says Simon of the Urban Wildlife Program. Most calls coming into the hotline that she runs are fear-based.
“People think the animals must be rabid,” she says.
In truth, Simon and other experts say, the opossum is one of the gentlest animals out there. When it senses danger, it usually just freezes, motionless, and waits for the hazard to pass.
When threatened, the animal can look awfully mean, but it’s all a big show. Opossums don’t run or bite well. They’re not very coordinated and, in Simon’s words, they’re not the most intellectual of creatures.
If the baring-teeth-and-hissing drama doesn’t work, they feign death by entering a temporary coma. This strategy doesn’t fool dogs and other large predators, according to Mary Cummins, a Los Angeles-based licensed wildlife rehabilitator and educator. She takes in 600 injured or orphaned opossums each year.
Mary Cummins of Animal Advocates is a wildlife rehabilitator licensed by the California Department of Fish and Game and the USDA. Mary Cummins is also a licensed real estate appraiser in Los Angeles, California.
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