Opossums are very unique animals. They are slow moving, play dead, groom like a cat, release foul feces and gland substance when in danger, are immune to rabies and are the only North American marsupial with their lineage reaching back 70 million years. Their nest raiding habits, hairless tails and rather nasty appearance (a subjective opinion of course) have caused them to be labeled as a pest by many, rather than a unique and quality addition to the wildlife we enjoy as humans.
Over the past few years, their has been a large push to protect opossums from their poor reputation by sharing some of their benefits to nature. The major point made is their ability to eat up to 5,000 ticks per year through grooming, leading to a a positive impact in the spread of Lyme disease. The "pro-possum" propaganda also highlights their inability to spread rabies and their role as nature's vacuum, cleaning up carrion, insects and other leftovers. While these things are true, it is worth pointing out some of the less desirable traits associated with our friendly neighborhood opossums.
While opossums may not spread rabies they do carry and spread a host of other dangerous diseases such as leptospirosis, tuberculosis, tularemia, spotted fever, toxoplasmosis, coccidiosis, trichomoniasis, and Chagas disease. They can also be infested with fleas, ticks (before they are groomed and eaten), mites, and lice. Most of these can be easily spread to other mammals, including humans. Also, while it is true that they can clean up ticks from their environment they are also incredibly willing to clean up a turkey nest full of eggs. These eggs would otherwise hatch and produce a much larger tick cleanup operation, as a single turkey can eat up to 200 ticks per day. Let's not forget their ability to raid chicken coops, gardens, and orchards.
At the end of the day, while opossums are a rather passive neighbor and necessary to our North American ecosystem, they are just like any other creature requiring management. I wouldn't recommend shooting all opossums on sight as they are indeed a valuable and interesting living creature. However, most states do offer an opossum season for hunters and trappers to aid in population control. A balance is required to protect our game birds while still maintaining our natural cleanup crew of opossums. Opossum is edible and while I'm not going to stand in line for opossum tenders, some quite enjoy their meat. Pelts are used for leather and fur liners.
Next time you see "pro-possum" propaganda just remember that there are two sides to the coin and their control and exclusion is just as necessary as their protection, based on their influence on their environment.
MORE OPPOSUM FUN FACTS
At 11 weeks of age opossums can leave the pouch for short periods. When the young become too large for all of them to fit inside the pouch at one time, some will ride along by hanging on to the mother’s back.
Few opossums live beyond 3 years, due to their susceptibility to predators and automobiles.
Opossums have a top running speed of only 7 miles per hour.
Not all opossums "play possum", the condition is induced by fear or other stresses and is more apt to happen during daylight hours.
They are susceptible to frostbite, leaving many northern opossums with rather ragged ears and stubby tails.
Quality habitats may support 20 opossums to the square mile.
Male opossums have a gland under their chin which secretes fluids that often stain their chests a yellow color.
There are five toes on each foot, and the hind feet have a toe that resembles a thumb.
Opossums have 50 teeth, more than any other American mammal.
An opossum brain is very small in comparison to body size, and opossums are thought to be less intelligent than many other species.
“Virginian Opossum” by John James Audubon. This print was published in 1851