If you see an animal that looks as if its parts don't quite match, then more than likely you're looking at an opossum. They have jaws like dogs, ears like Mickey Mouse, hairless tails like rats, feet like tiny humans, and very thick fur that makes them look much more stocky than they actually are. They surely win the award for South Carolina's funniest-looking animal, hands-down.
The opossum's odd features serve important purposes in their natural environment. Opossums are tree-dwellers by nature, but they scavenge for food on the ground. Their feet are ideally adapted for both walking on the ground and climbing trees. They also have prehensile tails that they use to carry things around and as a "fifth leg" when climbing. Young opossums may also hang or swing from tree limbs by their tails, but adult opossums are too heavy to do that. It's kind of like skipping. It's something that only kids can do.
Aside from being funny-looking, opossums are also very interesting animals. For one thing, they're the only marsupials native to North America. Their young are born as little more than embryos after an extremely short gestation, after which they must find their own way from the birth canal to their mothers' pouches. The first 13 that succeed will latch on to a teat and spend the next several months in the pouch doing little other than nursing. The rest will die.
Another thing about opossums that interests scientists is that they rarely get sick. They are remarkably resistant to most bacteria, viruses, and even the venom of all North American snakes except coral snakes.
One would think that as healthy an animal as an opossum would enjoy a long life. But alas, that's not the case. Opossums have very rapid senescence, which basically means that they age rapidly. They die of old age at the age of two or three years, assuming that something else doesn't kill them first. Because they are slow-moving and have poor eyesight, many of them die when they get hit by cars. They're also preyed upon by wolves, foxes, bobcats, raptors, and other predator animals.
Opossums are scavengers by nature and will eat almost anything. In nature, eat carrion, insects, slugs, earthworms, crustaceans, small mammals, fruits, berries, and pretty much anything else. Around human-occupied areas, they're attracted to the smell of garbage in trash cans and dumpsters. A dumpster full of rancid garbage that's been sitting in the hot South Carolina sun for a day or two is like a buffet to a possum.
Although opossums rarely get ill, most wildlife biologists believe that they're able to "carry" some diseases, meaning that they may be able to harbor the causative pathogens and spread them to other animals without becoming sick themselves. Rabies may be one of those diseases.
The number of confirmed rabies cases in opossums in the United States is very low, however. Usually it's in the single digits in any given year for the whole country. Opossums, therefore, are not considered a significant rabies threat. In addition, a healthy opossum's normal behavior upon being confronted looks a lot like the way many people assume a rabid animal acts; so the fact that an opossum is snarling, hissing, and walking around clumsily doesn't mean that it's rabid. That's all normal for a possum.
The long and short of it is that if you are bitten or scratched by an opossum, you should see a doctor. If safely possible, you should also trap and hold the animal for necropsy. But the chances of contracting rabies from an opossum are considered by public health authorities to be very slight.
Opossums are perhaps most famous for "playing dead" when they're threatened. But they're not really playing. The death-like state is not a voluntary act on the possum's part. It's something more along the lines of fainting and appears to be beyond the opossum's control.
The scientific name for this death-like state is thanatosis, which derives from thanatos, the Greek word for death. When in thanatosis, the opossum becomes completely unresponsive to all stimuli, assumes a death-like posture with its face frozen in a contorted expression, and even emits a foul-smelling substance that mimics the smell of a rotting carcass. Because most predator animals don't eat rotting flesh, the aggressor animal will usually walk away and leave the opossum alone. A little while later, the opossum comes out of thanatosis and goes about its possum business like nothing happened.
Unfortunately and ironically for opossums, their remarkable ability to mimic death also works against them in the modern world. One of the reasons why so many opossums are killed by cars is that while walking along roads at night scavenging for road kill, opossums, who have poor vision (and don't really grasp the whole concept of vehicles in any case), seem to mistake the sound and headlights of oncoming vehicles for predator animals. Rather than doing something sensible like getting out of the way, they go into thanatosis right there in the middle of the road: And thus in the process of scavenging for road kill, they become road kill themselves.
Opossum control is accomplished by removing the animal (either by hand or using a trap), sometimes followed by sealing the building so the animal can't get back in. I say "sometimes" because it's not always necessary. Very often opossums get into homes by just walking right on through an open garage door. In those kinds of cases, the only remediation needed is to keep the door closed.
Sometimes, however, opossums get into homes through construction gaps, holes, poorly-fitting basement doors, or missing crawl space vent screens. Because they're tree-dwellers by nature, they can also get in through loose or broken attic vents, fans, broken soffits, and other openings on the roof or upper floors. For that reason, in any case where an opossum gets into a home through anything except an open door, the house needs to be inspected from top to bottom for possible entry points.
Rid-A-Critter provides opossum control and animal-proofing throughout the Columbia and Aiken, South Carolina areas. Please contact us for a consultation if you have a problem with opossums or any other nuisance animals.
Here are a few pictures of possum removal work we've done. Hopefully we'll have more soon.
Three young opossums awaiting relocation
Opossums are found throughout Georgia
Angry opossum awaiting relocation
Baby opossum was removed from under a dishwasher
Baby opossums found at a possum-removal job
Opossum waiting to be humanely relocated
Opossum hole in a house in Columbia
Tim with a young opossum removed from a home
Opossum entry through missing block in Columbia
Baby opossum on the hood of Chris's truck
Possum trapped in Aiken, South Carolina
Young opossum removed from a home