These Truly “Awesome Opossums”

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A baby opossum climbs branches in a San Dimas backyard on July 4, 2020. Animal Control Officer Tay Maxson recommends leaving baby opossums alone for at least 24 hours to see if they can find their way back to mom. Photo: Elizabeth Ebiner

By Elizabeth Ebiner

The opossums that wander into backyards from time to time are often misunderstood and persecuted because of false beliefs that they are aggressive and can transmit diseases like rabies. In reality, these creatures are easy-going animals that play a huge role in keeping local ecosystems clean. 

Before diving into the details of opossum behavior and how they benefit backyards, we should set the record straight about their name — is it possum or opossum?

Although many people use the two names interchangeably, the latter is correct when referring to these friendly outdoor neighbors. Opossums are America’s only native marsupial while possums hail from Australia.

Dave Tran, a rehabber at All Wildlife Rescue & Education located in Long Beach, helps rehabilitate wildlife. He frequently receives calls from community members about opossums and is happy to provide education about the creatures. 

“Opossums are non-native animals in California,” Tran said. “They were brought over as a food source, and they have basically escaped and multiplied.”

Although non-native to the state, opossums still benefit city environments by eating rotting plants and fruit, insects and even dead animals. Opossums can eat thousands of ticks per year, which protects humans and other animals from tick-transmitted diseases like Lyme disease. 

As Tran explained, “They’re omnivores … They eat anything and everything. Smaller animals that they can catch, that kind of thing.”

Aaron Hartney, a resident of San Dimas who is admittedly a non-expert when it comes to opossums, learned about how helpful the marsupials can be through his family’s own backyard encounters.

“We were noticing some of the fruit that was on the ground was getting eaten by something,” Hartney said. Then, he spotted an opossum.

“Initially my response was probably like everybody else’s, a little bit grossed out and, you know, not necessarily wanting something like that living in our yard. But at the same time, as I looked into it a little bit, they’re relatively helpful, and I believe that they deter some things that are less desirable like rats.” 

Contrary to widespread belief, opossums are in fact resistant to diseases like rabies. The animal’s average body temperature at 94.3 degrees Fahrenheit is “too low to maintain the rabies virus. So there’s no rabies issue with opossums,” said Tran.

Animal Control Officer Tay Maxson, who works with the Inland Valley Humane Society & S.P.C.A. and provides animal control services to San Dimas and neighboring cities, offered insight to opossum behavior, explaining that opossums are not confrontational by nature.

Maxson explained opossums “can be scary because they hiss, but that’s their only defense mechanism … Even when they have their babies on them, they aren’t territorial … They’re not aggressive animals.”

Both Maxson and Tran agreed that an opossum would not bite unless you put your hand in or near its mouth, and Maxson reported she has never received a call for an opossum attack.

Along with the hiss, opossums famously “play possum” or “play dead” in response to frightening situations. 

“If [the opossum] doesn’t run, there’s nobody to chase. And if they’re no fun to chase, [a predator] will go someplace else to look,” Tran said, explaining this typical behavior.

When Maxson receives calls about opossums, she advises that they be left alone. Although the creatures are primarily active at night due to better visibility in the dark, they may also be seen moving around during the day.

However, pay special attention if you see a young opossum. Maxson recommends leaving these babies alone for at least 24 hours to see if they can find their way back to mom — unless they are hairless. In that case, they are unlikely to be able to find their way back and might need help from animal control.

Regardless of what experts say, consider listening to neighbors like Hartney who have come to recognize the benefits of opossums in our neighborhood.

“In an ideal world I’d probably prefer not to have opossums or anything else, but given the fact that there are rodents around L.A. County and things that get into not only your yard but into your house, I don’t mind a natural deterrent out in the backyard every once in a while.”

Currently, wildlife trapping has been paused due to COVID-19 regulations and limited staff. The best thing you can do if you see an opossum out and about is to let it do its job. They will help maintain a clean ecosystem and can be fun to watch with the right perspective!

For further information about opossums or other wildlife in your backyard, the Inland Valley Humane Society & S.P.C.A. offers packets including general information and deterrents for the critters who share our city.

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