A recycled post from the National Wildlife Federation recently reignited a debate in our house concerning the humble opossum. Possums give Judy the creeps, but I think that people generally, and gardeners in particular, should roll out the welcome mat to North America’s only marsupial.

black brown and white animal
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The irony is that when it comes to our gardens, it’s the supposedly cute animals that inflict devastation. I’m thinking of rabbits especially, not to mention raccoons. Anybody who has ever encountered a cornered raccoon in their garage knows that the masked critters can be about as cute as Al Capone.

By contrast, possums do nothing destructive. The only reason why people find them creepy is how they look. Admittedly they have the appearance of large, disheveled rats, and the naked tails are not exactly endearing. I’ll also concede that their bared teeth can be a bit alarming.

possum
Another early morning photo of a possum in our back garden. 

Despite the teeth, possums practice non-violent resistance where people are concerned (unlike the warlike raccoons, who are entirely disinterested in the philosophy of Gandhi). When threatened, possums often pretend to be dead (play possum), much like a state legislator I knew who avoided meetings by pretending to be asleep in his office.

When possums are aggressive it is entirely to humanity’s benefit. They like to eat rats, mice, slugs, snakes (including poisonous ones!), and snails. Perhaps more important, they are voracious killers of the ticks that spread lyme disease. According to one estimate, a single possum kills about 5,000 ticks annually.

Rabbit
Why do rabbits get all the love? They are a menace to our gardens.

As if suffering from low self-esteem due to their appearance, possums come out only at night. Judy points out that she sometimes sees them in the early morning, though, but should we really grudge this helpful animal a bit of morning light? I think not.

In fact, I would say that it is time to appreciate the possum – before it is too late. Otherwise we will continue to see possums driven by despair to committing more and more anti-social acts, like the possum who broke into a Florida liquor store and got drunk.

So hug a possum today! Well, maybe just offer a friendly wave – from a reasonable distance.

58 Comments on “The Possum Paradox

  1. As a long-time fan of Pogo, I have tried to look beyond the possum’s appearance. But it’s hard. I confess I did not know the possum had the virtues you describe, and I totally agree that “cute” is hooey.

  2. Poor Possums 😦 I encountered one on the wall outside our apartment one night. They are a bit scary-looking! It’s nice to learn a bit more about them here! 🙂

  3. Well, your Possums seem to have many redeeming features, especially consuming ticks. Aussie possums do look cute… we have a resident possum who looks very cute curled up in our apple tree… but is a menace at night..he/she has been known to neatly eat the skin off the lemons on my neighbour’s lemon tree…& lots of other annoying destructive things. I think you are right … cute equals destructive.

  4. Great post. I love possums! There is one that lives under the tulip tree in my yard. It comes out each night and waddles around the house to investigate whatever fell from the bird feeder. It also drinks from the birdbath I put out. I bought the warming one you recommended and set it up on top of a circle of rocks instead of the wobbly stand. (The cord runs under the grass, under the garage side door and to the plug inside.) I’ve seen the possum, two raccoons, neighborhood cats, birds and even bees drinking out of it. Every now and then I leave a treat out for possum, putting it on a flat rock in front of the Solomon’s Seal. I can look out from the living room window to watch the creature emerge and enjoy the piece of fruit.

    I read a few years ago that possums are quite short-sighted (seeing about 4’ in front of them) and that’s why so many end up as roadkill. (I did not doublecheck that info – just sharing it.) Since then I’m extra careful when driving at dusk and dawn – watching the edges of the road.

    While I find them fascinating I do know to keep a healthy distance. My grandmother’s cat did not and it cost $800.00 (25 years ago) to save him. He made it and lived another 8 years but without his left ear and a substantial chunk of one hip muscle. He never cornered another possum.

    Thanks for the possum post. It was a bright spot after a rough day.

    • You’re welcome. I’ve never wanted to get up close to a possum. I do know that squirrels and other animals drink out of the heated bird bath. I’ve never seen a possum do it, but I wouldn’t be surprised. Sometimes it’s been knocked over, which I’m guessing is due to some larger mammal.

      • My birdbath kept getting knocked over which is why I got the idea to lower it. I figured the creatures who were trying to get a drink and ended up getting a shower would appreciate the birdbath being lower. It seems to have worked out. I also put a heavy rock in the middle to help it stay put. The birds seem to enjoy the rock – playing what looks like “King of the Rock” to me.

  5. I found a possum in the house eating from the cat food bowl with my cats sitting next to it. I read that they never forget where they find food and they get along with cats. It came in the cat door several evenings at the same time so I now leave a bowl of cat food for it every night outside the cat door.

  6. We could do with a few of those here to eat the mice and ticks! I have never seen one and knew nothing about them, so thanks for the info!

  7. You are so funny. I love opossums. They dare to come through our garden occasionally. I say this because I have found several dead ones in my garden over the years. The rolling over and playing dead doesn’t work with the dog we have now. She believes no prisoners lies. The dog we used to have never barked, until one night she would stop barking and wouldn’t come to call. So I got the flashlight to go out to see what all the ruckus was about. Sure enough there laid an opossum with those teeth shining and not moving a muscle with our dog standing over it barking her brains out. We finally got her inside. It took a few minutes for that poor creature to recover.

  8. Well, you know how I feel about rabbits. I’ve never had a run-in with a raccoon, but I would be scared if it got into my garage or my compost, or something. Re: opossums, hey, they’re OK–a part of the ecosystem if they don’t multiply too fast, like the rabbits who don’t have enough predators. I’ve only seen an opossum once in my garden, and I believe it was in the morning as you describe. So, I guess they’re here.

  9. I’m obsessed with these wonderful marsupials. We nearly always have two or three that waddle through the back yard regularly. I’ve become quite accustomed to their weirdly panda-rat-bear-like countenance over time. They are by all appearances gentle garden good guys.

    • I agree that they are good guys. I like the panda-rat-bear comparison. Maybe we could make a new name out of that – how about parabea? Could be part of a rebranding campaign for possums.

  10. I have no problem with possums. Here in Florida I see them sauntering around the yard minding their own business except for the time we caught one on our Ring camera climbing the side of the house to snatch a tree frog off a light fixture! So you can add frogs to their menu.

  11. Yes, let’s hear it for possums! They are welcome in my yard anytime, along with the bear, the raccoons, the squirrels, and the chipmunks. 😉

    • Not sure I can welcome the squirrels, they are a pain in the butt. We have no bears, but I’m not sure I would want them around this area.

      • Part of living in the woods, Jason. Black bears are much shyer than other kinds of bears, and they mostly stick to the woods.

  12. I rather like possums. I know lots of folks think they’re creepy, but that’s their night habits and that naked tail. I’ve volunteered at our local wildlife rescue organization and possums are regular customers (or clients?–not sure!). The babies are really cute, much cuter than the adults. My only beef with our local ones is when one finds the owl house–they like the privacy of a penthouse, I think!

  13. I agree that possums do have a lot of advantages over rabbits and especially raccoons. I don’t mind their appearance. I wouldn’t go around hugging any, however, since they do carry some of the same communicable-to-humans diseases that raccoons carry.

  14. I like possums too. We found a cute one in my sweetheart’s garden the other night with an unusually clean tail. He made a big noise coming under the fence, so was not very stealthy!

  15. Interesting post! I had no idea opossums ate rats, mice, snakes, etc. and ticks. We have a few that visit the cat food bowls in the evening and I just let them eat. The raccoons visit as well, but they are at times very noisy and their young are quite curious. I don’t open the door when the opossums are feeding because they get excited and run down the steps. Sometimes they roll down the steps if they are in a hurry because of their very short legs.

    • Possums under the deck are better than skunks under the deck. I like the idea of rabbit-hunting possums, though then they’d probably need to be a lot bigger and faster.

  16. And don’t forget that they’ve provided a common name for Ilex decidua — possumhaw!
    I once included these tidbits in a post I wrote about persimmons:

    “The possum’s love of persimmons is legendary. In some regions, the creature spends so much time gorging on the fruit the trees are known as “possum wood”. John James Audubon pictured the Virginian Opossum in a persimmon tree, and an old American folk-song celebrates the relationships among the Possum, the Persimmon and the Raccoon with these lyrics:

    Possum in a ’simmon tree, raccoon on the ground,
    Raccoon said, “”You rascal, shake them ’simmons down!”

    • I like those lyrics. I have wondered where the name Possum Haw comes from. Is it that they like the fruit or they like to hide in the shrub.

      • I think they eat the fruit, but it seems ‘possumhaw’ is related to their tendency to hide in the shrub. I found that the word ‘haw’ was Old English for ‘hedge,’ and hedges often were used as places of shelter — as far back as the 1530s. So, possum haw = possum hedge; a place where possums hide out!

  17. Southern Maine has possums, but they usually don’t venture this far north. Now that our weather seems to be warmer, and the ticks have invaded, I’m hoping the possums won’t be far behind.

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