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Seeking Connection: The awesome possum

When the world began, it was dark and cold. Bear kept running into trees, bruising his nose. He called the animals together.

“My grandfather told me tales of a giant ball of fire that sleeps way up in the sky. Who will go bring us that warm light?” The animals all averted their eyes, for this adventure sounded dangerous and scary. Only possum raised his hand. “I will go,” he announced bravely, “and carry the fire back in my lustrous, bushy tail.”

The journey was long and indeed scary, but possum plodded along, climbing the ladder of stars until he came face to face with the sun. “We are cold and cannot see to do our jobs,” he pleaded. “Would you share some light with us?”

The sun gladly shaved off a few rays and tucked them safely under possum’s bushy tail. Possum began his descent, but he was only halfway down the sky ladder when the heat from the sun began to burn his tail. He climbed as fast as he could, but by the time he reached his friends, all of his hair had been burned off. His fur was gone and his once-bushy tail was now raw, pink and hairless. 

Even now, most people see a possum and think ugly instead of awesome

Not me. We have a possum – we call him Flash – that comes up on our porch almost nightly to visit and maybe eat a few pieces of cat food. Flash is adorable and funny and gets along just fine with Cat Stevens. 

When I tell people about Flash, they are generally horrified and immediately list all the reasons I should shun him. Except most of those so-called reasons are actually myths.

Let me convince you that the possum is awesome. I prefer the casual term possum to opossum, but both are correct; in technical or scientific contexts, opossum is preferred.

Myth #1: Possums are rabid

Nope. Very few possums carry disease. They are very unlikely to carry rabies, because their body temperature is too low for the rabies virus to thrive. When humans see possums “foaming at the mouth,” they are witnessing the possum’s survival tactic, not rabies.

Possums secrete a foul-smelling fluid from their anal glands and foam from their mouths when they play dead. This involuntary defense mechanism actually knocks them unconscious. Leave them be, and they will awaken and become ambulatory within 15 minutes. 

Myth #2: Possums are nuisances.

Nothing could be further from the truth. If you live in the country, you want lots of possum neighbors!

First, opossums act like vacuum cleaners for ticks. They are extremely clean and kill about 95 percent of the ticks that try to feed on them. It’s estimated that a single possum hoovers up more than 5,000 ticks every season.

Second, opossums are resistant to snake venom, and prey on copperheads and rattlesnakes. Flash eats these venomous snakes and keeps them from getting close to my home. He is like my own personal groundskeeper, keeping the snakes and ticks away. Opossums also eat cockroaches, rats, mice, slugs and carrion.

Myth #3: Possums are stupid.

Flash is North America’s only marsupial, or pouched animal. When the so-called Great America Interchange occurred some 3 million years ago, Central America was closed off and the possum is the only marsupial that successfully moved to and survived this far north. Some scientists call possums “living fossils” because they have survived relatively unchanged for at least 50 million years. Resourceful!

Mother possums give birth to tiny, underdeveloped offspring called joeys that live and nurse in their mother’s pouch during their first months of life. When they grow large and strong enough to venture out, they transition between their mother’s back and the warmth of the pouch until they are adults.

And how about this? Using mazes, researchers found that possums are better at remembering which route led to a tasty tidbit than rats, cats, dogs and pigs!

Myth #4: Possums are ugly.

While it’s true that beauty is subjective, I personally think possums are adorable. That hairless tail is an impressive, prehensile tail that acts like a fifth hand and is great for wrapping around things like tree limbs (though it is a myth that they hang upside down to sleep).

Flash has opposable thumbs (called halux) on his cute little hands that make him a first-rate climber. In fact, possums are the only mammals other than primates with opposable first toes.

And what about those black eyes? Flash’s pupils are so large, his eyes appear completely black from a distance. This exaggerated pupil dilation helps these nocturnal animals see well after the sun goes down.

I hope this knowledge will help you notice the awesomeness of possum.

Erin Smith is the owner of the OM place in Winchester, the author of “Sensible Wellness” and the online host of the OM channel.