Opossums are rather odd-looking animals that are sometimes described as looking like they were assembled from "God's spare parts." They're medium-sized mammals, usually predominantly white or gray in color, with canine-like jaws, rat-like prehensile tails, and hands and feet whose tracks somewhat resemble those of a miniature human. They also have opposable "thumbs" on their hind feet, and females have pouches in which they rear their young. The opossum is the only marsupial native to North America.
In nature, possums preferentially live in trees; but they're also comfortable living on ground level. Opossums can be found in any part of a house from the basement or crawl space to the attic, as well as in garages, sheds, and other buildings. Opossums are also happy eating our food (or our pets' food), and often rummage through human garbage looking for leftovers. They'll eat pretty much anything, dead or alive, both in nature and in human-occupied areas.
In fact, the opossum's adaptability is the secret to its success. They have very few set habits or absolute needs. They are flexible in their approach to life and live without complaints in a wide variety of settings, making do with whatever nature -- or people -- provide. They live pretty much anywhere, eat pretty much anything, and go about their business.
Probably the most well-known bit of information about possums is their peculiar habit of "playing dead" when confronted or attacked. Most biologists don't believe that this behavior is completely voluntary. It seems to be an involuntary reaction -- something like fainting -- over which possums have little or no control.
We do know that playing dead is something that opossums do after more typical methods of confronting the threat -- growling, snarling, snapping, screeching, and so forth -- have failed. When playing dead, opossum's faces look frozen in a snarl, and they secrete a foul-smelling fluid from their anal glands, presumably to discourage predators from eating them. Most carnivores won't eat meat that smells rotten.
Another interesting thing about opossums is that although they have extraordinarily strong immune systems and are resistant to most diseases, they also have very short life spans. This isn't just because of their habit of walking across roads and getting run over by cars. They just have very rapid senescence, which means they age very quickly.
In nature, opossums are somewhat beneficial because they do consume their share of rodents. But because they're omnivorous, they can be a nuisance in gardens and on farms, where they sometimes eat the crops. In homes, they're a nuisance mainly because they make a mess and scare people. And although they very rarely attack, it does happen sometimes when they're cornered.
Like other wild animals, opossums also harbor their fair share of parasites such as fleas and ticks, some of which can transmit diseases to humans and pets. Their droppings can also harbor bacterial and fungal pathogens that can become airborne, and some of which can cause human illnesses.
One place you definitely don't want opossums is around a stable. Possums are known to be involved in the transmission of Equine Protozoal Myeloencephalitis (EPM), a serious disease affecting horses and other equines. Opossums around horses are a wildlife-control emergency.
Another possible health threat worth mentioning is that opossums have remarkably strong immune systems and are largely resistant to many common diseases, including rabies. But that doesn't mean that they can't transmit it. The results of several studies suggest at least the possibility that opossums infected with rabies can continue to live out their normal life spans, during which they theoretically could infect humans or other animals.
Like most of the wildlife control that we do, opossum control typically consists of trapping and removing the opossum from your attic, crawl space, garage, or wherever else they've gotten into; and then sealing up your house to keep opossums and other wildlife out. Opossum exclusion will also keep many other animals, such as raccoons and skunks, out of a home.
Sometimes, however, all we need to do is remove the animal, either by trapping or by hand, and relocate it. This is the case when, for example, an opossum gets into a garage or basement because the door was left open. In that case, the obvious solution (once we remove the opossum) is to keep the door closed when it's not in use.
Please contact us if you have a problem with opossums or any other nuisance wildlife.
Here are a few pictures of opossum-removal work we've done in Atlanta and the Metro Area.