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Opossums

Opossum Fears & Fables

A lot of people who call the hotline have the wrong idea about opossums.  No, they do not have rabies.  In fact it is EXTREMELY rare if even POSSIBLE for opossums to get rabies because their body temperature is too low for rabies to survive and replicate well.  The usual reason people think they have rabies is the drooling that opossums do when approached and scared.  For the most part though, opossums are all bark and no bite.  When a ‘possum is approached, it will open its mouth widely, show you all of their teeth, and begin to drool excessively.  Usually this pose is enough to intimidate anyone, and you will leave it alone.  Even in baby opossums we see this defense mechanism, although we’re so used to it that it is less than intimidating to us anymore.  If pushed, cornered, poked, prodded, the opossum WILL bite, but it will never run after you, chase you, come towards you in an attacking way.  No matter what you hear, opossums are not out there killing people’s dogs, or attacking children.  They do not care about your dog, and they don’t want anything to do with your children.  Opossums hope that they can bluff their way out of any human encounter, but it doesn’t always work.

The opossums other defense mechanism is also the most common misconception about them – playing ‘possum’.  Yes, they are capable of feigning death.  In fact, when cornered, opossums will fall over ‘dead’, become stiff as a board, as though in rigor, and will emit a smell that fools predators (and your dog) into thinking that they are spoiled meat.  This defense works incredibly well against most predators.  Sadly, it doesn’t work at all against cars, which are the most common killer of our opossum population.  When an opossum ‘plays dead’ they actually submerge into a semi-conscious state.  This state is not something they can pull out of instantly.  It takes time for them to recover from this state, and we often get calls from people who believe there is a dead opossum in their yard, or believe that their dog killed an opossum, only to find out that ten minutes later the opossum is nowhere to be found.  They are VERY good at playing ‘possum.  You will NOT know whether they are dead or alive without a stethoscope to listen for heart rate.  Because of this, please be kind when ‘disposing’ of an opossum that you believe to be dead.  Just in case he isn’t truly dead, do not place him in a dumpster that he cannot get out of, or use a pitchfork to pick him up.  It is entirely possible that he was fine until you mistakenly ushered him to a true death.

There is an opossum in my yard, and I want him removed.

Opossums tend to be fairly nomadic creatures.  They don’t really “live” anywhere in particular for long, unless a food source is nearby that they wish to stay close to, or they find a particularly safe and warm home that has very little people/pet traffic.  There are no public services that will come out to remove a perfectly healthy opossum from you yard or property.  If you have an opossum living in your garage, barn, or anywhere else where he is unwanted, there is a very simple solution to this issue.  Leave the opossum alone and set your alarm to wake you in the middle of the night – anytime after midnight and before dawn.  When you get up, go look for the opossum and you will probably not find him.  He will be out getting groceries, which makes for the perfect opportunity for you to evict him.  While he is gone at night, make sure that you secure whatever entry the animal was using to get into your home/barn/garage.  It doesn’t take much to deter an opossum.  They do not attempt to chew through wire fencing that you might use to evict them.  They do not attempt to dig under railroad ties, cement blocks, or anything else you might use to prevent their entry.  Chances are, your opossum will come back to your home in the morning at dawn, see that he has been evicted, and just keep walking to a new place to sleep.  These are not menacing, troublesome creatures.  They are actually very amiable, and very easy to influence when you need them to move on.  You will be surprised by how simple they are in comparison to any other species you may have conflict with.  The problem is, people tend to be doubly scared of an opossum than they are of a raccoon, deer, or anything else.  That fear keeps us from thinking logically and handling the situation humanely.

I see an opossum dead on the side of road and there are babies crawling all over.

Opossums carry their babies in a pouch on their belly, just like a kangaroo.  When Mom gets hit by a car, the babies, if old enough, climb out of the pouch and begin crawling around.  If you see this, please call the Wildlife Hotline immediately @ 1-855-WILD-HELP.  Time is of the essence before the babies stray into the road and get hit themselves.  If the babies are still attached to Mom, take the entire body and babies to a local rehabber.  We know it’s gross but it’s the only way.  When removing the babies from Mom, if you can do so, they may hiss at you and open their mouths wide as though they are going to bite.  Just pick them up from their back end and usually that is enough to avoid getting bit.  Usually they don’t actually try to bite anyway, they’re just bluffing, but better to be safe than sorry.  You can place the babies in a soft pillowcase and keep them very warm until you reach a wildlife rehabilitator.

Learn How to Transport Baby Opossums Here

I found a baby opossum in my yard.

If you see a baby opossum in your yard, all alone and it is less than 6 inches long from nose to the end of its tail, it is probably an orphan.  Mom carries the babies in her pouch and they are called joeys – just like with kangaroos.  As the babies get bigger, they ride along on Mom’s back and sides, hanging on to her fur as she walks around.  Sometimes one of the joeys will fall off of Mom, and she won’t even notice until much later.  In most cases, she will not come back for the baby, and it is difficult to find a way to reunite them with Mom.  Take the baby and place it in a small shoebox with a small pillow case or towel and contact the hotline or your local rehab center.  If the baby hisses and tries to bite, pick it up by the tail to quickly put it in the box.  You can put the lid of the box with just one or two air holes and it will be fine.  Keep the box in a warm, dark, dry place until you can get it to the right people.

Opossum Stuck in Window Well / Dumpster

Opossums don’t really jump.  They climb.  if you find any animal stuck in a window well, dumpster, or any hole/ravine of some sort where they cannot get traction to climb out, just place a 2×4, piece of lumber, ladder, step stool, milk crate – anything for him to climb into the well/dumpster, and walk away.  Opossums NEVER DO ANYTHING QUICKLY.  He will not attempt to use whatever you have given him to climb out immediately.  It will take time, sometimes hours, for him to gather the courage and motivation to climb out of the predicament he has found himself in.  This goes the same for an opossum in a trap accidentally.  Opening the trap door to release the opossum, you may still have to wait a very long time before he decided to walk out of the trap.  Patience is the key with these guys.

Opossum Sitting on Top of Fence

For the opossum, height = safety.  When a dog or cat comes along and scares an opossum, they tend to climb the nearest thing in order to avoid fighting with a predatory species.  Even when not playing dead, and especially during daylight hours, opossums will hold absolutely still – frozen – to avoid predators being able to track them.  Hawks and owls can track moving prey much easier than prey that doesn’t move a muscle.  Opossums are FRIGHT or FLIGHT instead of FIGHT or FLIGHT.  They would much rather avoid the confrontation, rather than fight.  The opossum that you see ‘watching’ your children is actually in fright mode, frozen and terrified, and as soon as you leave it alone and let it recover from it’s fear, it will move on and leave you alone.  Even in fright mode, they will not attack your children or approach you in any way.  In fact, even if an opossum wanted to approach you or your family, it would take him a long time to climb down from the fence, walk towards you, etc.  Remember, they are NEVER quick and agile.  They are the Eeyore’s of the wildlife world.

… A Word about Poison …

We at the Wildlife Hotline are strong opponents to poisoning wildlife.  First off, it is not a legal way to handle wildlife conflicts.  Secondly, poison never ends up only affecting the animal that you intended to poison.  These animals are part of the circle of life, and if poisoned a predator comes along and eats the dead animal which then kills the predator, which gets picked apart by birds, which then kills the birds, then the birds are found by a domestic cat and kills the cat.  It just isn’t simple issue.  Poison has proven to be a far too dangerous way to handle wildlife conflicts.  Before you decide to use poison to handle your wildlife conflict please read our ‘Poison Risks & Consequences’ page to learn more about this issue.

As always, if you have more questions about opossums, what attracts them, and possible options to resolve your conflicts humanely, please call the Wildlife Hotline @ 1-855-WILD-HELP to speak with a wildlife specialist.


Sponsored By:

Acumen Consulting
Family Pet Hospital

Family Pet Hospital in Sunset Hills, MO

With the Support of:

Jorgensen Laboratories

In Collaboration With:

Treehouse Wildlife Center