Virginia Opossums: Nuisance or Treasure?

During my externship, whenever friends or family inquired about the animals the Center rehabilitates, the opossum  -- by far -- met with the most negative responses. Here are three major misconceptions I heard about the species: they are rabid and dangerous, they are unintelligent and just become road kill, and they are a nuisance species.

Before I tackle these misconceptions, I would like to provide a little background on the species. The Virginia Opossum is native to North America and is the only marsupial species native to the United States and have survived here for around 20 million years, long after other marsupial species went extinct.

Firstly, yes, opossums can be dangerous because they are wild animals and do not desire human interaction. What many people do not know about the species is that although they can carry rabies, it’s fairly rare for opossums to contract the virus, likely because of their low body temperature.

Next, this species does become road kill quite often, but this is usually because they are seeking out food sources that are near roads. Opossums are much smarter than many people realize. They are incredible scavengers and have performed better in finding and remembering locations of food than rats, cats, dogs, and rabbits.

Lastly, opossums are regarded by many as a nuisance species for several reasons including some discussed above -- they are common road kill or because of the belief that they are rabid -- and because they are just plain ugly. This belief couldn’t be farther from the truth. Opossums actually consume a number of other more problematic and dangerous species for humans; they eat everything from ticks, slugs, and other garden pests to rattlesnakes and scorpions. This species is also remarkable in its immunity to numerous toxins: rattlesnake and other venomous species, scorpion and bee stings, and botulism. Opossums actually play a big role in the environment by eating ticks, and not only can they eat up to 4,000 ticks a week, but ticks feeding on opossums are unlikely to contract Lyme disease, thus unlikely to spread the disease to a subsequent host. Opossums are also helping scientists research new possibilities for anti-venom by adapting a toxin-neutralizing factor in their blood.

Most people know these animals for their famous behavior of “playing possum”, a situation where the animal actually slows its heart rate, defecates, and produces a putrid green secretion from glands around the anus, remaining in this position for hours at a time, but opossums actually provide copious benefits to the environment and mankind.   

--Rachel M.
WCV Class of 2017