Conservation Sustainability

The Wild Truth About Opossums

The Wild Truth About Opossums

Few opossums live more than
one year due to predation. Photo by Carlton Burke

By Winslow Umberger

Cute and furry animals tug at our heartstrings; ugly ones, not so much. “Ugly” animals get short shrift, particularly if they look like rodents. This puts opossums on the wrong end of the worthiness scale, their value being arbitrarily diminished solely based on appearance. Yet, looks can be deceiving and America’s only marsupial is actually one of the best “work horses” in nature.

“The poor opossum is universally maligned,” says Carlton Burke of Carolina Mountain Naturalists. “Yes, they can look scary, particularly if they bare their teeth at you or appear as a ghastly specter of the night.“ And surely something so sinister is likely to be rabid. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Opossums are highly intelligent, besting dogs and cats in navigating mazes and in remembering where food can be found. “You are eight times more likely to come across a rabid wild dog as a rabid opossum, simply because they are mostly immune to rabies,” says Burke. Incredibly, they have a partial or total immunity to the venom of the area’s poisonous snakes as well. You could say opossums have super powers!

Actually, they are super friends. As omnivores, they gobble up things we humans typically shrink from: carrion, rodents, insects, snails and slugs. Since they have an unusually high need for calcium, they even finish off the skeletons of rodents and road kill they consume. If the sight of road kill disturbs you, then thank an opossum for getting it out of sight.

Their diet makes them great groundskeepers. They are welcome visitors to gardens as they dine on the snails, slugs and beetles that wreak havoc. These beneficial creatures even keep rats and roaches away by quickly devouring items that would otherwise attract them.

Opossums are more afraid of you than you are of them. When threatened, they will run, but, if cornered, they will do what they can to scare you away by belching and growling. If this fails, they won’t go on the attack; they will play “opossum,” acting as if they are dead. They need to be convincing and therefore give an Academy Award-worthy performance, baring their teeth as saliva foams around their mouths and secreting a noxious-smelling fluid from their glands. This is an involuntary response similar to fainting. Who can be afraid of someone or something that is limp at their feet?

“Instead of fearing them, learn to live with them, even help them,” says Savannah Trantham, co-founder of Appalachian Wildlife Refuge. “If you spot an injured or dead opossum on the road, it may be a mother with babies in her pouch. These babies could potentially be saved so it is important to email our urgent care hotline at for guidance before examining it.”

Appalachian Wildlife Refuge is in the midst of creating an urgent care facility to help injured and orphaned wildlife. At present, volunteers rush these animals to either home-based wildlife rehabilitators or rehabilitation centers hours from Asheville. Donor dollars are urgently needed to make the facility a reality. Appalachian Wild is a 501(3)(C) nonprofi t organization staffed by volunteers, so donations go directly to supporting the mission and are tax-deductible. Please visit or email for more information on how you can help save and protect our priceless wildlife.

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