By Mary Meldrum
As more and more of our rural areas are developed, certain wild animals have learned to adapt and have reclaimed some space within our urban areas. The opossum is one of these animals. As their natural habitat in the Detroit area and outlying cities like Ferndale disappeared over time, like many other animals, opossums were forced into closer proximity to humans.
While they may resemble rats in some ways, opossums are not really related to rats at all. Opossums are North America’s only marsupial. Marsupials are archetypal mammals that cannot produce a placenta, and instead sport a pouch in which they carry and suckle their young. Do not let their slow movements fool you. With their opposable ‘thumb’ toes and their prehensile tails, they are great climbers. You may have seen one hanging upside down by their tail in a tree. They are also rather smart and have fantastic memories.
Opossums are interesting animals. Male opossums are called jacks, females are called jills, and the young are referred to as joeys, just like kangaroos. Opossums have an impressive 50 teeth and are the quintessential omnivore. They eliminate rodents, snakes and insects and are the urban
“groundskeepers” in most cities. They eat over-ripe fruit, grass, leaves, frogs, birds, fish, eggs, snails, slugs, moles and garbage. The insects that they eat include cockroaches, crickets, beetles, etc., and they also catch and eat mice and rats. They are scavengers as well, and consume carrion, cleaning up dead animals of all types.
They are generally docile and non-aggressive, and will not attack your pets. They prefer to avoid any confrontations and do not like to be cornered. When challenged and they cannot escape, they might hiss, growl, belch, urinate, defecate, and if all else fails, play dead. They will show their teeth or bite in self-defense as most wild animals do.
A zoonotic disease is a disease passed between animals and humans. People can contract diseases from any animal, including their pets. While opossums are known to carry a variety of diseases, not all opossums are infected with disease and they do not carry rabies. Since marsupials are a rather ancient form of mammal, their body temperatures are too low to harbor rabies. The low body temperature is also why they move so slowly. When in close proximity to any wild animal, keep your distance and use common sense, but the chance of catching any disease is slim.
Because opossums do not hibernate in the cold months of winter, surviving during this time is especially difficult for them. They frequently change their nocturnal foraging and hunting habits in order to be out in the warmer temperatures during the day.
Opossums are nocturnal animals, usually hunting at night. They have poor eyesight, but rely on their excellent sense of smell to find and hunt food.
If you have been having regular visits from a local opossum, there is likely a food source that they return to regularly. In order to get rid of opossums, you have to remove the source of their food. Do not put out seed for the birds and squirrels. Clean your barbeque grill and the grease traps. Feed your pets indoors. Secure your trash with tight lids, and pick up any fallen fruit from nearby fruit trees.
When Ferndale residents experience an opossum as a nuisance, they typically call the police or the Oakland County Animal Control division. These organizations do not handle wildlife nuisance cases, and will direct the caller to the Michigan DNR office. The DNR also does not handle wildlife nuisance or removal in residential areas. However, the DNR keeps a robust list of state permitted Wildlife Damage and Nuisance Control organizations that a resident can contact to have the opossum removed.
It may come as a surprise to some people that opossum is a game animal and may be taken year-round with a valid Michigan hunting license in safe, designated hunting areas. It should be noted, however, that no one is allowed to hunt anything in Ferndale! Opossum hunting is done for fur harvesting by some, and it is usually done at night with the use of artificial lights and dogs. More specific information regarding regulations on opossum hunting and trapping can be found on the DNR website.
It is important to remember that the opossums that reside alongside us in Ferndale are our gentle wild neighbors who are just trying to make a living like all of us. They often get a bum rap as a pest, but are really pretty non-intrusive helpful critters.
If you are a fan of the opossum, there are others like you. The Opossum Society of the United States is a 501(C)(3) nonprofit organization involved in wildlife rehabilitation and education. Contact them with any questions, information or enthusiasm about all things opossum!