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By Bill Hoagland
Earlier this week while I was running the dogs, “AJ,” our English retriever, had picked up four feet of black plastic drainage pipe in his mouth and was swinging it back and forth and then up and down. He was pretty intense with this endeavor and that was out of character for “AJ,” who usually has the personality of Tom Bodett, that laid-back guy on radio who used to advertise for Motel Six. Finally, by shaking the pipe up and down, a critter fell out of the pipe and immediately “AJ” grabbed it in his mouth. I yelled at him to drop it, which he did after a few chomps, and upon inspection by me, it appeared that he just killed a possum that was hiding in the pipe. But when I came back 20 minutes later with a shovel to bury the possum, it was gone. Once again, I had been “had” by a possum. He had sure looked dead to me: teeth bared, body motionless, eyes dilated and staring straight ahead. But no, just another incident of a prehistoric critter outsmarting a human; he was actually very much alive.
This got me even more curious about possums. (The scientific name for the North American possum is “Didelphis Virginiana” and the common name is the Virginia Opossum, but “possum” works for me and hopefully for you too.) Possums are marsupials and thus, the females have a pouch where they stow their young, which are referred to as “joeys”, during their infancy. The males are “jacks” and the females are—you guessed it—“jills”. Despite their terrifying appearance, with most of those 50 razor sharp teeth always on display, the possum is a very passive animal and does not routinely attack its predators; instead, it will play “dead” and this can be very convincing even to the most discerning predator. That is because in addition to looking as if they are dead, with the tongue out, teeth bared, eyes dilated and so on, they will also emit a horrible odor and they begin foaming around the mouth, two characteristics that should be a turn-off for any self-respecting gourmand of woodland critters. And apparently “playing possum”, which can last for up to four or more hours sometimes, works more often than not. How cool is that?
It may be hard to believe but that possum that you found rooting around in your garbage bin one night is actually doing the neighborhood some big-time favors. They routinely clean up dead animals along the road, they occasionally kill venomous snakes, they eat over 5,000 ticks a year, and they do not have rabies–all great traits to have, right? Possums do have a strange appearance, with that pale skin and eyes just a bit too close together, if you know what I mean, but according to the experts, they are relatively intelligent animals even though they don’t look like it. They are also very social animals despite the fact that we usually only see them by themselves, scurrying away from the headlights and doing whatever they do in the dark while we are asleep. I found it particularly surprising that the typical range for a possum as he makes his rounds in the dark, is 15 miles—so they do “get around”, so to speak.
Experts say that possums have been on this planet for over 70 million years. Just think about the conditions this species has survived in those 70 million years. It makes one realize that the humble possum could still be here long after humans have disappeared.
■ Bill Hoagland has practiced law in Alton for more than 50 years, but he has spent more than 70 years hunting, fishing and generally being in the great outdoors. His wife, Annie, shares his love of the outdoor life. Much of their spare time is spent on their farm in Calhoun County. Bill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.