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THE OPOSSUM

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No matter where you live in South Florida, the opossum is there. Despite its rat-like appearance, it is not a rodent.  This non-aggressive marsupial has survived since the time of the dinosaurs and can adjust to living just about anywhere. As long as it can find the necessities of life (water, food, shelter) it will be happy. The more common den sites are under wood piles, decks, and mobile homes.

The adult opossum is the size of a cat and is light gray to black in color. It has a pink nose, feet and rat-like tail with black ears and a pointed snout. The opossum's life span in the wild is about 2 years. Although the opossum has the most teeth of any land mammal, it does not chew wood.  It does, however, tend to drool.

Many people who see an opossum that is drooling mistakenly think it has rabies.  This is not the case.  Statistics indicate that there has not been a case of rabies in opossums in South Florida since rabies statistics have been kept. In general, an opossum presents a far lower health risk to humans than do dogs an cats as it has a natural high level of immunity to most diseases. An opossum does, however, carry fleas as do all wild animals and some domestic animals. Also, an opossum may bite if it perceives a threat to it well being, such as being grabbed or petted.

The opossum is very beneficial as a rodent and carrion eater. Besides eating all types of dead animals, it eats a variety of food including over-ripe fruit, grapes, berries, insects such as cockroaches, crickets, beetles, slugs, snails, etc.; mice, rats, and roof rats; snakes, lizards and eggs.  It also cleans up uneaten food that would normally attract rats. An opossum will eat side by side with a cat out of a dish of cat food that is left outside, and it will consider that cat food a gourmet meal; however, this is not recommended.

Opossums are rarely seen together, and except for breeding season or a female with her babies, it is a solitary animal.  It fights only if attacked, surprised or cornered, but prefers to run away or 'play possum,' which is said to be an involuntary reaction to danger.  An opossum will hiss or growl and show it's sharp teeth when frightened.

The opossum mating season is from January to July. Females have litters up to twice a year. Litter size can be as many as 22, but only 12 can survive. The average litter is 5-9. Newborn opossums are  ½ inch long and weigh .0050 of an ounce. At one week, the weigh .05 of an ounce.  At 36 days, whiskers start to appear, and body hair becomes visible at 45 days. By the time they are 60-70 days old, they can weigh an ounce any may start to leave the pouch.

At 75-85 days, they are weaned and rarely go into the pouch. They also start looking for their own food.  At 90-120 days, they are hunting on their own but still may live in the same den with their mother until they find their own. Very few young opossums survive into adulthood.

It is not necessary to relocate an opossum that you see in your yard. The opossum is not dangerous  to you or your pets if left alone. While any warm blooded mammal can carry rabies, it is highly unlikely that a opossum will. The best thing for the opossum is to be left in it's own territory where it can find food and knows where there is a safe shelter.  In many cases, the opossum will move to a more preferred habitat away from people if left alone.

An opossum may get into garbage cans, eat your pet's food, or eat cultivated fruits and vegetables. It may enter a home through ripped screens or vents and duct systems. To alleviate these problems, garbage can lids can be fastened with a rubber strap or bungee cord from the local hardware store; holes in screens or building foundations should be covered or repaired, and pet food should not be left outdoors.

If you come across an opossum in your attic or garage, try to find out how it got in. Turn on bright lights and use a radio to create a loud noise to encourage the opossum to leave. Then block the entrance to keep the opossum outside. Spray ammonia on the area to keep the opossum away.

If you find an injured opossum, you can move it into a box by putting a towel over its head and lifting it under the neck while supporting the rear legs. Always check the pouch of a female opossum for babies as they can survive for about 24 hours after the mother has died. Baby opossums are on their own when they are 6" to 8" long (not including the tail).