Opossums have a serious side

Some animals are just plain easier to love than others. Kittens are cute and fluffy, and grow up into cats, which are usually helpful at controlling mice. Puppies are also cute and fluffy, and grow up to be dogs, useful for a whole range of jobs from companionship to protection.

Most girls go through a horse-crazy phase, which some of us never grow beyond it. Don’t even get me started on chickens, bunnies or hamsters.

Other animals, though, take more work to appreciate. There is nothing cute or cuddly about a shark, but they are unparalleled predators. Snakes don’t tend to invite coos of “Oh, how sweet,” but they are excellent at rodent population control. Junebugs, I’m told, make excellent bait. Even the ubiquitous local buzzards fill a definite niche in wildlife carcass disposal.

But, try as I might, I cannot like, or even appreciate, opossums. A few times per year, the pro-possum propaganda circulates on social media how they’re just cute, harmless, misunderstood furry friends.

I beg to differ. They may not often carry rabies, but they can carry tuberculosis, spotted fever, Chagas disease, toxoplasmosis, leptospirosis, coccidiosis, salmonella and tularemia.

Their urine on a horse’s hay may carry Equine Protozoal Myeloen­cephalitis, which causes irreversible damage to horses’ nervous systems. They can also carry external parasites like ticks, mites and lice. And, perhaps most important to us chicken-keepers, they are voracious predators of chickens and eggs.

My first up-close encounter with a possum occurred, oddly enough, when we lived in Wichita. A rather large specimen had gotten into our backyard—intent, no doubt, on catching some breakfast in our garden. My dog had killed the intruder, but wisely decided not to eat the smelly thing.

By the time I got home from work and dispatched the body, the day-long drizzle had soaked the thing. Let me tell you, wet possum fur is not the most appetizing smell in the world. Grabbing a wet dead possum by the tail is not, by the way, an effective strategy for moving it. By the time I wrangled the carcass into a garbage bag, I was gagging and all thoughts of dinner had exited my mind.

Happily, I didn’t have any other interactions with possums until we moved to the farm. It was then that I began to develop my current loathing for the creatures.

As new hobby farmers, we were somewhat unaware of what could happen if the chicken coop wasn’t closed up promptly at sunset. Even on occasion afterward, when we misjudged our arrival time back at home, the possums definitely took advantage of the situation.

Possums will also enter coops through what seem tp be incredibly small openings. We have lost many birds to possums, sometimes even catching them in the act. And, of course, our heavy-bodied favorites, being unable to roost as high as the lighter breeds, are often the first casualties.

To spare my more delicate readers unnecessary discomfort, I won’t go into graphic detail, but suffice to say that possums aren’t tidy eaters.

We thought we had the possum population under control until earlier this spring. Then, out of the blue, I looked up to see a huge possum scavenging the cat food on our front porch. And, oddly enough, its tail looked like something had bitten about half of it off.

Then, a few weeks later, another slightly smaller possum showed up to swipe dinner as well, and this one was also missing part of its tail. What could have done it, we wondered.

We knew that coyotes are occasionally a nuisance, and we know that sometimes, bobcats lurk nearby. We didn’t think either of those species would be content with a tail tip.

After a few more made appearances with similarly shortened tails, we finally consulted Google to solve the mystery. Interestingly enough, possums with chewed tails are caused by people who try to raise them, and either provide inadequate food or space, causing the animals to chew each other’s tails. It doesn’t seem to happen in the wild, since the possums can get away from each other.

So, what this means is that someone raised these things and “relocated” them to the country. They may or may not have known that possums will travel miles in search of food.

They may or may not have known or cared that my daughter named all of the chickens she raised last year, and possums killed almost half of them one night after these bob-tailed specimens showed up.

They may or may not have known or cared that any local horses are now at increased risk for developing EPM.

Most of us who live out in the country already have the number and types of animals we desire. Please, if you feel the need to save orphaned wild animals, contact a wildlife rehabber—who will be responsible enough to not release them near farms—or a local zoo.

Some animals are pretty hard to love when their favorite food is your best laying hen.

Shana Thornhill and her family lives on farm near Marion. She can be reached at shotah76@yahoo.com.