By Fred Seitz
During the second week of June, I went outside in the evening to see if there were any bats flying around. I was met by a dark-colored creature walking in circles in the street. Thinking it was a neighbor’s cat, I moved closer and saw his or her skinny, hairless tail and short, coarse coat. It was an opossum.
I’ve encountered this marsupial a few times during my more than 30 years living in Hyattsville, but I am always a bit surprised and amused by their visits.
This walking in circles, however, was something I had not witnessed before. I was a bit concerned, thinking that the little — well, not so little, really, but about the size of a domestic house cat — guy or gal might be sick. This opossum was a bit larger than some of his cousins whom I’d met in previous years, which added to my concern.
I first feared that he might be rabid, though opossums are not good hosts for rabies, due to their low body temperature. Still, knowing that he had those roughly 50 very pointy teeth, I figured that stepping back and keeping my dog far away at that moment might be the most sensible and diplomatic resolution.
While I would have loved to see this critter display the stereotypical behavior of playing possum (feigning death), I figured my dog might regret it if I indulged my curiosity and moved closer. Had the opossum done one of his famous hisses if I approached, I am reasonably certain my dog would have become annoyed, and the encounter may have gotten unpleasant. And in addition to having impressive teeth, opossums can emit a very unpleasant smell.
I made some inquiries a couple days later and learned that the circling behavior was most likely in reaction to an injury, perhaps caused by a passing vehicle. Indeed, I have seen a number of opossums and other wild and domestic critters suffer from road injuries in recent years.
Opossums are native to this area and about half of the rest of the country, even though their common name is Virginia opossum. They are the only marsupial in North America, and their pouch can house six or more little ones. The joeys each attach to a teat (an opossum mom has 13) and remain attached and in the pouch for about two months. If more babies are born than the number of functional teats available, any extra little ones will very likely die. Joeys are about the size of a jelly bean when they are born, and are weaned at about three months.
Opossums generally mate between December and September and have one or two litters each year. Gestation is just two weeks, and joeys are fragile and relatively undeveloped at birth.
Male opossums have unusual reproductive anatomy — bifurcated, like two-pronged forks. Young ones also have unusual breathing and drinking anatomy that lets them breathe and nurse at the same time.
Opossums like having multiple places to den. These dens may be dead log or holes constructed by other animals. And opossums do not consider themselves above lounging in sheds or other available manmade structures.
They also are not gourmets, and most anything will do — carrion, our garbage, small mammals and reptiles, and insects (including ticks — go, opossums!).
I haven’t been back to that spot where I saw the circling opossum, but I do hope it has healed and is roaming through our neighborhood, pigging out on ticks. And staying away from traffic.