Friday, October 28, 2016

The Return of Ol' Possum

“I’m sorry to have to tell you this,” my wife said, “Your possum got hit. We saw his body up on the main road.”

My connection with ol’ possum went back for a little over a year. If you read my post about the raccoon family, then you know about how my wife leaves some cat food out on the porch for the feral cats that we spayed and re-released last year. She feels an obligation to offer them food and water as well as a responsibility to see that they do not continue to reproduce, bringing unwanted kittens into the world.

That Was No Rat

One night last year, she was a bit unnerved when she went out the door to see a rat hiding behind the recycle bin waiting for her to leave so he could eat the cat food she left on the porch. When I went out to check, I didn’t see anything, but I had thought it unusual that a rat would wait in the corner for someone to leave. Usually a rat will scurry on away.

Photo by Divulged
The next morning, however, when I went out to the car on my way to work, I spotted a mother opossum and two little cubs moving out from under the holly bush by the porch. One of the young cubs went skipping and frolicking into the neighbor’s yard. I had never seen an opossum skip and frolic like a young goat, but usually I had only seen lone adults who tend to waddle more than scurry, skip, of frolic.  

I knew then that I had discovered the mystery of the “rat” my wife had seen the night before. Since it was a possum, that was another story altogether. Not only would we not shoo him away, we would make sure we left extra food so that he could make it in the wilds of our neighborhood. I do not know if this frolicking young opossum is the one who continued to make nightly visits, but we were delighted to provide what sustenance we could.

Opossum Traits

I learned that opossums – opossum is, of course the official name of the only marsupial native to North America, but in the south, we typically say, “possum” – I learned that opossums like fruit. We often buy the bowls of chopped fruit at the supermarket, so I would leave a little plate of fruit each night in addition to the cat food. I quickly found out that possums do not care for strawberries or pineapple, but apples, grapes, and melons are never turned down.

I also learned that possums can be considered helpful animals in that being omnivores they eat all kinds of things including ticks and other pests  even snakes. They are immune to snake venom. They do not have permanent dens or hideaways, but typically bed down during the day wherever they happen to be, preferring wooded areas (and we have several small wooded areas in the vicinity). 

I’ve never seen a tick or a venomous snake in our neighborhood, but if ol’ possum can keep those things out, so much the better. Mainly, though, I enjoyed being able to offer some assistance to the wildlife in the area. I enjoy keeping the bird feeders filled, the squirrels get dried corn in their own little holders, so a little possum food just adds to our suburban “wildlife preserve.”

A Disruption in Nightly Routine

It was meaningful work, and though possums are nocturnal and solitary, I felt that I was communing with nature on some level by catching a glimpse of ol’ possum from time to time, and seeing the empty fruit dish on my way out each morning. Then the fruit dish went untouched for a few days, and I no longer caught a glimpse of my friend while walking the dogs at night. I wondered what might have happened to him.

After about a month, much to my delight, I saw ol’ possum again one night, back on the porch where the cat food was put out for the feral cat. Happily the next day I bought some fresh fruit so that our possum could again have some fruit in his diet. We had been back into our nightly possum-feeding routine for a couple of weeks when one day I came home from work and my wife told me the news: “I’m sorry to have to tell you – your possum got hit. We saw his body up on the main road. We got out and managed to get his body off the road and by the alley way – thought you might want to go up and bury him.”

Of course, I was sad. First the possum went missing for a while, then out of the blue, returned to its old routine scavenging for food on our doorstep. And now, she was gone again (or he, I can’t really tell). However, the story would take yet another turn. When I walked the dogs that night, on our way back up the porch steps, Mike stopped and slowly growled. It was not his “I see a cat!” kind of growl. It was a more careful, cautious growl. Wondering if it could be, I peeked over the recycling bin, and there was ol’ possum! Back for more supper!

I took Mike the dog on inside and gladly told my wife, “I need to cut up some more fruit! That was not my possum up on the road; our possum is out their looking for some food.”

By the time I got back outside, the feral cat was down on the sidewalk wishing the possum would leave, so I ended up putting a separate plate out for the cat at the foot of the steps and the usual cat food plus fruit for ol’ possum up on the porch so they could both dine in peace.

A Decent Burial

The next day, I took a shovel up to the main road by the alley to find that possum that my wife had told me had been hit by a car. He may not have been my possum, but he was somebody’s possum and he deserved a decent burial. The ground was dry and hard since we have been under drought conditions for a couple of months. I had not brought a pickax, only a shovel, but I did manage to scratch out a shallow grave, enough to get the possum covered. 

I thought of Antigone of ancient Greek drama, who dared to defy civic authority by venturing out to the battlefield just so she could get a little dirt over the body of her slain brother who had fallen in battle. It was important that he have some semblance of a proper burial. We are all in this struggle of life together, and we must honor each of the fallen. 

And so it was that I paid my respects to this possum whose life had been cut short. After I was finished with my roadside burial, I put a few fallen limbs over the grave and raked more leaves over the site for a bit more protection. I then headed back to the house. 

Ol’ possum is still enjoying his fruit and cat chow at night. I still delight in the occasional glimpse of him from time to time. I cannot know when he might “disappear” again, and I don’t know how long his time on earth will be. None of us knows that about ourselves. We have no guarantees. We can only treasure one another each day and be glad for each glimpse that we are granted.  

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To learn more about the opossum, go to 10 things you didn't know about opossums at Mother Nature Network (by the National Association of Advancement for Opossums).  The following video from the Center for Biological Diversity is also a great introduction to the world of the opossum. 


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