night last week, I heard my dog barking his head off in
sound, Iíve come to recognize, means some kind of
critter, perhaps an opossum or raccoon, has found its
way into the fenced area near our house and triggered
the alarm on our fluffy dog, Baxter.
a wildlife-conscious gardener, Iíve followed some of
the guidelines for encouraging reptiles, small mammals,
bugs and pollinators to visit or dwell in my yard. I
never set out to attract a possum. Yet how can I blame
one for hiding in my undisturbed branch piles or looking
through the leaves and grass for insects? Aside from the
barking, is there actually a downside to allowing the
little fellow to hang out on our property?
posed the question to wildlife biologist Ann May, who
works for the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. She
cut straight to the chase.
play an important role in the natural ecosystem because
they eat dead and rotten things, but they arenít
charismatic animals," May said.
of our world since the days of the dinosaurs, opossums
are generalists, so they can live in many locations and
eat different things. Their skill in exploring backyard
garbage cans and raiding bird feeders stems from the
opposable digits on their paws that make them adept at
opening lids on containers.
to the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission website,
English explorer John Smith in 1610 described the
Virginia opossum (scientific name Didelphis virginiana,
North Americaís only native marsupial) as having
"the head of a pig, a tail of a rat, and the size
of a cat."
may have up to 15 young at a time, but more typical
litters are four to seven pups, which remain in the momís
pouch attached to nipples for the first 48 days of life,
then they venture out slowly over time to prepare for
independence. Their average lifespan is only three to
four years in the wild. As adults, they live alone,
staking out a territory involving food supplies they
feel obligated to defend, which may include grapevines
and other fruit and vegetable plants in your garden.
Near chicken coops, like the one in our neighborís
backyard, is another place opossums like to hang out.
says it is advisable to stay away from opossums ó or
any other wild animal ó you may find in your garden.
that these are wild animals and donít encourage them
to get too used to humans," May said. "These
arenít aggressive animals by nature, but if one gets
used to an area and then is startled by a pet or human,
they may scratch or bite."
keep your birdseed, pet food and outdoor trash cans on
lockdown to minimize the chances of a close encounter.
Although opossums actually do "play possum"
ó they actually faint once they have been captured ó
they may first put up a fight in the confrontation that
involves this neat trick.
how the N.C. Wildlife Commission website describes it:
"An opossum will first face the predator with its
mouth open and will hiss or growl. If it grabs and
shakes the opossum, it will feign death while defecating
and emitting a foul-smelling greenish substance from its
anal glands. This behavior frequently causes the
predator to release the opossum and leave it
you may not be tempted to confront a defensive opossum,
there are other precautions that May advises for
gardeners who may be sharing their property with
wildlife, including removing bird feeders or at least
keeping a tight lid on your seed, as well as securing
any pet food and outdoor garbage cans and other refuse.
Even a pile of discarded oyster shells became home for a
mama possum and her litter near a neighborís home.
the problem is extreme, commercial repellents are
available that are designed to ward off opossums and
other such visitors. A list of homemade remedies
circulated by various pest control companies includes
placing mothballs in the garden and spraying or setting
cans of ammonia in strategic locations.
gardeners concerned about self-protection, May urges
wearing gloves when working in the dirt.
kind of wild animal may leave feces in your yard, and it
is possible that feces carries diseases," she said.
"If you get it on your hands and then go in for a
cup of coffee or to eat, you run the risk of
diseases known to transfer from wild animal feces to
humans are tuberculosis, toxoplasmosis and
trichomoniasis, as well as roundworm eggs, fleas and
is not transferred through feces, but animals such as
raccoons, skunks and, less so, opossums, may carry the
disease, which is why Baxter and other pets should be
restrained from tangling with any backyard visitors.