The faint scent of blooming white lilac followed us as we walked through the side yard at Sally-lou’s house. When we reached her back garden, a paving stone path led to a garden bridge and a trellis covered in sweetheart ivy.
Sally-lou has spent 28 years creating her peaceful garden, and it shows.
“Everything in this yard, every bush, pot, and decorative object, has a story,” Sally-lou said.
Like a happy little garden sprite, Sally-lou’s five-year-old grandson, Carter, skipped and hopped alongside us, followed closely by the handsome and gentle 100 pound Akita, Taishou (pronounced like cashew). The easy spirits of the child and the huge dog reflected the atmosphere of the quiet garden.
Sally-lou and I met when we were walking our dogs one morning. She’s a friendly, open woman with a beautiful smile. As we talked that morning, Sally-lou told me she once hated the lowly possum but now she’s changed her mind about the creature.
Last July, Sally-lou carried a cup of coffee and Taishou led the way as they enjoyed an early morning walk through the garden. Taishou became distracted by something and when Sally-lou investigated, she found the dog standing over a dead possum near the deck. Six squirming babies hung tightly to the back of the possum who, it turned out, wasn’t dead at all – was only playing possum!
The possum doesn’t intentionally play dead. It’s an involuntary response to stress (like a faint). Fortunately, Taishou was only mildly curious about the creatures, not overly excited or aggressive toward them.
As homely and unloveable as Sally-lou may have found the possum, she wanted to give those babies a chance. She used a pink plastic garden bucket to shield mother and babies as she gently pushed the possums up against the opening under the deck. The little family could stay safe there until the mother revived.
This simple encounter made Sally-lou rethink her beliefs about possums being vicious and dangerous animals. A possum can reluctantly defend itself, if cornered, but the possum most often enters a sort of faint at the first sign of a threat. A frightened possum also releases a foul smelling liquid from its anal glands. How vicious is an animal whose first response to fear is fainting – and what appears to be a loss of – well, you know?
Carter, who was with Sally-lou that day, didn’t have any prejudices about possums. He saw little pink noses, tiny black ears with white tips, almond shaped eyes, and promptly named every one of the babies.
Sometime that night, mother and babies slipped away safely and Sally-lou was satisfied she had done a good deed.
The Facebook pictures Sally-lou posted received more comments than anything she had ever before posted. Most people were amused by her tolerance. They were even more impressed with Taishou’s gentle and mild-mannered interest. Lots of people expressed the same prejudices most of us have had against possums; they are dirty and they carry diseases.
Most wild animals and birds can carry disease, as can our friends and family. Surprisingly, the possum is nearly immune to rabies and distemper. No case of rabies has ever been passed from possum to human. The possum is also a relatively clean animal. Like a cat, she uses her paws to wash her face.
The possum is an opportunistic omnivore and a friend to your garden. She will dine on ticks, insects, beetles, carrion, slugs, and small rodents. Possums love eggs and can bother chickens in an unsecured coop. Chickens are usually more vulnerable to raccoons. Naturally, a possum will help herself to food you leave outside for your cat or dog. The O’Possum Society of the United States calls the possum “nature’s little sanitary engineers.”
We humans equate the possum’s slow ways with stupidity. They seem to be in their own little world when they walk down the street, not even noticing automobiles.
An old joke asks the question, “Why did the chicken cross the road?” The answer to that question is, “To show the possum it could be done.”
The possum might be smarter than we think. In studies, possums scored consistently better than any other animal, including rats, cats, and dogs, at remembering where food was hidden. In fact, only humans scored better than the possum.
Possums don’t win beauty contests in the human world. To our eyes, they can appear homely, repulsive creatures. In actuality, possums are harmless and useful animals. As our only marsupial, they are also a unique addition to our wildlife heritage.
We should treat possums as Sally-lou does, we should allow them to move about safely and undisturbed as they go about their good and quiet business.