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Published: Friday, 7/31/2009

Possums have their place, but it isn't our basement

Trying to live in harmony with nature is a noble goal until nature finds a way into your basement.

In my case, it was a possum. Or opossum. Or whatever you want to call those strange creatures with the giant rat-tails.

It happened last fall when I heard a pitter-pattering on the floor and caught the flash of something furry waddling out of sight. Hoping I had imagined it, I walked slowly around the room, making the occasional loud noise and tapping storage boxes here and there.

I am not a brave man, but when the uninvited visitor scurried off to another corner, taking his white face and creepy, coal-black eyes with him, my manly instincts kicked in. (It didn't hurt that he was small, maybe the size of a kitten but a lot less cuddly.)

I chased the little guy around the room and eventually pinned him in a crawl space under the stairs, where he bared his teeth and hissed while I prodded him into a trash can. Apparently he didn't get the memo on "playing possum."

Next came the question of what to do with him. State law forbids releasing them off your own property, in part to curb the spread of disease, so I dumped the fella out into the yard and watched him start back toward the house. Great.

If only I could have introduced him to Beau, the opossum at the Toledo Zoo's new Nature's Neighborhood kids area. Beau lives on the porch of the exhibit's house- not inside of it.

"Once you get to know a possum, you really start to appreciate the possum," Children's Zoo Manager Steve Oswanski told me.

I never really got to know any of the possums that came my way over the years. Aside from the one in my basement, I've found dead ones in my garage, my driveway, and earlier this summer, my furnace. (No joke. It, and the other one too, probably got in through an air intake vent.)

All I learned is that it's really hard to know when a possum is dead and when it's pretending. Otherwise, there was never any interspecies dialogue, no give and take - unless you count me giving the possum in my basement a dirty look and taking him back outside.

So I gave it a try. I reached out my hand and I petted Beau, an old man in the world of possums at 3 years old. He was surprisingly soft. He didn't freak out, show his teeth, or fake the Big Sleep. He wasn't cute, but the way he waddled was endearing. And he had other skills.

"[He's] potty-trained," Steve said.

Normally, possums aren't animals that get a lot of love. In an era when even guinea pigs can star in their own hit movie (Disney's G-Force topped the chart last weekend), the opossum is often forgotten. Just yards away from Beau was a stand selling stuffed animals, including possums. "We've sold one once," the attendant confessed to me. "That was a long time ago."

That's too bad because there's a lot to appreciate about Didelphis virginiana, especially for trivia lovers: It is America's only marsupial and has the most teeth of any land mammal on the continent (50). It has opposable "thumbs" and is immune to some snake venom.

More importantly for people who come across one in their yard or garage, they're little to worry about. Possums are nocturnal, seldom carry rabies, and are not aggressive (the hiss is for show).

So while we may consider the critters a nuisance when we see them in our neighborhoods, their only crime, really, is being ugly. We can try to make sure that we see less of them by not leaving pet food outside and properly taking care of garbage, but we also should remember that we're supposed to share the great outdoors.

Of course, my possum friends, the indoors is all ours.

Contact Ryan E. Smith at:

ryansmith@theblade.com

or 419-724-6103



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