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Friday 12 March 2010

Playing Dead: Opossum


File:Young Possum.jpg

The life of an opossum in the city is fraught with threat and dread from the start. Lacking the aggressive tenacity of its nocturnal neighbours and competitors the raccoons, the shy and timid possum defers to everybody and backs down from everything. To scavenge tentatively at a garbage can in the dead of night, when the roaring avenue has at last fallen silent, remains its highest goal.

Two evenings back, after the latest in an endless series of storms, I heard a frantic high-pitched squealing noise out front, emanating from deep within the moonless leafy obscurity. The most adventurous of the resident cats, a large bold Siamese, was out wandering the overgrown ivy; from these agitated sounds I expected he had unwisely got himself caught up in a bit of aggravation with the local squadron of unapologetic raccoons. Hobbling down the wet slippery path with intent to intervene, I found the cat in an uneasy standoff with not a raccoon but a possum. Standing half-erect on stubby hind legs, with mangy charcoal coat, black ears, pale grasping digits, white muzzle, pink pointy snout, small bright glittering eyes peering anxiously into the weak flashlight beam: in that stretched moment of mutual speculative inter-species wonderment the possum shifted its defensive attention from the cat to me. The cat rocketed off into the darkness. The possum briefly gaped, reviewing an extremely limited set of options. And then flopped over on the sopping path, as if shot. Playing possum. Whatever gets a scared survivor through the night.


Young opossum (Didelphis virginiana): photo by Amy, 2006
Opossum (Didelphis virginiana) playing dead: photo by Johnruble, 2006


human being said...

amazing narrative...

playing dead... we humans do this too... don't we? when scared through 'the night'...

u.v.ray. said...

That's a great picture of the possum playing dead.

The expression on his face. Talk about histrionics...

He should get a BAFTA.

Christine Young said...

This reminds me of the many nights I have suddenly awoken to the sound of screaming cats. I look out into the night through the blinds, but nothing is in sight...the skirmish is over. But the smell—it's usually a skunk.

I too see possums now and then. There was a time when I was afraid of them, until I learned differently about their behavior. They are truly enchanting little creatures. And there is an old proverb (I made up myself): What did the wise old possum tell his grand-possums? “If it’s not grass, don’t walk on it.”.

TC said...

HB, Ray, Christine,

Thanks for liking these rather sad yet curiously admirable creatures.

Indeed Ray, what remarkable thespians they are. When they have to be.

I harbour great sympathy for them. They fearfully trawl the night, and, even in the dead of night, are often whacked by speeding vehicles, on the take-no-prisoners freeway feeder out front. They subsist, if at all, on garbage. In that ideal world known as "the wild", their predictive lifespan is two to four years at most. Here in the urban wilderness, however, it is rare for an opossum to survive a single winter. Virtually everything is their enemy, and they lose just about every battle.

The defensive strategy adopted by the animal in the little nocturnal drama recounted in this post is a common one. Indeed it is not a strategy at all but a programmed response, the last resort of a creature that has no other useful weapons. The show of tooth-displaying, hissing and squealing it puts on in a confrontation is largely just that, a show. When threatened or harmed, it will put on this grim little possum-play. The act involves a mimicking of the appearance and smell of a sick or dead animal. The lips are drawn back, teeth bared, saliva foams around the mouth. A foul-smelling fluid is secreted from the anal glands. The physiological response is involuntary, rather than a conscious act. The stiff, curled form of the playing-dead possum can be prodded, turned over, and even carried away. Much like a cartoon creature it will regain consciousness after a period of minutes or hours and escape.

Until, that is, the next bit of bother arises...

(Even as I speak I can sense the furtive recessive presence of that scared opossum, cowering out there in the freezing, dripping ivy thicket.)

Curtis Roberts said...

Our opossum Eduardo lives (most of the time, we think) in an insulated Orvis dog house on our fenced and gated terrace in Tuxedo Park, NY. He peacefully shares the terrace with Pitch, the black feral cat we’ve been feeding for several years. (Tuxedo Park and the surrounding area are bedeviled – or, rather, our wildlife are – by the problem of people regularly “dumping” domestic pet animals.) Watching Eduardo sharing the cat food at night and elegantly dipping his snout into the bowl, and seeming to enjoy his life and living confidently, is incredibly uplifting. He’s clearly a really nice guy. Thanks so much for posting this. Opossums are very rarely appreciated for their weird beauty (I’ve heard so many people dismiss, disparage and reject them for their looks), and their sweet, tentative character, one of their most appealing qualities, is often overlooked (which is probably fine with them; they naturally reject the limelight).

TC said...


What a lovely tale that is. It's so very consoling to hear that at least one Didelphis virginiana has a safe, comfortable and pleasant home with beings who love and respect him.

All power (like they used to say) to Eduardo. And to Pitch. And many thanks to you.

(By the way, we too are a notorious soft touch when it comes to accepting otherwise rejected animals... among the reasons I am up all night doing something as crazy as what I am doing at this moment -- and perhaps the least crazy of the reasons -- is that I am on continuous cat-care call.)

As to shunning the limelight, Eduardo's got that bit right. It's definitely the only way to go.

And yes, I too love the look of a possum. The tiny night-bright eyes, the pointy pink snout, the shrinking-violet body language. A vulnerable sublimity.

Dale said...

The possum remains my totem creature for all the reasons you describe, though I find turkey vultures mighty appealing for their good smarts and social bonding. Lately the suburbs of Austin have been overrun with white tail deer, many of them nesting in front yards there. I saw for the first time a red fox running adjacent to a cemetery not long ago. But the weirdest thing I've stumbled on once with the kids was a millipede. It was bright orange and brown, and they are quite large and sting. Rattle snakes are more common toward the Hill Country, but I've seen cottonmouths along the creeks in town. Red tail hawks often roost on light posts during the day along the Missouri Pacific highway: rodents beware.

TC said...


Well, you have probably singlehandedly done more to improve the public reputation of possums among poets than anyone else alive.

Actually I'd take most possums over most poets in a Tuxedo Park minute. Present company excepted, naturally.

Those big red-tailed hawks are indeed magnificent, I love to ogle them in my dreams. But when they come stooping... well, as in all animal-on-animal unfriendly interface scenarios (in fact, as in almost all scenarios of any kind these days), I can't help seeing the matter from more than one point of view.

Maybe, in this case, though, that's just because I've been seeing a lot of things lately from the POV of Sweet Thing.

I seem to recall (said he, through the encroaching clouds of forgetting) there was a wonderful heroine in Restoration drama named Millipede... or was that Millamant?

Anonymous said...

I'm late to the possums, but have my own possum moments - a mother and babies in my courtyard many years back, sitting in a small tree, just hanging out whenever they felt like it. And my continuous efforts to remind all that they do not carry rabies and are, in fact, native to Florida. A magnificent little creature, and very fond of peanut butter.
Still remember sitting with my oldest son, then 5 and the possums, staring at the big moon, laughing with the peanut butter possums.

~otto~ said...

They scare me. A lot.

~otto~ said...

TC said...

Anonimouse of Miami,

A memorable vignette.

The all-natural crunchy variety it was, let us hope.

Very good of you to help calm the irrational possum phobias of your fellow Floridians.

(Our homey Otto definitely should be enrolled in your private academy of possum acceptance.)


Omygod. A possum suffers many an indignity, but could anything be worse than happening (or being forced) into an NBC studio?

It must love tacky pictures of flowers.

Curtis Faville said...


Animal anecdotes.

I've got several.

When we were living on Milvia back in the 1970's, there was suddenly a commotion out on the porch roof. This was about 11:00 PM at night. I went out to investigate. A large furry tail hung down over the edge of the roof gutter. In due course, a very large raccoon, with a collar (!!) climbed down the corner post and regarded me with suspicion (I had by this time retreated behind the screen-door, since raccoons can be aggressive and dangerous).

I went back inside, and decided to call the local police number, to report a lost "pet"--the collar was studded with silver rivets, and this guy obviously belonged somewhere. The 9/11 operator took the info, and promised to report the call to the local animal control department in the morning.

Later that night--much later (I was a full-time writer in those days and often wrote into the wee hours)--at about 1:30 AM, there was a terrific pounding on the door, which wouldn't stop. "Jesus," I thought, "this'll wake the neighbors." I was only dressed in my underwear, but I opened the door a crack and perceived a large African American Berkeley Cop staring angrily at me. "Open up!" he demanded, "I got a call about a domestic 'situation' and I need to see the inside of the house." My wife and son were asleep, and I didn't want this guy tromping around in my house. Just then, there's this terrific commotion on the porch roof, just as before, and the raccoon makes a timely reappearance. "That's what I called about, officer, he's obviously someone's pet, and I thought I ought to report it missing or lost."

Infuriated, the cop pulled his pistol from his holster, waved it in my direction, and snarled "Don't you ever bother the department about anything like this again, you hear me!? This is prank calling, and we don't tolerate it! Any more calls like this from this address, and there'll be trouble!" and turned on his heal into the night.

Berkeley police. Gotta love em.

TC said...


Our tax dollars at work. Sounds familiar.

One night in 1984 a psychiatrist who at the time lived next door "thought she heard" breaking glass... as we found out later.

At the time, however, we had no explanation for the fact that the "private" rear entry to the house was breached and the door peremptorily banged open by two police, one of them a woman. I was awakened by a flash light shining in my face. And ordered to arise. Evidently I was a suspect in the breaking-in of my own house. I tried to explain this but... and to make matters more interesting, then, when forced to arise, it seems as though I was not wearing pants, & c...

Stu said...

Tom, just over a week ago Monica and I saw a possum lying on the footpath a few doors down from our place. At first it seemed lifeless, but then we noticed a bit of movement.

We'd had storms the previous night which caused a fair bit of damage, and figured the possum may've been caught up in that, and had perhaps fallen off a fence or out of a tree.

We tried calling the RSPCA but they were no help. Monica managed to find the number of a local animal rescue service, effectively run by one guy with a few helpers. We gave him a call and luckily he was just around the corner.

He had a look at the poor possum: she had suffered a spinal injury and he didn't like her chances. He took her away and we presume she would've been put her out of her misery.

TC said...


Good of you and Monica to have given it a try.

Here most possum sightings are sightings of carcasses on the freeway feeder. An unfair fate that these quite innocuous creatures should have been assigned by urban society the role of common road kill.

TC said...

Possum lore continues to arrive from afar. Back-channel bits & c. Nice to know I am not the only one soft on opossums.

Possum update from here: good news, tonight two possums appeared on the path. Scurried off upon my arrival, of course. Still, they are alive. And possibly even propagating, bless their hearts. I donated six pastries to the thicket.

Meanwhile these guys remain the bosses of the night. Their signs are manifest. One sign is the cats crooning at the side door. That means a raccoon is eating the cat food bits left out on the porch. When confronted, they big up at the door and say, You talkin' to ME?

The tattered roof tarps are covered with their droppings every morning.

Such is fugitive city life.

Annie said...

I have possum tales aplenty. One dark morn, I let out our dog Quincy and noticed he was sniffing at something in the grass. Once I realized it was a rather large possum, I herded Q back inside and watched through the window, hoping the critter was just doing his defensive best. But it never stirred, so I went out and breathing, nada. There were no marks of any kind on it, it lay as though it had come over the fence near the garbage cans and was headed through the backyard towards the street out front. I had never gotten such a good look at one, and was surprised how lovely it was. Grey fur so beautifully variegated, George Clooney should be so lucky, a delicate pink snout, velvety ears, perfect tiny claws topping graceful fingers. Until now, I had feared perhaps Q (part terrier, part various herding breeds) had shaken it and broken its neck the night before, but maybe it just curled into the end of its mortal coil.
I also found a squirming baby possum that seemingly had been dropped from the huge Tree of Heaven in our neighbor's yard, landing right near our clothesline. Appeared to need more time in the pouch, but none was in sight. So I gathered it into a shoebox lined with towels and took it to the wildlife center. They wrote later to tell me it was incubated at a volunteer foster home until mature enough to be released.
On a sunnier note, one evening I went down into our partial basement to fetch a jar of jam, and saw two eyes glowing back from the crawl space under the house. A flashlight beam revealed a possum, in full-on freeze. This little visitor did not choose to exit through the cellar door left open in hopes of encouraging a nocturnal foray for several nights, no doubt finding mice (thanks, poss) or something else worth staying for, but eventually it was gone without a trace. I wish all human-wildlife intersections could be so mutually benign.

TC said...


Your first tale brings up the curious difficulty in certain instances in figuring out whether something is merely playing dead or actually being dead.

I am beginning to suspect it is finally no more than a matter of degree.

Unknown said...

I was at my Dads and at 4 am the dogs went out and a possum was there in the yard, dead.

I got a broom, poked him, rolled him over, he did not move, but was still warm.

I surmized the dogs just killed him.

I told my Dad I would get him in the morning.

He said, "No, I will go out and get him now" He put on his gloves, pants etc and went out where the possum was and guess what ?

Yep, No possum. He did a good job.

My Dad saw him and yelled at me because he wasn't really dead.

Like I could do something about it.

TC said...

Bennie, it's a really good thing you didn't poke too hard.

It seems like you just bought the poor critter a few minutes in which to escape.

Good for that possum.

(They have a hard enough time, as it is.)

Marie W said...

That is simply amazing. Look at this creature! Are we learning from them? I think in a way, we are. Whatever gets you through the night. Exactly. How do we cope with fear?
Ah, I could read opossum stories all night. And maybe I will! Thank you for the link to this post, Tom.

TC said...

Marie, thanks very much.

I keep reading opossum stories all through the long nights here, as the opossums continue gamely to inscribe their survival texts, venturing tentatively up the rickety side steps, occasionally pressing their dear myopic faces, with the white snouts denoting an ancient innocence, upon the cracked pane of the kitchen door... and often leaving small traces there.

(And I guess I ought to admit, I cope with fear... not very well, I fear... by being afraid!)

Unknown said...

Thank you so much everyone for you stories. I feel so sorry for these misunderstood critters. Just woke up & found one in my back yard that seems to be dead, other than he's clean & looks too healthy to possibly be really dead. I used a few old jackets to carefully move him behind the house where he's out of foot traffic & not likely to be seen in hope of going back later & finding him gone. Really no way to tell if he's dead or not, but I'm praying that he's just 'Playing Opossum' Keeping my finders crossed till I go out & check on him this afternoon.

TC said...

Thanks, Chris. Any possum lucky enough to be alive needs a friend. Next time you check, let's hope s/he's made it back off or down into that rapidly vanishing hiding place which once was possum world...