In WNC, we hear a lot about black bears, but today I want to talk about another critter you’ve likely encountered: possums. Officially known as Virginia opossums, most of us simply call them possums. Not only are they North America’s only indigenous marsupials and country music legend George Jones’ (R.I.P.) nickname, they’re really cool little creatures with their own unique place in the Tarheel state’s culture + history. From Brasstown’s now-defunct Possum Drop to the tale of Slow Poke the possum, possums deserve a little recognition + attention. Plus, they’re NC’s official marsupial.
I’ve always found their little faces strangely endearing + charming. It turns out I’m not the only one. Today, possums are quite trendy. Folks who keep possums as pets are amassing huge followings on social media, designing + selling their own merch, and even shilling for brands.
To get the real scoop on these kooky creatures, I spoke with the WNC Nature Center’s Curator of Education and Guest Experience, Eli Strull, who’s cared for possums before, but notes the Nature Center doesn’t currently have any. Here’s what I found out.
Possums help prevent disease
While some of us grew up hearing possums are dirty and carry diseases, it turns out they actually help protect us from them. “Possums are less likely than other mammals to carry diseases,” says Eli. “They are resistant to rabies and they can eat dead meat without contracting botulism — plus they can eat thousands of ticks in a season, helping prevent the spread of diseases.” Possums are also resistant to poisonous snake venom, and they often snack on rattlesnakes + copperheads that might otherwise bite people.
They’re uniquely self-protective
“People have 32 teeth, and possums have 50, and when they become scared they can show all of them,” he says. Those of us who have ever seen those teeth + heard its fearsome hiss likely have that experience tattooed on our memories. Possums also infamously “play possum,” when they feel threatened. It turns out that this reaction isn’t planned, but rather “is an involuntary brain response,” says Eli. “When they do this, their whole body stiffens, they foam at the mouth, and they emit a foul smell,” all of which helps keep them safe and prolong their short lives (in the wild, they generally live to about two years old). Under human care, they can live longer (typically three to six years).
What to do if you encounter one
Unlike bears, raccoons + other wild animals, the non-confrontational possum typically poses little physical threat to us. Still, “it’s important to give possums their space,” Eli says. “Don’t feed them. Once wild animals become habituated to people, that can be very dangerous for them because they are not afraid.” So if you leave pet food outside for your pets, bring it in, and secure your trash cans.
Wanna make your property more wildlife-friendly? Turn your space into a certified wildlife habitat from the North Carolina Wildlife Federation. If you see a possum you think is dead or injured, Eli stresses the importance of not touching it, as it may still be alive. “Wild animals can take care of themselves,” he says. If you see a wild animal that’s clearly injured, call the animal rehabilitation specialists at Appalachian Wildlife Refuge.