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POSSUM TALES

July 8, 2017

Clare and I look forward to receiving our Garden and Gun magazine. We subscribed ten years ago in 2007 when the publication was first announced. It is a welcomed guest in our mail box. I try to get to the latest issue before my wife does. I read the magazine, leaving it intact. Clare reads Garden and Gun the same way she reads Time magazine or the Herald-Journal or the New York Times. She rips out pages and trashes them as she reads. So, I was surprised and delighted to find the remnants of the April/May 2017 issue, because I had not yet seen it.

My favorite sections are Roy Blount’s column, always on the back page of the magazine, and Julia Reed’s piece. Both are excellent writers who display a keen wit and genuine southern charm. In this particular installment, the tenth anniversary issue, Julia Reed wrote “The Awesome Opossum.”

I thoroughly enjoyed reading her take on an animal most of us know only as road kill. Julia Reed and I beg to differ with that assessment. In this article I combine a few of her possum tales with some of mine.

Few of us welcome untamed creatures in or around our homes. In the course of fifty-one years of wedded bliss, Clare and I have had a number of close encounters of the wild kind at our house. While our exterminator faithfully deals with the usual roaches, ants, wasps, and mice, we have also hosted squirrels, snakes, bats, and owls as uninvited visitors. Possums also occasionally pay a visit to our place.

Our sweet daughter-in-law, Patrice, phoned me some time ago with concern in her voice. “Papa Kirk, can you please tell me how I can get rid of a possum!”

“Why do you want to get rid of him?” I inquired.

“Because he’s ugly and scary, and I don’t like for him to be under my deck!”

Patrice is right. A possum is an undesirable houseguest.

Most of us consider possums to be annoying varmints.  Opossums, to use the proper name, are our only native North American marsupials. According to Julia Reed, the animal was named by Captain John Smith of the Jamestown Colony. The name was derived from the Algonquian word which means white animal.  They are first cousins to the Australian kangaroo. Females have a pouch on their belly where the young, up to 13 in number, are carried and nourished for about two months after birth.

Adult possums can be three feet long including the prehensile tail. They cannot hang from a tree limb, a posture immortalized by the character in the comic strip Pogo.

They weigh as much as fourteen pounds depending on how well fed they are. Possums are omnivores. That means they will eat anything. Their diet includes insects, snails, rodents, berries, fruit, grasses, and leaves. Possum favorites seem to be pet food, garbage, and other roadkill. Yum! They are nocturnal animals, prowling around at night and sleeping during the day.

Playing possum is a defensive tactic the critter employs when frightened. Playing possum is feigning death. If you see one lying in the middle of the road, he is probably not pretending. Chances are he is really dead.

When I was a boy, my family lived on a dirt road until the area across the road from us was developed and homes were built. Early one morning, construction workers across the way found a possum scuffling around inside a nail keg where garbage had been thrown the day before. They trapped the possum by putting a scrap of hardware cloth over the keg holding it in place with a brick.

I wandered across the road to see what was going on. The workmen said I could have the possum for a pet. Wow! That afternoon, my dad and I built a cage that looked something like a rabbit pen. My pet possum had a home, or so I thought. The next morning I found the cage empty. The possum had chewed through the wood. Blood was everywhere, and the possum was gone. Possums don’t make good pets.

Possums are not clean animals. They eat dead animals as small as a slug or as big as a horse. They are sometimes referred to as the sanitation workers of the wild. These critters can carry parasites and rabies, although rabies incidents are less frequent than in other animals, such as raccoons. Possums have a strong immune system, so strong they can devour venomous snakes with no ill effect. Possums also have a strong offensive odor, except to other possums. That is the reason they have so many little possums.

Some folks eat possums. As Reed points out, a recipe for cooked possum was to be found in the Joy of Cooking as late as the 1960s. Clare had a copy of that edition of the cookbook given to us as a wedding gift. I’m not sure the recipe is in our copy. One of our dogs partially devoured the cookbook.

President William Howard Taft considered the possum a delicacy. Julia Reed reports that when the rotund president was the honored quest at a banquet in Atlanta, Georgia, he requested that possum be the main fare. One hundred quests were served boiled, baked, and basted possum with a side of sweet potatoes.

Julia tells the story of a special cocktail named Possum Drop. At a place called Snake and Jake’s Christmas Club Lounge, a New Orleans establishment lit only by Christmas lights, a customer was seated at the bar enjoying a shot of Jägermeister. Suddenly a possum fell through the tiled ceiling startling the customer and spilling his drink into a pint of Schlitz.

Voilà! The Possum Drop cocktail was born!

You really should find the April/May issue of Garden and Gun. Julia Reed’s article begins on page 103.

Because possums are prolific, they have to find new places to live. They will live in a variety of habitats. They will make themselves right at home when they move into the neighborhood. Undersides of porches, decks, and tool sheds provide an ideal home. That puts them within striking distance to raid garbage cans and steal pet food. They are excellent climbers. Possums can be found living in attics, where they make a terrible mess and a lot of noise. It is a very good idea to get rid of possums if they are hanging out around your house.

Have you ever wondered how to get rid of a possum? There is no magic spray or device to make them go away. Some people have tried predator urine, such as coyote or fox urine, to get rid of possums. Not only does it not keep possums away, it makes the odor problem worse, and it is hard to come by. Coyote and fox are not necessarily interested in cooperating.

Some have recommended mothballs or ammonia-soaked rags to make possums leave, but that doesn’t always work either. One way to take care of the possum problem is by trapping and removing them.

My sister-in-law tells about a time when a couple in her church in rural North Carolina paid a visit to her home. The woman had long gray hair. It was pulled up into a large beehive hairdo, in the style of the 1970s, held in place by maximum-strength hair spray. In the course of the conversation, my sister-in-law thought she saw something moving in the woman’s hair. Struggling to maintain eye contact with her guest, my sister-in-law caught a glimpse of a small face peeking out from the beehive. She politely asked about the critter in the hairdo. The woman pulled three baby possums out of her elaborate coiffure, and, turning to her husband, said, “Show ’er the ones you’ve got, Earl.” Earl reached into his shirt and brought from his considerable chest hair another two baby possums.

“Ain’t they cute? Their mama got killed in the road in front of our place, so we took  ‘em in,” the woman explained.

My sister-in-law was speechless for a moment, and then recovered, “What are you going to do with them?”

“We’re gonna keep  ‘em and fatten  ‘em up. Then we’re gonna eat  ‘em.”

That’s one way to get rid of a possum.

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