I yelled “Ah Ha!” rather loudly upon discovering that I had succeeded in my mission. For the past several months, an opossum was conducting nocturnal forays into our eagle enclosure to feast on scraps. He was just small enough to squeeze through the slats and was coming and going with apparent impunity. In fact, the sheer abundance of track evidence suggested a bit of arrogance on the part of the thieving marsupial. “Catch me if you can” was the implied challenge. I brought this subject up in a recent “Naturespeak” and I ended that piece by saying that this ‘possum would soon suffer eviction. Fortunately I was eventually able to secure a live trap (see here) and make good on my promise.
It was too easy, really. Baited with a nice fresh fish fillet, the trap was set out in the late afternoon of one day and it contained the guilty party upon the dawning of the next (see here). My “ah ha” moment resulted from a visceral sense of victory of one man over a mammal with a brain the size of a hazelnut. You take victories as they come. In the back of my mind I was hoping for a long-lasting duel in which the trapper and the trapped pitted their wits against each other over an extended period of time. You know, like those legendary tales of western trappers trying to nab a wily sheep-killing wolf named “Old Snag” that had eluded capture for a decade. A trapper named “Slim” arrives and gets the job done, but only after losing his trusty beagle “Teddie” in the final struggle. No, I simply set the trap and I got the critter and that was about it. The fish died, but he was dead already.
Unlike “Slim”, I was using a live trap. The idea was to capture the beast and kick him out of town. Huddled inside the confines of the trap, the opossum looked very repentant. These marsupials always look guilty, even when they are innocent of ill deeds, but this one looked especially so. Just like his track evidence had indicated, he was a small guilty party. ‘Possums can get to be house cat size, which means anywhere from 4 – 14 pounds, but my captive was only 2 lbs, if that. He avoided all eye contact and made no effort to protest his capture. And, surprisingly, did not play ‘possum even when jumbled around.
There are a lot of fallacies surrounding opossums, especially relating to their mating techniques, but the one basic truth revolves around their famous ability to feign death. They can indeed lapse into a catatonic state at times of high stress. At such times they will curl up their lips and bare their teeth, salivate heavily, and enter into a limp non-responsive state (Oddly enough, this mysterious nervous collapse doesn’t result in any metabolic change or decrease of heart rate). I’ve only seen this act once and found it to be quite convincing. It may last for a few minutes or a few hours. The problem is that the poor critters have no control over this reaction. They do not, and cannot, consciously slip into unconsciousness, it just happens.
Feigning death may work against dogs and red foxes, but not against Red Ford F-150 pickups. Fortunately, ‘possums have a litany of conscious fear/defense reactions ranging from wide mouthed hissing (they have 50 teeth and a very large mouth), to – and I quote from a source – “belching, urinating, rolling over, and becoming stiff.”
I took my opossum for a ride, briefly entertaining the thought of releasing him in the middle of I-75. Instead, I took him to a nice wild place far from caged eagles. I took him to a place where free-flying eagles eat small mammals. Before releasing him I shook up the container a bit to see if I could elicit one of the above named responses, but the thing remained silent, wide-eyed, and stoic. No amount of verbal abuse could get him to react in any other way than to sit there – frozen in position – with a silly grin on his face. In fact, even when the door was propped open he refused to budge or flee. I actually had to tip the trap on end in order to deposit him on freedom’s ground. Even when fully liberated, however, he was less than able to take advantage of the situation. He stood there like, as Ernie Harwell used to say, “like the house by the side of the road…” (see here).
Instead of playing ‘possum he played statue with me. He would launch into a slow retreat only when I moved and then freeze into a pose when I stopped moving. I moved, he moved. I stopped, he stopped. At one point he stopped in mid step with his fore-leg in a raised position and he slowly, oh so slowly, let it drop down to complete the step. You can watch a short bit of this game on this video sequence Eventually the creature managed some form of escape when he ducked into some thick brush and disappeared from view.
I would like to add this “Statue of Liberty” act to the list of opossumisms. I must say it sure beats all those other conscience defense tactics. Oh, by the way, if he shows up in the eagle enclosure again, I can guarantee that he will achieve a very realistic death pose.