Virginia Opossums (Didelphis virginiana) often get a bad rap, but they can actually be helpful to us and our environment!
But wait, aren’t they dangerous wild animals that can infect me with diseases? Yes, they are wild and they can carry zoonotic diseases, so you should be cautious with them, just like any other wild species. However, opossums are general not aggressive and their prime defense is to “play dead” and avoid confrontation. Additionally, they rarely contract rabies (likely due to their low body temperature) so they are a low risk vector for that disease.
Okay so how can they help me? Opossums can actually help clean up pests in the environment because they are opportunistic scavengers that eat things like cockroaches, crickets, beetles, slugs, snails, snakes, and many others. One very important target for them is ticks, which are a significant vector for Lyme disease. Opossums are very good at finding and killing ticks, thus eliminating a substantial amount of them every season. This is not only helpful to prevent disease in us, but also beneficial for pets and wildlife that can contract Lyme disease or other tick-borne illnesses.
Do they really eat snakes? Another fun tidbit about opossums is that they eat many venomous snakes, which has led them to develop resistance to snake venom. Scientists are looking into applying this useful development to help humans, in an effort to reduce the number of people who are injured or killed by snake bites.
How can we help them? It is always helpful to advocate for this species (or at least tolerate them), as they are unfortunately common victims of animal cruelty. Additionally, if you do find an injured or orphaned opossum, contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator or medical facility (like the WMC!). These trained professionals can help determine what care and treatment the animal needs and know how best to provide that care! In cases where you may handle an opossum, always be sure to practice caution by wearing gloves and other protective equipment. Additionally, opossums do tend to “play dead” quite convincingly, so try to wait at least four hours before determining that a potentially “dead” opossum is actually deceased.
For more information, you can visit opossumsocietyus.org or read “Hosts as ecological traps for the vector of Lyme disease” by Keesing et al. (2009).
This article was written by Colleen Elzinga, Class of 2022