(Author’s note: This shocking new series reveals the raw, unedited, back-alley stories behind the seemingly harmonious wildlife of southern Cheatham County, Tennessee.)
Ahh, the lowly ‘possum. This animal is feared, hunted, eaten, shunned, and run over, all with equal enthusiasm. It receives respect from neither humans nor even its woodland neighbors. In fact, the ‘possum is so thoroughly marginalized that its name isn’t even spelled out or spoken all the way and starts with an apostrophe.
As I’m sure you know, it’s technically “opossum.” (I’d give you the Latin name but I don’t really feel like it and it doesn’t matter anyway.) One wonders why they went to all the trouble of putting an “o” in there at all. Whereas most respectable wildlife was named many centuries ago by Greek scientists, ‘possums got their monikers from Jamestown colonists only about 400 years ago based on a Virginia Algonquian Indian word which, translated literally means “that weird catlike thing that keeps getting into our garbage cans.” The “o” probably got there because people were saying, “Oh, crap! There’s that creepy thing again!”
Though technically wildlife, ‘possums haven’t really achieved “watchable” status. When most people think of wildlife, they think of majestic animals like deer or eagles, or shy, humorous creatures like raccoons or foxes. You know, creatures that we’re excited to see and snap pictures of. ‘Possums, however fall into a different category.
Weird and gross.
Nobody really enjoys spotting a ‘possum in nature. They are unsettling — beady black eyes on a white face with a pink nose and a long naked tail — and they skulk around like a teenager who just got busted with his dad’s porno magazines, back hunched and grimacing. ‘Possums are marsupials (they store their newborn babies inside a pouch) which in the case of kangaroos, is endearing because there’s only one in there, he’s really cute, and he hangs out with Winnie the Pooh. But when you get five or six pink, hairless, infant ‘possums squirming around together in what amounts to an interior fanny pack, it become a horror movie.
Here in Middle Tennessee, ‘possums have a rich history of either being hunted and eaten with a side of sweet potatoes or flattened by vehicles, the latter of which leaves them both dead and inedible. Their poor safety record may be attributed to the fact that reckless, oft-drunken ‘possums are known to play two challenge games: “Who Can Cross This Road Before That Big Thing Gets Here?” and the oldie-but-goodie simply titled “‘Possum,” in which the participant simply freezes and plops over when confronted by any loud, bright, or otherwise startling stimulus.
It’s a cruel twist of fate that the two games were inexplicably paired at some point.
Here at Critter Chronicles, this fact led us (me, sitting alone in my office) to question the real motives behind the ‘possum vs. vehicle phenomenon. Is this just a matter of bad luck for the ‘possum or perhaps … murder?
Think about it. ‘Possums are no larger than a big cat and easy to push around. Could it be that one or more of its woodland neighbors has an evil agenda and that ‘possums are routinely baited across busy roads or even physically shoved?
Sure, there are documented instances of teenaged ‘possums punching each other in the shoulder and whispering, “Watch this!” before waddling into oncoming traffic on a dare. On the Fujita Animal Intelligence Scale, ‘possums are, after all, pretty dumb. But there could be other factors at play.
For example, in popular language, deer have generally cornered the market for animals that are rendered useless when encountering vehicle headlights. “He froze like a deer in the headlights.” But this designation should’ve gone to the ‘possum, truth be told. Agreed, deer are often transfixed by bright lights, but it doesn’t usually last that long and the animals don’t fall over on their sides. (The Tennessee Fainting Goat should take the top award for this trait, but they are stuck in the “livestock” category, unfortunately.)
Could it be that Tennessee white-tailed deer are actually pushing ‘possums to their deaths to retain their high status in the popular American vernacular?
Probably not, but it’s an interesting idea anyway.
More likely is the fact that in ‘possums, you have a perfect storm of negative characteristics as they relate to Tennessee’s roadways: dumb, slow, creepy-looking, apparently prefer human thoroughfares to their own perfectly safe ones, and collapse in a furry heap at the sight and sound of a vehicle when they are, in fact, directly in front of it.
Lest you think I’m unfairly picking on ‘possums, let’s look at some of the positive attributes of this poor fellow.
Hang on. Let me think about that for a minute…
OK, after an exhaustive, two-minute research session on Wikipedia, I found this. ‘Possums are largely immune to the venom of pit vipers like rattlesnakes and copperheads.
That’s a start, I guess. I’ll give them props for that. However, the National Opossum Society (I’m not kidding) says the ‘possum is one of the most short-lived mammals for its size because practically everything else eats, murders, or runs over it immediately.
But not snakes. Good job with the snakes, ‘possum!
In other good news, ‘possums are generally omnivorous, meaning they’ll consume most anything. This is smart. You don’t want to be picky about food if you’re probably not going to be around very long anyway. Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may encounter a homicidal deer and set of 215/85 Bridgestone tires.
And there we have…the lowly ‘possum.