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DEALING WITH OPOSSUMS

The City of Sacramento Animal Care Services does NOT trap nor relocate healthy wildlife

The North American opossum dates back 65 million years and is considered one of the longest surviving mammals. The opossum is approximately the size of a house cat, with grayish-white fur that can vary from almost white to almost black. The feet and legs are black, the toes are white, and the ears are naked flaps of skin. Tracks will show an opposable thumb on the rear feet. The long, naked, scaly tail is prehensile and is often used as a fifth limb. Opossums weigh between four and eight pounds, are two or three feet long, and can live from two to six years.

Opossums are found in all types of habitats, but they usually prefer deciduous woodlands. They favor dens on the ground, which can lead them to take up residence under decks and in crawl spaces. While female opossums spend their lives in more defined areas, the male opossum may wander continuously. Over the years, we have changed their habitats into our living spaces and they have had no problem adapting to our lifestyles. Opossums no longer exhibit a fear of people or civilization, since they are born and raised in our neighborhoods.

Opossums are slow-moving, omnivorous animals who roam properties at night looking for food. Carrion forms much of the opossum's diet, which is supplemented with fruit and vegetables (persimmons, apples, and corn are particular favorites), insects, frogs, eggs, birds, snakes, mammals, and earthworms, as well as the dog or cat food or garbage left out at night.

The North American opossum is the only marsupial and the most primitive mammal on this continent. Female opossums reach puberty at six to eight months and bear their young after a 12-day gestation period. Litter size averages about eight or nine, and one or two litters are born each year. The young are little more developed than embryos, and they instinctively crawl from the birth canal to the mother's pouch, where they attach themselves firmly to a nipple. They will nurse for approximately 50 to 60 days before beginning to wean. The young become independent of the mother at about three months of age.

When confronted, opossums often bare their teeth and hiss. While they may look fierce, they generally are non-aggressive and shy. Rather than fight, when hard-pressed, they will sometimes slip into the death-feigning catatonia that we term "playing possum." The animal's system reacts automatically, throwing the brain and nervous system into a catatonic state that lowers their heartbeat and respiration.

Discouraging Techniques

The first and best approach to dealing with wildlife in urban environments is to practice tolerance - understanding and acceptance of the natural patterns of animal life and respect and appreciation of wild animals. As useful as the repellents and scare devices described below may be, they all create inconvenience and displacement or even death for the opossums and perhaps other species as well. This fact is paramount when considering their use.

Only long-term, permanent means of coping with troublesome opossums is to exclude them from areas where you do not want them. Opossums are wanderers, and if you see one in your yard, he is probably just passing through. Since opossums are omnivorous and are one of nature's best scavengers, make sure that you are not inadvertently providing them with a food source. In general, they do not have behaviors that cause property damage. Because they are not diggers, they are rarely the culprits if the soil or sod has been turned over. Tragically, many people believe the only solution to the presence of an opossum is to put out a live trap, catch the opossum, and destroy or relocate him. However, rather than eliminating the problem, before too long another opossum or other wildlife will move into the area and the cycle begins again. Opossums, like other urban wildlife, prefer to live the easy life we unknowingly provide for them. They do not like a hostile environment. Taking steps to deter these animals will encourage them to move on.

To prevent access, physically exclude animals from places where they might be a problem; negatively condition or repel animals with scare devices; deter animals with bad-tasting or bad-smelling chemical repellents; and remove the sources of attraction.

Relocating an animal miles away from its - your - home is akin to you being transported to Chicago with no food, no money, and only the clothes on your back. They have a slim chance of survival against the other animals who already have established territories, who know where to find food, and where to hide from predators.

Moving an animal can also spread disease, not just between the old community and the new, but also between species. Viruses such as distemper and parvo thrive in new hosts. The practice of trapping and relocating animals risks separating mothers from their young and leaving the babies behind to die, or to be raised by financially-strapped rehabilitation centers.

Scare Devices

Hand-sized motion detectors (usually combined with bright lights) and alarms, intended for indoor use, can be used in crawl spaces or, with proper protection from the weather, in some outdoor situations. Motion-sensitive lighting kits are also effective in situations for nocturnal raids on trashcans or gardens. Motion-sensitive oscillating sprinklers are also available for deterring nighttime visitors.

Repellents

Ro-pel contains both a bittering agent and a penetrating agent to allow it to better absorb into plant tissue or other material. It works by imparting an extremely bitter taste to anything it contacts. GET-AWAY uses extracts of oil of mustard and capsaicin as both an odor- and taste-repellent to repel wild animals. You can place regular household ammonia stations around your yard in the areas frequented by opossums. Take a shallow dish or bowl, place a rag in and pour ammonia over the rag until completely saturated. Place enough ammonia in the dish so the rag will continue to wick the ammonia up through the night. Avoid lawn areas, as ammonia will burn the grass.

Inside & Under the House

Check your property regularly to make sure that screens barring entrance to your home, basement, or crawl space are intact. When an opossum is known to be denning under a porch or patio, the eviction strategy is much the same as for skunks. If anything, evicting opossums may be slightly easier. Because an opossum carries her young with her, the probability that helpless babies would be left behind is of far less concern than with other species. Place a radio near where the opossum is nesting and keep it on loud during the day. When the animal leaves for her nightly foray (two hours after dark is generally a safe time), locate all entrances and exits, blocking all except one. Loosely close this last opening with netting, straw or another fibrous material than an animal trapped inside can push away, but one on the outside will be less likely to disturb to get back in. To be certain the animal has left, sprinkle flour at the exit and watch for footprints that lead away from the opening. When you are sure the opossum is gone, securely close the opening. Opossums can enter a house through a dog or cat door and may be unable to find their way out. Lock dog and cat doors at night and place ammonia stations in front of the locked door.

Yards

The most effective method of discouraging visits by an opossum is to secure trash containers with tight-fitting lids and a thick rubber strap, and to bring in your companion animal's food and water dishes each evening. Replace food and water bowls with ammonia stations during nighttime hours. If you encounter an opossum in your garbage can, simply tip the can on its side and allow the animal to leave on his own. Tracks are one of the best ways to identify an opossum's presence in your yard. In gardens, the characteristic footprints will display themselves if the ground is damp. On hard surfaces, flour can be used to record prints. Securely close the areas around decks, hot tubs, and sheds. Opossums are rodent predators and will often follow mice and rats into these areas.