Playin’ Possum

by Mark Blackwell

I heard this variation of the ‘chicken joke’ not too long ago, “Why did the chicken cross the road?—To show a possum that it could be done.” And that started me thinkin’ about possums.

According to the people who study ’em, Possums appear to come in several varieties. I can only think of two. There’s the Irish type, the O’possum, and then there’s the plain old Brown County sort. Anyways, possums are pretty darned original critters. First off they are about the size of a house cat but they look like big ol’ rats. They are marsupials, which means that the females are equipped with a pouch to carry the young’uns in, so they’re related to kangaroos and bandicoots. Except for the pouch, I don’t see much resemblance to a kangaroo and I always thought a bandicoot was the crazy old guy that lived up the road from me. Even if you disregard the pouch, possums are put together kind of funny. They have fifty teeth and that’s more than any other critter around these parts, they’ve got thumbs on their hind feet and they have a prehensile tail, which means they can grab things with it. Possums are, pretty much, opportunistic omnivores. They will eat about anything, bugs, worms, crawdads, persimmons, eggs and even other animals, dead ones, that is, because possums aren’t know to be very aggressive.

Which brings me to another interesting aspect of possums—playin’ possum.

Now the possums you see along the road generally are not playing, they are serious about being dead but according to marsupial experts the possum, when cornered, will pretend to die, by dropping over and letting its tongue hang out. That is not an attractive sight and even the most persistant predators tend get bored and a little disgusted by this ruse.

If you ever encounter a possum in your barn or henhouse chances are the offending possum will first feign ignorance in the hope you won’t notice it. But if you persist in noticing, he will rare back on his heels open his mouth in a snarl, showing you fifty teeth, and hiss at ya like a crocodile. The average human disregards all the academic knowledge they may have acquired concerning the possums’ passivity and looks for the nearest implement in order to whack the “big rat.” When a possum took up residence in my wood shop my wife and I thought we would go the humane route and use a snow shovel in a scoop manoeuvre. Again the possum was barely deterred, did not play possum but put on the big mad rat show, and chased us around for awhile until we got him in the clear and scooped him out of the barn and down the road a piece.

Possums are ubiquitous (I like that word, it means they’re everywhere) but mainly you find them along the road in a somewhat worse-for-wear condition—the main course in a buzzard buffet.

And that brings me back to the chicken joke and a theory I have. I believe that possums are brain-wired like lemmings. You know lemmings, the little Scandinavian rodents that take a notion to pack up together and migrate to the nearest cliff and take the big plunge into the North Sea, apparently in some little understood suicide pact, because they aren’t equipped for long distance swimming. Possums on the other hand are swimmers but don’t seem to have any particular fondness for the ocean. They do, however, somehow find their way to the nearest highway and death.

Now the evidence of my theory lies in the fact that possums don’t appear to have any sense of territory. From the time the leave mamma they just ramble, amble and meander to nowhere in particular. They wake up in the evening and spend the better part of the night just wandering aimlessly poking around looking for stuff to eat. That is, until some point in the possums pointless life when it is seized by a powerful instinct and begins its inexorable (there’s another good word) journey to the highway. And once he gets there and is confronted by a speeding vehicle the possum commences his “dance o’ death” right there in your headlights. There’s some folks will argue that the possum is just confused and can’t make up his mind but when you find out that the possum has a head approximately the size of a racoon’s but a brain only a third as big rattling around in there, well, anybody can see the possum hasn’t got much of a mind to make up.

Now, if you come across a deer in the road it will generally freeze and just stand there looking real stupid and wait for you to stop or swerve around him. But a possum, spotting an oncoming vehicle, will run right out in the road and commence cutting capers and didos while you’re attempting to control the skid you’ve put your car into and the screamin’ kids in the back seat. And then it’s—thump, thump—and the frolics over; he’s lunch for the buzzards.

Looking on the positive side of things, they aren’t in much danger of extinction. A mamma possum can give birth to a dozen or so babies. They don’t have many natural enemies. They don’t taste all that good to anybody but carrion-eaters. They aren’t particularly entertaining and they don’t make good pets. So I’m satisfied that the possum will continue into the future about the same way they always have—more or less obliviously.