The only marsupial found in North America, the opossum is a strange little fellow who generally grows no larger than 15 pounds. With all of his odd little quirks (such as hanging upside down by his tail), the oddest is his propensity to play dead when he just doesn't want to deal with a situation confronting him.
Opossums are generally peaceful animals. They prefer to avoid a fight if at all possible. They move slowly on the ground and are vulnerable to predators, which include dogs, coyotes and foxes. They are also frequent victims of cars. If cornered, opossums will hiss, growl and even bite. More than likely, however, they will faint in shock at the prospect of such a confrontation. Or, as it's more commonly known, they'll "play dead."
Playing dead is an involuntary response on the part of the opossum. The stress of the confrontation facing the opossum causes him to go into shock. This shock induces a comatose state that can last from 40 minutes to four hours. While "dead," the opossum's body is limp, it's front feet form into balls and drool runs out of its mouth. It may even appear that rigor mortis has begun.
The opossum's guise of death goes so far as to produce a smell of decay. From his anal glands, the opossum's body emits green mucus that will discourage most predators from feeding on him while he's in his comatose state. This smell leads the predator to believe that the opossum's body is a rotting carcass. Unfortunately, being run over by vehicles is now the most common way in which opossums are killed -- the smell does nothing to help them in this situation.
While the ability to play dead has probably saved many an opossum's life, it also comes with its own set of risks. If an opossum goes into shock in the middle of the road, it's unlikely drivers will swerve to avoid hitting him because it appears he's already passed on. There are also many opossums who have been buried by people who didn't realize the little marsupial wasn't actually dead. Because of this, the Bi-State Wildlife Hotline has tips for dealing with an opossum that may or may not be dead. Do not handle the body in a way that will cause injury or harm to the opossum. Do not dispose of the body by burial or by placing it in a dumpster where the animal cannot escape, should it wake up.
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Bethney Foster is social justice coordinator for Mercy Junction ministry, where she edits the monthly publication "Holy Heretic." She is also an adoption coordinator with a pet rescue agency. Foster spent nearly two decades as a newspaper reporter/editor. She graduated from Campbellsville University, receiving a Bachelor of Arts in English, journalism and political science.