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Opossums and Raccoons
These two critters are so commonly found around human dwellings that they bear mentioning. Odds are good that if you have these nighttime ramblers poking about your environs, you’ll have no safety issues if you don’t engage or threaten them.
Of course, the opossum is the one that looks like the biggest rat you have ever seen. They’re roughly the size of house cats and top out at about 15 pounds. Opossums are primitive animals that date back to the dinosaur age, which is remarkable because they are notoriously dimwitted. But, hey, survival of the species is the bottom line, and they are great at it even if they also have a high mortality rate at all stages of life and only live for about three years. What makes us interested in them is that they have 50 sharp teeth, more than any other mammal. When they are threatened, sometimes they feign death by “playing possum,” a proven defense even against the jaws of a Siberian husky inside a fenced yard.
However, the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mammals describes this vivid alternative opossum behavior: “More often, it tries to bluff its attacker by hissing, screeching, salivating, opening its mouth wide to show all of its 50 teeth, and sometimes excreting a greenish substance.” It can also emit smelly stuff from its anal glands. So, if you find a possum in your garage ransacking your pet food (they eat just about anything, which is why they continue to thrive), don’t get in there and start whacking away with the broom, trying to corner or to capture it. The very fine book, Living with Wildlife: How to Enjoy, Cope with, and Protect North America’s Wild Creatures Around Your Home and Theirs, recommends that you “use bright lights, make loud noises by banging pans, rustling paper, opening/closing doors, or playing radios; and/or squirting water to frighten them away.” After the opossum leaves, take better care to store your edibles more securely. Another potential troubling situation might arise with a female who is trying to defend her young, so fully assess any situation to the best of your ability.
Raccoons, of course, are the masked bandits who are quite, quite clever, as well as exceptionally dexterous. They can grow to more than three feet in length and weigh up to almost 50 pounds. Television ads that show them entering a house by turning the doorknob and then opening the refrigerator to raid for snacks before flopping on the sofa are not that far-fetched. According to Living with Wildlife, if you find a raccoon in your house, close the doors to other rooms and open all the windows and doors you can to give the raccoon an easy exit. Don’t try to lure it out with food, as this will reinforce the food association that might prompt the raccoon to return.
Alarmed and anxious raccoons can cause extensive damage. If the animal doesn’t leave in a reasonable amount of time, then call the local wildlife authorities. Don’t try to handle the animal yourself. Raccoons are strong, and they have sharp teeth and claws. Warning signs of an aggressive raccoon include growling, snarling, hissing, a lowered head with flattened ears, bared teeth, and bushed-out neck and shoulder fur. (You probably could’ve guessed that, right?)
Raccoons are formidable, and most predators know that to engage one can mean a losing fight to the death. A raccoon, for example, can dispatch a single dog, which is probably why coon hunters use packs of dogs in their pursuit. Raccoons, however, are not normally aggressive animals unless they are cornered, mating, or with young. They do carry a roundworm, Baylisascaris procyonis, in their dung. While not harmful to the raccoon, this organism is potentially very injurious to other mammals, including humans. For this reason, and also because the raccoon is a rabies carrier, it is unwise to entice these admittedly charming creatures with food.
Thwarting Opossums and Raccoons
Do not leave pet food or trash outdoors at night.
Pick fruit and garden crops when they are ripe, and do not leave rotten fruit or crops on the ground.
Eliminate brush piles, dilapidated buildings, and holes under concrete slabs.
Raccoons, opossums, and skunks (!) will easily enter a house through the pet door, so secure them at night.
For more solutions to various scenarios involving these backyard buddies, consult Living with Wildlife: How to Enjoy, Cope with, and Protect North America’s Wild Creatures Around Your Home and Theirs by the California Center for Wildlife with Diana Landau and Shelley Stump.
Opossum (Virginia opossum)
The opossum can bite if cornered.
Up to 40 inches in length, including a 1020 inch prehensile, hairless tail. Weighs up to 14 pounds.
About the size of a house cat, the opossum has silvery “grizzled” hairs covering black hairs below. Its pinkish nose is long and pointed.
This marsupial, unique to North America, has no comparable cousin.
Omnivorous, the opossum eats insects, small mammals, bird eggs, grain, fruit, and carrion.
Opossum litters, produced two or three times a year, are comprised of tiny young with up to 14 memberseach about the size of a honeybee.
Opossums are found in suburban areas, farmlands, and forests, usually near water.
They are generally not aggressive but will defend themselves if cornered. They are nocturnal and solitary, and they are often killed on the highway as they attempt to feed on carrion.
Common Raccoon (Procyon lotor)
The raccoon can bite if cornered. Because the animal can be a carrier of rabies, the bite is potentially fatal.
It is common throughout the lower 48 states, with the exception pockets of the Rockies and pockets of the southwestern U.S.
Up to 37 inches in length, including a tail of 8 to 16 inches.
The raccoon is distinguished by its black mask and black-ringed tail on a grayish-brown body. It has a pointed snout.
The raccoon’s omnivorous diet includes grain, nuts, berries, rodents, insects, crayfish, bird eggs, and carrion.
One litter per year of usually four young is delivered in the spring.
The raccoon is highly adapted in suburban areas, and is also found near water in forests, bottomlands, and in rocky outcroppings.
Nocturnal, curious, and extremely dexterous, the raccoon is not aggressive but will fight ferociously if cornered or to defend itself.