Back in the day, before Doug and I got married, Doug had a cat named Muffin. Muffin was a rescued dumpster cat, well-schooled in the ways of the wild. One spring evening , Doug noticed her staring intently at the basement door, with her head cocked like the RCA dog. He said “Hey Muffin, what are you doing?” Then he heard a scratching noise behind the door.
Opossums were not found in CT prior to the 1900’s, but have since expanded their range. Their name comes from the Algonquin word “apasum” which means “white animal” or possibly“white face.”
Photo by Bet Zimmerman.
He opened the door and let out a girlie-man scream. Two hissing, rat-sized opossums were crouched on the stairs, and a third was hanging upside down, its long scaly tail wrapped around the handrail. He slammed the door shut.
What do to? He realized the first step was to get to “know thy enemy.” Since there was no Internet back then, he headed to the local library to research some possum facts. He learned that possums are nocturnal, and nest in tree holes or dens made by other animals. They are the only marsupial found in North America. Newborn young are the size of a navy bean. They crawl into the mother’s pouch to grow, and then ride around on their mother’s back until reaching independence about 100 days after birth. Opossums can have a litter of about 20, but fewer than half typically survive. Doug eventually learned he had an even dozen occupying his basement.
Despite the fact that they have 50 pointy teeth per mouth (more than any other mammal in North America), and may growl or hiss dramatically when frightened, they are generally gentle. However, they may bite in self-defense. They can also flop over and feign death, remaining catatonic for a few minutes or hours - hence the term “playing possum.” They even stick their tongue out for effect, and can secrete a liquid from their anal gland that smells like rotten meat to lessen predator appeal.
Since Doug did not have the money to hire a nuisance control officer, he decided to take matters into his own hands (which was probably illegal.) First he armed himself. His equipment included a flashlight, a big cloth duffle bag, his grossest clothes and two giant oven mitts.
Over the course of the next two weeks, he went downstairs at dusk with his gear and sat on the cold, wet basement floor. He sat and sat and sat until a possum emerged. Then he would ‘stun’ it with the light from the flashlight, grab it with the giant oven mitts, and whip it into the duffle bag. After rounding up three or four, the rest would scurry off. Then he threw the sack of critters over his shoulder like Santa, and set off into the dark, foggy night. He was worried that the police might see him and think he was dumping off a murder victim. He covertly crossed the river in hopes this would prevent a return to the scene of the crime, not realizing opossums can swim. He sprinkled his catch onto the ground and they scampered off.
Over the next few weeks, the remaining opossums either got smarter, or Doug had caught the dumbest ones first. He finally snagged the eleventh young one. However, he knew the mother was still in the basement, as he had seen her several times. But she was way too wary for him. So he sprinkled flour around some holes in the fieldstone foundation. The tracks he found the next day revealed where she was entering the house and the location of the hole she was sleeping in by day. Unfortunately it was beyond his reach.
Then a colleague at work suggested “better living through chemistry.” Doug got a jug of ammonia and an electric fan. He crawled on his belly about 30 feet under the house, poured ammonia into the fan blades and blew it in the direction of the burrow. (NOT a good idea without adequate ventilation - fortunately the fieldstone foundation of This Old House has plenty of gaps.) The next morning he closed off the burrow and access points to prevent future visits. And that is how he humanely rid his home of possums.
By the way, opossums are pretty innocuous creatures. They do not dig up gardens, but will occasionally raid poultry yards for eggs. They will eat just about anything, including snakes, slugs, snails, ants, mice, and road kill (sometimes joining their meal.) With a license, these shy creatures can be legally trapped and hunted in CT for their pelt or meat. (One of Beverly Hillbillies Granny’s favorite meals was possum pie.)
If you want to discourage opossums and more problematic wildlife like raccoons and bears, always put garbage in secure containers, compost in closed bins, bring pet food indoors at night, and clean up rotting fruit under trees.