Gateway to the Classics: Squirrels and Other Fur-Bearers by John Burroughs
Squirrels and Other Fur-Bearers by  John Burroughs

The Opossum

A new track has appeared upon the snow in my neighborhood here on the Hudson within the past few years. It is a strange track, and suggests some small, deformed human hand. If the dwarfs or brownies we read of in childhood were to walk abroad in winter, they might leave such an imprint behind them as this.

This track, which we seldom see later than December, is made by the opossum. This animal is evidently multiplying in the land, and is extending its range northward. Ten years ago they were rarely found here, and now they are very common. I hear that they are very abundant and troublesome on parts of Long Island. The hind foot of the opossum has a sort of thumb that opposes the other toes, and it is the imprint of this member that looks so strange. The under side of the foot is as naked as the human hand, and this adds to the novel look of the track in the snow.

Late in the fall, my hired man set a trap in a hole in hopes of catching a skunk, but instead he caught a possum by one of its fore feet. The poor thing was badly crippled, and he kept it in a barrel for a couple of weeks and fed it, to try and make amends for the injury he had done. Then he gave it its freedom, though the injured foot had healed but little.

Soon after he set his trap in the same hole, and to his annoyance caught the possum again, this time by one of the hind feet. He brought the quiet, uncomplaining creature to me by its prehensile tail, and asked me what should be done with or for it. I concluded to make a hospital for it in one corner of my study. I made it a nest behind a pile of magazines, and fed and nursed it for several weeks. It never made a sound, or showed the least uneasiness or sign of suffering, that I was aware of, in all that time. By day it slept curled up in its nest. If disturbed, it did not "play possum," that is, did not feign sleep or death, but opened its mouth and grinned up at you in a sort of comical, idiotic way. At night it hobbled about the study, and ate the meat and cake I had placed for it. Sometimes by day it would come out of the corner and eat food under the lounge, eating very much after the manner of a pig, though not so greedily. Indeed, all its motions were very slow, like those of the skunk.

The skin of the opossum is said to be so fetid that a dog will not touch it. A dog is always suspicious of an animal that shows no fear and makes no attempt to get out of his way. This fetidness of the opossum is not apparent to my sense.



After a while my patient began to be troublesome by climbing upon the book-shelves and inspecting the books, so I concluded to discharge him from the hospital. One night I carried him to the open door by his tail, put him down upon the door-sill, and told him to go forth. He hesitated, looked back into the warm room, then out into the winter night, then thought of his maimed feet, and of traps in holes where unsuspecting possums live, and could not reach a decision. "Come," I said, "I have done all I can for you; go forth and shift for yourself." Slowly, like a very old man, he climbed down out of the door and disappeared in the darkness. I have no doubt he regained his freedom with a sigh. It is highly probable that, if a trap is set in his way again, he will put his foot in it as innocently as before.

One day in March one of my neighbors brought to me a handful of young possums, very young, sixteen of them, like newly born mice. The mother had been picked up dead on the railroad, killed, as so often happens to coons, foxes, muskrats, and woodchucks, by the night express. The young were in her pouch, each clinging to its teat, dead. The young are carried and nursed by the mothers in this curious pocket till they are four or five weeks old, or of the size of large mice. After this she frequently carries them about, clinging to various parts of her body, some with their tails wound around hers.

The next winter, two or more possums and a skunk took up their quarters under my study floor. It was not altogether a happy family. Just what their disagreements were about, I do not know, but the skunk evidently tried to roast the possums out. The possums stood it better than I could. I came heartily to wish they were all roasted out. I was beginning to devise ways and means, when I think the skunk took himself off. After that, my only annoyance was from the quarreling of the possums among themselves, and their ceaseless fussing around under there, both day and night. At times they made sounds as if they were scratching matches on the under side of the floor: then they seemed to be remaking or shifting their beds from one side to the other. Sometimes I think they snored in their sleep. One night, as I was going from the house to the study, I heard a rustling in the dry leaves and grass, beside the path. Lighting a match, I approached the spot, and found one of the possums just setting out on his night's excursions. I stooped down and stroked his head and scratched his back, but he did not move; he only opened his mouth a little and looked silly.

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