Playing Opossum

I AM NO LONGER as impressed with bloodhounds as I once was.

Turns out their job of tracking opossum is hardly the challenge one might have expected—in the heady days before one actually smelled one’s first opossum.

Opossums, as it turns out, really stink. Really really really. Like four-day-old fish dragged through a swamp. Like damp toes left in mouldering wool socks. Like your little brother the first time he tried out the Old Spice. If you need a dog to hunt opossum, you’re just plain lazy. Or stuffed up.

I know this scent intimately because an opossum has moved into my garage. Brian, the guy who has helped us fix up our house for the last 10 years, found it at the bottom of a Rubbermaid bin where we were storing odd bits of wood. “Imagine my surprise,” he said. Brian is an unflappable sort of fellow.

We slowly tipped over the bin and watched the opossum waddle out. They look in life as they do in cartoons, which until last week was the only other place I’d ever seen one. Optimistically described as “about the size of a house cat” on the DNR website, my personal opossum was a big’un, and that ratty old tail makes it twice as long, especially if you are the type of person who measures a spider’s size with its legs fully extended.

The opossum’s little pink feet bothered me. They appear to be webbed, which I find annoying. I am also not pleased about the whole prehensile tail thing. In fact, anything attached to anything prehensile can just stay the heck out of my house and outbuildings, thank you very much.

This particular opossum was quite insouciant and strolled about the garage in a leisurely manner, stopping now and then to cast us a knowing glance with an expression that seemed to say, “And you are….?” He would make a great five star hotel desk clerk, this opossum.

Although he was unattractive and also marsupial, I still worried about him. The middle of the city seems an inhospitable place for such a critter. We debated. Neighbors arrived. We debated some more. The opossum settled in the garden to watch us. We thought he might be happier in the woodlands, so I fixed him some peanut butter toast and put it in the hav-a-heart live trap. He waddled in there, picked up the toast, and waddled out.

He nursed his sandwich near the hosta for a while and then disappeared. We hoped he hitched a ride southward on a garbage truck. But the next day when I walked into the garage, a distinctive odor greeted me. “That thing is back,” I said to Brian.

He nodded. “There are little muddy paw prints all over my table saw.” Three times we cast him out and three times he returned. I suppose he was trying to hibernate.

But he’s clearly gone. The air in the garage is much less pungent. For a while it ranked right up there with sweaty hockey equipment left overnight in a station wagon.

A trapping website says when you catch them you generally find their little naked ears and feet frostbitten because they aren’t used to northern climes. That is so sad. Why don’t they all go back to Virginia? The same website also says opossums are one of two types: homebodies who stick to 40 acres and never leave, or travelin’ guys, who roam restlessly and never settle down. Hopefully, mine was the latter, and he’s hit the road again, aiming for Shakopee by nightfall. Palladin, the opossum.

This first appeared in the Southwest Journal, November 20, 2006, p. 8.

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