The homely possum, lumbering and awkward in many ways, has a surprising number of beneficial attributes that elevate its status among Arkansas wildlife.
Perhaps the highest among those unique attributes is its penchant for dining on ticks. Pushing this sole North American marsupial even higher on the likability chart is its resistance to snake venom, except the coral snake, and hankering for eating said venomous snakes.
“If people knew how beneficial they are they wouldn’t shoot them,” said Patty Pyle of Booneville. “They get such a bad rap.”
Pyle, who happens to be my aunt, is really into animal rescue. She has a high number of rescue cats and built a house for them. She found a possum in the “cat house” once, after she realized the poop on the floor wasn’t coming from the cats. The possum had been sleeping under a recliner. (Cats need recliners.)
She ushered it out with a broom.
“They’ll hiss at you but they’re not aggressive. They’re very docile,” Aunt Patty said. “We like to have them around even if it’s just because they eat ticks. Between the snakes and ticks, I’d rather have the possum.”
Much to my surprise, these possums are not the rabies carrying varmint my narrow mind had previously considered them to be.
Louis Tinz, who is formerly licensed in wildlife rehabilitation and lives near Dover, said by phone Friday it is believed that the possum's body temperature keeps them from serving as hosts to the rabies virus. This is however, unless they get an infection that raises their body temp, she noted. They aren’t completely immune to rabies, she explained. They’re just less likely to get it than other mammals that tromp around in the wild.
Aunt Patty also likes possums because they eat mice, rats, slugs, snails, and dead animals on the side of the road. The poor possums are pretty much nature’s clean-up crew. That could be why they get hit on the road so much. They’re eating roadkill.
Although George Jones may have identified, the possum has had slim luck in obtaining a fan club. And it’s too bad, because they don’t even live that long — on average, just two years.
Tinz is a fan though, and she wishes some more possums were around her place to eat snakes. A baby copperhead bit her foot the other day and sent her to the hospital.
All of my mother, Judy’s, sisters — Donna, Barbara, Mary, Tanya and Patty — love animals. Aunt Mary used to have a pet skunk and a bearded dragon lizard. Aunt Barbara Clare, who has a cattle ranch and hostel outside of Magazine with her husband, Eddie, and some dogs and cats, has undoubtedly surpassed all of the six sisters with animal stories recently.
About a week ago, Aunt Barbara saved five possums from certain death. The momma possum had been hit by a car and lay dead in the middle of Highway 10 east of Magazine. She stopped and found two baby possums clinging to the mother’s back. She reached inside the marsupial’s pouch and extracted three more baby possums.
So now there were eight possums: Five from the road and three from the garage.
Just the day before, Aunt Barbara shooed a possum out of her garage and three baby possums were left behind.
“Momma possums don’t come back for the babies like cats do,” Aunt Patty explained.
They’re great for eating ticks and snakes, but possums, they are apparently not Green Berets.
With the eighth possum in hand, she called Aunt Patty, whose animal rescue credentials have earned her an honored spot among the region’s fabled animal rescue network. Aunt Barbara wasn’t quite sure what to do with them. She just knew she must save them thanks to Aunt Patty’s advice to “always stop and check for baby possums” if a dead possum is seen on the road.
Erin Cooksey, a local veterinarian assistant who is licensed in animal rehabilitation, said she gets a lot of calls about possums.
"Possums are the underdog, and they need some positive light," Cooksey said by phone from Davenport Veterinarian Hospital on Towson Avenue in Fort Smith. "They are misunderstood."
People with horses often do not like possums because of the creature's one apparent drawback: EPM (Equine protozoal myeloencephalitis.) Possums host the disease, passing the parasite through feces. Horses contract EPM from contaminated feed or water. Cooksey and Tinz both noted that horse owners who recognize the benefits of possums take care to keep grain, hay and water out of a possum's reach.
"If you see a possum it's usually just passing through, unless there's a food source," Cooksey said.
Although she specializes in rehabilitating raccoons, Cooksey said she is part of the Western Arkansas Wild Rescue Alliance and can promptly refer someone who needs help with an injured possum or abandoned baby possums. If possible, the animals will be released back into the wild. As Aunt Patty points out, the goal is to not make them into a pet.
The fastest way to reach Cooksey is through the Western Arkansas Rescue Alliance Facebook page. For those without internet, her number is (479) 806-6246.