Opossum

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For those of you who, like me, haven’t really had much to do with opossums, here is some basic info:

  • They are about the size of a house cat.
  • They have a long tail which seems to be a bit like a rats in that it’s furless.
  • Their feet have what is essentially an opposable thumb so they can clasp things.
  • They adapt to a wide range of environments but prefer places which provide some cover.
  • They are nocturnal and solitary.
  • In the wild they life about a year but in captivity this goes up to a massive 10 years.
  • The opossum is a marsupial, in fact it’s North America’s only marsupial.

When threatened, the opossum curls up and plays dead and this is the source of the American saying “to play possum”.  To make their death seem even more real, they can emit a scent which smells like death and also foam from the mouth.  They don’t actually have control over this reaction, it’s an unconscious response to fear.  The opossum is here to give you a nudge to examine your own unconscious reactions.  It might be how you react when afraid, or it could be how you respond when angry or when someone pushes that button that enrages you.  Opossum may also be here to teach us that there is a time for inaction, a time when not doing something is better than doing something.  Less prominent but perhaps still a good reminder is not to judge by appearance.  Also, be aware of people deceiving you.

Despite their fairly unique approach to danger, they can also run quite fast and climb well.  A third option if they are attacked is to make themselves look more dangerous than they are – they hiss, arch their back and bare all 50 of their teeth.  Essentially, they have a range of options in their toolbox and they are adept at choosing what is best for the situation in front of them, unless playing dead chooses for them.  Try and find a range of ways of responding to challenges and you’ll fare much better.

Much mythology explains the behaviour and characteristics of animals and with the opossum, both their habit of playing dead and their prehensile tail are explained by a Cherokee story.  Once upon a time the Opossum had a fluffy, bushy tail, a bit like a Squirrel’s.  But Opossum was vain and demanded admiration for his tail.  Over time this got boring and draining and no one really wanted to admire it anymore.  Rabbit decided enough was enough and set out to trick Opossum.  Rabbit sent Cricket to style the tail and whilst it was being brushed Opossum fell asleep.  When he woke, his tail was wrapped in ribbon and later that day, the ribbons were removed and revealed a tail which was no longer fluffy and bushy like Squirrel’s.  Instead it was as bald and scaly as Snake.  Opossum fainted with the shock and the shame and to this day, when Opossum is shocked, scared or ashamed, he will faint.

This story highlights the moral issues around vanity and pride but interestingly, when the Europeans began to colonise they saw the opossum as versatile, adaptable and maternal.  Perhaps their maternal reputation came about from their big broods, up to 13 babies, which climb into their mum’s pouch as teeny tiny creatures.  Once they are bigger, they ride around on mum’s back, creating a comical sight that screams motherhood.  In some parts of Mexico, their tails are eaten to improve fertility.

As an interesting aside, the male opossum has a forked penis and, to match, the female has a bifurcated vagina.  This led people to speculate that the males impregnated females via the nose…

As well as having lots of children at once, they also have a lot of litters.  This, combined with a flexible diet and adaptability mean the opossum makes a successful coloniser and can live well in a wide range of places, under differing conditions.  Change is not something that the opossum need fear, they have the tools and ability to cope well with it.  Humans are less embracing so channelling the opossum can create a healthier response.

Grip and dexterity are important parts of the opossum’s life; are you holding on too tightly to something that is unhelpful? Are you grasping at straws? Are you grasping things easily?  As well as their clasping opposable thumbs, they have their prehensile tail which, in addition to being used as a tool, is also used to balance.  This brings in possible questions around equality, about harmony and about stability.  This could be in your environment, in your emotional life, your family life and so on.

Like so many rodent-esque creatures, these guys are misunderstood. Their reputation as pests overlooks their role in pest management, in keeping rubbish levels down and even slow down the spread of lyme disease.  Far from being unclean, they spend a lot of time grooming themselves.

They have an interesting history, having seen dinosaurs – they are one of the oldest mammals on record – they existed in north America, then left and then re-enterered to take the place of north america’s only marsupial.

To survive this long requires excellent adaptation, in the case of the opossum this includes having a reduced tendency to contract rabies and immunity to poison and venom.  For example, they can survive attacks from the pit viper which would normally cause a quick death from haemorrhaging but this marsupial is able to block the activity of the enzyme which causes the damage and can thus neutralise the toxic effect.  Size and deadliness really doesn’t matter when it comes to the opossum and the snake!

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