Unlike the cliché, familiarity doesn't seem to breed contempt. It breeds indifference instead.
Why else would we take so little interest in one of the most fascinating of Alabama's wildife – the opossum?
That's opossum with an "o" and that "o" is important. To be technically correct, it's the Virginia – as in the State – opossum and that "Virginia" is important too.
The Virginia opossum got this common name from its Algonquian Indian name "apasum," meaning "white beast," and from the state where it was first given an English name in the early 1600's by Captain John Smith of the Jamestown Colony and Pocahantas fame.
The "o" is important because when British explorer James Cook, on his first voyage to Australia some 150 years after Captain Smith named them, encountered other cat-sized animals that nurtured their young in a pouch, his ship's naturalist erroneously assumed they were the same, or at least similar, species and called them opossums too.
It turns out that the Australian marsupials are not closely related to our opossums, so to prevent confusion, scientists now call all Australian species possums – no "o" -- to distinguish them from our opossums.
The "Virginia" is important because although we only have one marsupial species in the United States, more than 70 more species occur throughout Central and South America.
So in addition to our Virginia opossum, there are mouse opossums, slender opossums, water opossums, pygmy opossums, and woolly opossums, not to mention fat-, short-, thick-, and bushy-tailed opossums, plus my favorite -- four-eyed opossums.
They are all marsupials though -- animals that give birth to still developing embryonic pups and rear them for months in a pouch.
Virginia opossums are pregnant for only 12 days before giving birth to 10 to 50 of these pups, each about the size of a small bee or large ant. In order to survive, these deaf, blind, hairless fetuses have to crawl unaided the inch or so from their mother's birth canal into her pouch and find one of her 13 nipples.
As only 5-7 young are typically raised, many pups are lost along the way. For those lucky enough to find and attach to a nipple, their lips soon fuse together and for the next two months they remain fastened to that nipple 24/7. If dislodged, they will be unable to re-attach and will die.
Life is no picnic for an opossum pup.
By the time they are 3 to 4 months old, opossums have left the pouch for good and are on their own. Also by this time, they've acquired all those traits which make them such endearing creatures.
They have all 50 of their teeth – most of any American mammal -- which they use to eat your garbage, your pet's food if you leave it outdoors, or just about any food that won't eat them first. They have hind feet with opposable thumbs, and they are the only mammal native to the United States with a grasping prehensile tail.
Even as newly independent pups, they have all the intelligence they will ever have. What's that, you say? Opossum intelligence?
Yes, despite their undeserved reputation for stupidity and a brain that is only one-fifth the size of a cat's, opossums are better at remembering where food is hidden than are dogs, cats, or rats.
Opossums are probably most famous for "playing 'possum," that is pretending to be dead when threatened. Actually, as someone who has trapped, tagged, and released hundreds of opossums, I can say with some authority that they are much more likely to hiss, growl, and flash those 50 teeth than they are to collapse in a heap and play dead.
But for all their bluster, they are surprisingly hesitant to bite. They seldom bite pets and despite handling many, I've never been bitten, although not all my field assistants can say the same.
If this threat doesn't work, they may indeed keel over, drool, excrete foul-smelling liquid from their anal glands, and play dead.
They will continue to play dead pretty much regardless of what you do to them. Whether they really have fallen into some sort of opossum trance, fainted, or are just pretending, isn't clear. Electronic monitoring of their heart and brain activity shows no differences when they are playing dead compared to when they are normally active, so maybe they are just superb and dedicated actors.
One thing opossums don't have to play dead for is snakes. They are virtually immune to snake venom, thanks to a unique protein in their blood. So copperheads, water moccasins, and even large rattlesnakes are part of the standard opossum diet. Remember this the next time that you aren't bitten by a large rattlesnake. It's the opossum's form of public service.
Opossums need to get about the business of reproducing quickly – and they can do so as soon as 6 months of age -- because they won't live for long. For reasons that we don't understand they undergo a sort of accelerated aging, so that by the time they are 2 years old, they begin to show classic signs of aging such as wasting muscles, a declining immune system, and the development of cataracts.
Most wild opossums are actually dead before they are two years old and of more than one hundred I've put radio collars on and monitored throughout their lives, none has so far lived more than 3 years.
Despite these fascinating traits, opossums will no doubt continue to get little respect. I'm not sure why.
They do not carry rabies or other diseases that people need to worry about. With their long snouts, toothy snarl, naked ears and rat-like tail, they certainly fail the "cute" test.
Maybe it's no more complicated than that.