Possums at the Cat Sanctuary

Priscilla King

© Copyright 2023 by Priscilla King

Photo by Skyler Ewing at Pexels.
Photo by Skyler Ewing at Pexels.

Get away! Leave my cats alone!” I screamed. The possum scrambled over the side of the porch.

The possum facing my half-grown cat had looked four or five times the cat’s size. In 1993 I was not accustomed to possums; locally, they’d been hunted almost to extinction in the days when everyone kept free-range chickens. I associated them with the Deep South and thought they were unbearably ugly. 

But my cat looked blandly at me as if to ask, “What’s the matter with you?” She had caught a mouse and arranged a tidy little pile of inside parts on the porch.

Not on the porch, please,” I said, fetching a broom to sweep them over the side.

My cat took note. After that the killed mice, and parts of mice, were always left on the ground. She continued, though, to use food treats to train the possum.

During the next few weeks the cat showed me that she was not intimidated by the possum’s size. She usually made friends of other animals, and she regarded the possum as a pet. It came and went on cues from her, disposed of the mice the cat was always catching and killing, and left the kitten, the cardinals, and the house snake alone.

The snake and the cardinals’ ancestors had lived at the house before I did, long before it became a Cat Sanctuary. The snake avoided humans. (Mother later confessed that he’d always “given her the willies” but, knowing that he killed any venomous snake in the neighborhood and ate a few rodents as well, she’d always tried to act as if she appreciated his residence in the attic. Most years, all we saw of him was a snakeskin, longer each year, somewhere around the attic door. The cardinals weren’t really pets, but they lived in the hedge and ate insects in springtime.

In fact the house was not yet a Cat Sanctuary. It became one only when it was dedicated to the memory of the brave little cat who made pets of possums. That’s another story. My parents never kept a cat. The orchard near the house attracted all kinds of mice, rats, and squirrels. That was why the cat, who got a measure of kibble twice a day and occasional table scraps, caught so many mice and used them to impress other animals.

First Possum was toward the large end of the size range for Didelphis virginianus, presumably male. The species has a wide size range, and males don’t necessarily grow bigger than their mates, but the biggest males can weigh close to 15 pounds while the biggest females weigh less than 10 pounds. Many adult possums are smaller than an adult cat.

The name “possum” or “opossum” comes from an Algonquian word said to mean “a white animal.” Most possums’ coats are a drab pale gray color. Some individuals are dark gray, black, or even ginger, and I’ve seen one with patches of black, whitish, and ginger fur.

Speaking of possum fur, the animals’ habits are not likely to make anyone want to handle their fur or them, but when spinning wool was introduced to Cherokee country from Britain, some Cherokees tried keeping possums in cages, forcing cleaner lives on the animals, and then spinning their fur with wool to make a softer, lighter thread. The inner coat is said to be very soft and fluffy.

First Possum was soon joined by a smaller possum I called Pogo, though it was probably the female. Possums are normally strictly solitary but the cat seemed to summon those two at the same time. They didn’t “act like a couple” in human terms. Possums are not known for pair bonding. They are genuinely asocial, rather than being mostly solitary, territory-respecting hunters like cats. First Possum and Pogo were friendlier than most possums, in public; I’d see them enter the yard from different directions and find food treats left within a few yards of each other.

I looked up these and other facts about possums at the library. Adult cats and possums usually respect each other and leave each other alone, I learned. If cornered a possum may bite, and its fifty teeth can do some damage. If not cornered, possums are almost never aggressive. They are a composter species, built to eat dung and carrion. They survive exposure to all the disease germs this diet contains by having a peculiar metabolism; they are warm-blooded, but not so warm as other warm-blooded animals, and disease germs that infect other animals don’t last long if they try to infest possums. (Disease germs do, however, cling to possums, so you wouldn’t want to touch one.) Except for one rare protozoan infection that can spread from possums to horses, possums actually spread almost no diseases—provided that other creatures leave a good healthy distance between possums and themselves.

Possums are slower than most of the prey animals they eat when they do manage to catch one, smaller and weaker than most of the other animals that might consider eating them. Looking ugly and smelling nasty are their main defense. Many other animals could kill possums but, since most animals kill only what they eat, relatively few possums are killed by other animals.

Learning these facts made me feel more comfortable with the fact that my cat was unmistakably making pets of these possums. Humans are not the only living things that form cross-species bonds. Dogs and horses are more likely to have pets of their own than cats are, but I happened to have adopted an unusually social cat. Her predatory instincts made her enjoy hunting. She seldom ate much, if any, of her prey. She found that the possums were willing to dispose of mice for her, and she chose to supply them with mice. My parents had tried to control mice with traps and poison baits, and failed, for years. I was grateful for anything that thinned the rodent population.

My cat also adopted kittens. She’d adopted one “baby sister” even before the night she spent in veterinary surgery. At the clinic, the vet said, she’d shown an interest in some orphan kittens the vet had reared to an adoptable age, so wouldn’t I like to adopt them? Well, they were free of charge. And after the two big ones had found permanent homes, there were more kittens.

The second year, one of the kittens was mostly white with gray and orange patches in her long thick hair. She did not answer to the name of Calico, but answered to a general “kitty, kitty” call if she was hungry. She was not social, or very easy to love. She liked being petted but snarled and sulked if I petted other cats too. She spent a lot of time sulking. In the autumn there was a noise under the porch. Apparently Calico had objected to First Possum wintering there, and First Possum slashed her hind leg with some of his fifty teeth.

A few nights later, in the gathering dusk, I thought I saw Calico coming in late for dinner, moving slowly and stiffly as if the leg hurt. “Come on, kitty, kitty,” I crooned. The pale fluffy animal hesitated, then scrambled up onto the porch-- “Possum?” Yes, it was First Possum, now an old arthritic animal, triumphantly claiming the place of the disagreeable cat who had moved out for good. People who didn’t want other cats admired Calico’s coat, and since Calico behaved nicely enough when she had someone’s admiration all to herself, I expect she lived happily ever after. First Possum lived out his old age comfortably enough, holed up under the porch in winter, answering to “kitty, kitty” and getting a few kibbles at dinnertime. After the January freeze we saw no more of him.

But Pogo failed to look both ways before crossing the road, as possums sometimes do, and was run over. The cat who’d made a pet of Pogo recognized the body and seemed distraught that Pogo was past curing. She had been overconfident about cars before Pogo was run over; she developed a healthy fear of moving vehicles afterward.

After First Possum and Pogo I thought the place was possum-free. I was wrong. The next fall’s first frosts brought in a very small black possum, with one long white eyebrow whisker. The cats trapped her in a cage I called “Cat Jail,” where kittens were confined when they were in someone’s way; it had a simple chip-on-a-nail latch the cats knew how to work. The possum didn’t faint, nor did it hiss or whirl and jump in a threat display. She looked up as if to say “You wouldn’t hurt me, would you?”

Something ticked over in my consciousness. I thought that possum was cute. I wouldn’t hurt her. She got a few kibbles when the cats had their meals, too. She grew a little bigger, but not much. And, next summer, she let me see just a glimpse of her babies—something like a small black mouse with white paws. He eventually grew almost as big as First Possum.

For a long time I only ever saw one possum approach the house in any given season. The ones the cats trusted as friends were offered names, though I never felt positive that they understood that they had names, as distinct from learning that food might be available when I raised my voice. In fact I only felt sure that one of them answered to a distinct call rather than just approaching the house at a certain time of night (possums are nocturnal and keep a regular schedule, with variations depending on what’s edible from day to day).

We had a few possums the cats distrusted, for good and sufficient reason. Some possums will kill and eat kittens. I was able to rehome some possums. A few seemed to be untrustworthy because of illness or ill-nature, or both, and had to be put down. Nevertheless, our resident cats have been a social cat family, and the tradition of cats treating possums as pets has continued. I’ve not told the cats which individual possums they should and should not trust. I take my cues from them.

So, one year there was Pearl, a pearl-gray possum who came when the line “Pearl, Pearl, Pearl” (as sung by Flatt & Scruggs) was sung. Possums are not motivated to answer to calls in order to amuse humans, although Pearl did. She had a small snout suitable for getting cans of vegetables really clean, and I called her when I had a can, or cans, for her to clean. I never told the recyclers whom to thank.

For three years there was Alfred, the biggest possum of all. From a distance he could be mistaken for a terrier and once, when I walked up the road late at night, he trotted at my heels like one, too. Alfred was, as a joke, named after a human. The human Alfred didn’t think the joke was very funny at first, but eventually endorsed the name. If a possum had to be named after him, at least it was not only a big one but a clever one, and a long-lived one, too!

Later there was Pally, a small possum who really seemed to want to be a cat. Pally used the cat door into a seldom-used room in the house, and the cats didn’t mind. At least once Pally rubbed up against my ankle, like a cat, reminding me it was time for dinner.

Prance wasn’t much of a pet, but it did have long legs and a three-colored coat, reminding me to tell The Nephews the old Cherokee fable about the possum’s scaly tail. The possum, they say, was once a much better looking animal, with long legs and a gorgeous plumy tail. This made the possum vain, to the point it they lost all the good manners animals instinctively have in fables. The other animals’ discontent attracted, or resolved itself into, some sort of uproar. What happened depends on who is telling the story. When it was over the possum found itself hopping around on short clumsy legs, shaking a short scaly tail, to cure its vanity.

Not too many summers ago, we finally saw another pair of possums. They seemed to live in separate dens and visit the house at different times. Parva, the little one, came up through the yard around sunset, and Dorsa, the big one, liked to check that all the cans in the recycling were completely clean around three o’clock in the morning. Dorsa had a dark dorsal stripe.

However, summer fruit altered the possums’ routes, and one evening Dorsa came out early and joined the cats at dinner. Were they safe, I wondered. One of the cats noticed my concern and very deliberately, as if to relieve my mind, walked over beside the big possum as he was eating, stood up on her hind legs to reach over his shoulder, and slapped him. Dorsa didn’t seem to mind at all. How did I know that that cat wasn’t really jealous about food, that she was mindfully showing me that this much larger animal was her pet? I could tell by her body language, of course, even before Dorsa ignored the slap and the cat ignored Dorsa’s continuing to eat kibble. I put out another serving. Dorsa did not share the cats’ dinner again.

The current resident possum has not shown itself to me yet, but it comes out to inspect the recycling around midnight, and the cats like and trust it. That’s all I need to know.

What all the possums have had in common is that, apart from any treats of uneaten mice, kibble, or traces of food stuck to the bottoms of cans, they eat...a lot of things, actually. Possums are omnivores. They eat mice when they can catch one. Some of them respect and appreciate cats enough that they don’t bother kittens, but I never heard of a possum that hesitated to eat any baby poultry it could catch; they can and will reach up through chicken wire, so baby chickens’ boxes need to rest an inch or so above a solid base. They adore soft sweet fruits and eat little else during cherry, peach, plum, or persimmon season. And they clean out vermin like roaches, and if the house snake ever let a venomous snake live long enough a possum might eat that too. But let’s just say that there is a sand pit under the porch, for the cats. Before the possums moved in, it needed to be cleaned out by a human every few days. Since the possums have moved in, it’s stayed clean.

Possums aren’t very pretty, nor are they very smart, and they have no instinct to cuddle or enjoy cuddling if anyone ever wanted to touch them, which one wouldn’t. But they are very nice to have around.

Priscilla King’s reader-funded blog about books, her cats, life in general, and the weekly winners of the Adorable Adoptable Pet Photo contest, is at https://priscillaking.blogspot.com

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