Our Awesome Opossums

These Misunderstood Mammals Should Be More Welcome Than They Are 

It was war. A once amicable relationship between squirrels and a young opossum dwindled as quickly as their mango supply waned. It was the summer of 2019 and at their dining room table, the Keepax family of Sevilla Avenue held front row seats. 

It began innocently, says mom Laura Keepax, a Gables resident and biology science teacher for 22 years. “We found a baby opossum by our wall, and it was very sweet. We didn’t bother it. It had plenty of food, as we live under a fabulously large mango tree.” The possum, the size of a kitten, even got along with the family cat and dogs. Then came backyard scuffles beneath the mango tree, “and before we knew it was WWF every evening,” says Keepax.

At first, they thought it was cats fighting, says daughter Haley. But it was squirrels. “It was like a chittering. They would flick their tails rapidly, very vocal. The opossum, rather outnumbered, wasn’t so loud and kind of cackled back.” The idea was to put off the squirrels just long enough to head in for a steal. 

That, it turns out, was rare behavior for an opossum. “Opossums are actually rather docile, clean animals who groom themselves like a cat,” says local environmental specialist Amida Frey. “Their low body temperature means they do not carry rabies, and really they just want you to leave them be.” Them and their mangos, that is. The opossum will also “play dead,” an involuntary shutdown that mimics death by appearance – and the smell of a deceased animal. 

Smell is big for the opossum. Opossums navigate using their keen senses of smell and touch. Gables resident Marialena Lopez, whose first encounter with possums was over an outdoor bowl of cat food, agrees. No matter where she hid it, they would find it. “They are so ugly they are cute,” she says. “And I still don’t even know how to pronounce it. Does it start with the letter O or a P?” It turns out both are correct. What we see in the Gables is the Virginia Opossum. The word comes from the native-American Algonquian term for “white dog” or “white beast.” The possum, however, hails from Australia. 

This past year, opossum opinions have been all over Nextdoor, an app platform for Gables neighbors. Many posts are in their favor. Ale Evans on Granada Boulevard, in his post entitled “Yard Angels,” says we need them. Turns out opossums are nocturnal scavengers who eat insects (cockroaches, crickets, and beetles), as well as rats, mice, snakes, dead animals, and rotting fruit. Resident Elena Mendes posted opossum trivia following one neighbor’s worry that the creatures were using their pool as a giant toilet. (The actual culprit, caught green-handed on camera, was an iguana). Other posts come from citizens who find opossums injured or orphaned. Since it’s illegal to keep one without a wildlife permit, any you find injured must be taken to a certified wildlife rehabilitator (CWF). Fortunately, we have Pelican Harbor and Seabird Station on the 79th Street corridor in Miami Beach, available 24/7 to accept all native species of animals. In 2020 they treated about 50 opossums from Coral Gables. 

As for me, this summer my neighbor Rodrigo Nieto sighted an opossum family crossing his fence into my yard, with two baby opossums riding the original Gables Freebie, momma’s back. Word on the street from the Keepax family is that it could be the same opossum, now grown up. Regardless, a housewarming gift was in order. At Publix I bought them one. Rhymes with tango, but you already guessed that. 

Don’t try to nurse an opossum back to health if you find one injured. Gables residents can take it to Pelican Harbor and Seabird Station at the following address:
1279 NE. 79th Street, Miami
Call before coming: 305-751-9840
Or text a photo of the animal to 786-459-9155