Opossum Particulars

No rodent, this pascal packs a paunch.

Although it doesn’t have the cachet of the kangaroo or the cuddliness of the koala, the Virginia opossum is the only native North American member of that strange order of non-placental mammals, Marsupialia. Like other marsupials, the opossum has a pouch in which it nurtures its young, and an exceedingly small brain. Didelphis virginiana is found in abundance in every county in Virginia and has adapted well to both suburban and urban environments primarily due to the fact that as an omnivore, it is not particularly choosy about its diet. Insects, earthworms, carrion, small mammals, fruits, berries, and various plants as well as household garbage all provide sustenance.

Each year the opossum produces one or two litters averaging eight or nine baby opossums. In the 13-day gestation period, the opossums develop functioning lungs and digestive tracts. Newly born opossums are smaller than honeybees, so much so that 20 could fit into a spoon. Shortly after birth they are capable of climbing unassisted into the mother’s pouch where they attach themselves to one of 13 teats. The infants are weaned about three months after birth.

The Virginia opossum is widely and unfairly reviled for its rodentlike appearance (the opossum is not a member of the order Rodentia), but is actually shy and relatively harmless. “Playing possum” as any school-child knows, is the opossum’s last and best protection. When frightened, the animal falls over with its limbs partially extended, assumes a semirigid state, and opens its mouth with its tongue slightly protruded. Biologists believe that this action is not an act, but an actual physiological response to danger as the opossum lowers its heart rate and may breathe only once every 30 seconds or so.

The defense mechanism works well against its natural predators such as bobcats, coyotes, wolves and foxes, but does not fare as well against automobiles.

While not regarded by most as a delicacy, the opossum is absolutely edible. Virginia folk wisdom holds that Didelphis virginiana is best prepared by trapping the animal live and feeding it bread for a few weeks in an effort to de-grease the flesh. Those who feel that the refrigerator is a more appropriate place than a backyard pen to warehouse one’s potential dinner dish may take comfort that the opossum may not be as fatty as commonly thought.

Calvin W. Schwabe in his classic Unmentionable Cuisine asserts that the meat has considerably more protein and less than a third of the fat of a T-bone steak. Simply clean the carcass, carefully removing intact the four musk glands near the legs, and substitute opossum in your favorite raccoon recipe. Alternatively, it may be prepared like pork; and as with pork, the Virginia opossum has a great affinity for sweet potatoes.

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