Family lessons from Big Mama the possum

When a mother possum and babies moved into the yard, they were a lot like human family.

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    Out on a limb: Opossums are found in many parts of the United States and in southeastern Canada.
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When I first noticed an opossum feasting on mash in our chicken coop, I ran upstairs to Google it. In our yard we have six free-range hens, and I searched to find out if this rattail visitor could be trusted.The reviews were mixed. One site said it was a myth that the docile marsupial raids chicken coops, another listed poultry in its diet. Both agreed the opossum has more teeth than any other North American mammal. I hurried outside to chase off the potential predator, and, like Alice, it disappeared down a rabbit hole.

My main concern wasn't that this nocturnal nomad would attack the younger hens, who slept in a secure hutch, though not by choice. Each evening I had to pluck them from the plum tree. It was Black Hen, the 15-year-old matriarch of the clan, for whom I felt concern. She had a drooping top mop of white feathers and couldn't see trouble coming. Nor could she fly. At dusk she settled down in the grass until I put her to bed. But what if I was running late and the opossum got to her first?

I'd heard that a good way to rid a yard of gophers is to stick a garden hose into their tunnel. I decided to try this with the opossum. The next day I positioned the hose and was about to turn the water on when I felt impelled to lift the stone under my feet, covering another hole. Moving it, I gasped. Curled beneath it lay a mother opossum and four tiny gray babies. Their pink noses sniffed in alarm at the sunshine pouring into their sanctuary. Now what?

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I called my husband, who offered no help. Because the opossums had landed in our yard, he actually felt it was somehow his job to provide these rat-size babies with the food they needed to grow cat-size! Every night he began setting out a veritable feast.

"The Web said food shouldn't be left out for wild animals," I noted as he grabbed a peach from the fruit bowl. "Especially not food that costs $1.99 a pound."

"Oh, but they're so cute!" my teenage daughter said.

The mother opossum, or Big Mama as they called her, cautiously lumbered out and consumed the peach in giant gulps. One by one, each baby shyly ventured to the patio, grabbed some leftover pasta and ran under a bush to eat. My husband loudly cheered as if watching a sporting match. "You can do it!" he encouraged a baby that hauled off an entire banana.

I admit that the little ones were cute. But seeing Big Mama's teeth sink into peach flesh, I became paranoid about Black Hen. Most sensible prey animals hide in silence if they sense danger; chickens announce their plight. More than once that hot summer I rushed outside as the hens cackled in alarm, only to find Big Mama nonchalantly drinking from the water bowl.

One night when my husband wheeled the garbage cans to the curb, he spooked two babies, who scurried up the side of our house and clung desperately below the eaves. After an hour passed and they hadn't moved, he donned leather gloves, climbed a ladder, and set them safely in a cat carrier. Back on solid ground, the hero took pictures as the "cute" creatures hurried home, reminding me of the road-trip photos my daughter had shown me of "cute" squirrels eating from her hand.

"I've told you not to let them get so close to you!" I scolded. Was Big Mama saying the same thing to her wayward duo about us humans? I felt my attitude toward her soften. It isn't easy raising kids, and then, all too soon, they grow up and move on. First, it was just four adolescent opossums coming for a nightly snack. Then two, then none.

The hens are quieter now. So is the house now that our daughter has left for college. "There's nothing good on," my husband says with a sigh as he absently flips through the channels, longing for reruns of Opossum TV.

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