Playing Possum

Late Sunday night, I went outside to add something messy to the garbage my husband had already rolled to the curb. And what to my wondering eyes should appear? A small—not baby, maybe teenage—opossum, backlit by a streetlight in the autumn mist, its pointy little face and long tail silvery white.

“No,” I hissed at him. “Get out of the street.” (I instinctively imagined him as male, perhaps because his body is so dissimilar to my own. Or maybe patriarchy holds with possums, too.)

He braced himself and stayed put, like a protester determined to resist arrest. Or a teenager.

I moved forward like I was crossing a rope bridge in the jungle. Did opossums bite? Visualizing sharp pointy teeth from photographs, I decided, yeah, they probably did, especially if antagonized. So I stayed well back and did a wacky shooing dance that no doubt amused the elderly woman across the street (I saw a curtain twitch). “Go,” I pleaded. “It’s not safe for you here. A car might show up out of nowhere and drive right over you.” I have known people who would do it on purpose.

As I continued to speak, softly and urgently, the opossum’s muscles unclenched (in us, it would have been a sigh of resignation), and he slowly ambled out of the street and climbed up onto the sidewalk. A screech owl made a hideous noise, and I wondered if that was what had scared the opossum into the street in the first place. Maybe he was temporarily blinded by the streetlights, frozen in a place he falsely believed safe. What I chose to believe, of course, was that we had transcended the species barrier: He had heard me, felt me, and was sufficiently moved by my concern to return to true safety.

Unless the screech owl was about to pounce.

The opossum was invisible now, tucked into gray shadows. I hurried inside and Googled screech owls. They have a taste for shrews and deer mice (whew) but will also eat bugs, frogs, rabbits, chipmunks, and (uh-oh) squirrels. This opossum was about the size of a fat squirrel, if the squirrel’s plume of a tail were solid flesh instead. It was quite possible that I, the robed Lady of the Woodland Creatures, had just gently ushered a possum to his death.

We cannot be responsible for the horrific outcomes of good deeds, I told myself, and kept Googling. Opossums are more likely to growl, hiss, and show their teeth (fifty of them, all sharp) than they are to bite. They are “relatively placid,” as eager to avoid confrontation as I am. Unless cornered.

I was wrong to call him a possum, by the way; that name belongs to the Australian version. And to T.S. Eliot, nicknamed Old Possum by Ezra Pound. Both are marsupials (American and Australian possums, not Eliot and Pound). I always find marsupials endearing, that cozy tucking of the baby into the pouch. Even more endearing: Opossums gobble up what we revile—snails, slugs, spiders, cockroaches, rats, mice, and snakes, not to mention about 5,000 ticks, many of them disease-laden, every season. And they do not, under normal circumstances, attack pets, so my dog was wrong to cower back by the front porch for the entire encounter, staring at me with saucer eyes. (This, from a dog who once leaped into the Mississippi River at flood stage.)

I ran upstairs, absurdly proud to tell my husband that I had talked an opossum off the street. (We tend to love creatures others scorn; you should see our New Year’s Eve invite list.) I remember feeling almost this proud when I managed to convey to a Parisian bookseller that I wanted to bring home to my husband, mon mari, un videotape erotique mais (an equivocal gesture here) pas tres mal. And he understood and picked me out a mild film with a storyline and no endless closeups of body parts far better left to the imagination. Communicating nuance across a language barrier—even if that screech owl dives at you, you have a better shot than you do in the damned middle of the road at midnight—is a thrill and a relief. I was sure he knew I was on his side.

Is anthropomorphizing as dangerously naïve as scientists warn? If it keeps us from understanding a creature’s very different nature, of course, just as romanticizing a new love into fairytale perfection will set you up for a painful reckoning down the road. So why do we persist? Because it strengthens the feeling of connection. These are fleeting encounters. I will never need that possum to wash the dishes or take out the trash. But feeling kindred reminds me who I am, too—and how many basic experiences (paralyzing fear, a horror of screeching, a dazed reaction to urban life) we share. And that makes life less lonely.

Besides, sometimes they are wrong, those scientists who insist that we know nothing of a nonhuman animal’s nonexistent (so they say) inner life. Dogs have more emotional intelligence than many humans I have endured, not only distinguishing between happy and sad facial expressions but following up with different responses.

For years, philosophers have held humans up as the only animals who use symbols to create language. But when whales sing, we do not know the lyrics. Great apes can be taught to use sign language and lexigrams, and those are our systems; imagine what they do in their own. Egyptian fruit bats spend a lot of time arguing about food or where they sleep, complaining, and scolding—and they are more polite with bats of higher status. Cows, naturally gregarious, have distinct voices. Like hoboes, crows regularly warn other crows about particularly untrustworthy humans. Manatees warn each other of danger, too, and they call their offspring (maybe for dinnertime); they also have tones of voice, with whistles, squeaks, and chirps that are different for each individual. Harvard researcher Irene Pepperberg has shown that gray parrots can do probabilistic reasoning, understand categories, and delay gratification.

So who knows whether that opossum, a marsupial of the order Didelphimorphia endemic to the Americas, gave me a grateful, half-blind nod from the other side of the road? We are not exactly savvy about his species. Male opossums have a forked penis, which led European colonizers to declare that they impregnated females through the nose. So wrong. We are so often wrong. But we can at least shoo each other out of the street.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.