Playing Opossum in a Pandemic

An opossum, though not the one this column is about.

I was in downward dog when the old pooch started raising a ruckus in the yard.

He stopped after a third “No Bark!” but started up a few minutes later. Not his normal raspy through-the-fence missives warning passersby to continue passing by, these were guttural, darn near ferocious.

A subsequent chorus of admonitions from the living room quieted him down.

Finished, I bothered to walk to the back door. There sat Klaus in a parched brown patch that passes for grass during the rainy season. Not his normal spot. And he was facing the office, not his usual direction.

I flinched when I noticed the large gray and white creature slumped against the office. At first I thought the dog had finally achieved what has seemed his lifelong goal and caught a cat, though the woman he boards with swears he hung out in the same room with a cat once and didn’t care.

I took a second look. No, an opossum. And it sure looked dead.

“C’mon buddy,” I said, feigning calm. He shot up and ran to the house, a curious reaction given how he’d behaved the last time an opossum dared enter the yard.

That evening I’d heard Klaus and my old dachshund Bella (may she rest in peace) barking and running through the yard.

Looking out the door I saw an opossum standing on the inner ledge of the fence. Klaus jumped at the frozen critter, coming within a few inches of its long, curled tail.

“C’mon puppies,” I called. Bella came running. Klaus turned his head slowly, made eye contact, turned back, sat and stared. I called again. Left ear twitched. Otherwise nothing.

Yelling at the petrified opossum didn’t help. Neither did shaking Klaus’ bag of treats, usually a surefire solution. I picked up a small soccer ball, and — with visions of a wayward throw knocking the beast off the ledge and into the yard, making a bad situation Trumpian — I hurled it at the middle of the fence. For once my aim was true.

The action distracted Klaus. I called again and he ran inside but — realizing he’d been duped — stopped, turned and tried to run back out, slamming into the glass door I’d closed quickly.

The opossum was gone a few minutes later.

Klaus remained for hours, occasionally scratching at the glass, while Bella and I chilled on the couch.

I’d felt a tinge of guilt chasing the opossum away. The sole marsupials in the United States and Canada are not only harmless, they are beneficial, killing almost 95% of ticks they come across and cleaning up fruit left in yards.

I wondered if this could be the same creature who had walked with me part of the way home a few nights before.

Stumbling off the last train of the night after a raucous concert in Oakland, I was belting out one of my favorite songs (apologies to the people in the nearby houses) when I spied an opossum on the top of a stone fence that runs along a path next to the train tracks.

“How ya doin, little buddy?” I asked. The opossum walked the edge of the fence beside me to an intersection at the bottom of the hill where I had to cross the street. I’m not saying the opossum at my house was one and the same.

I just don’t know. Like, for example, so much when it comes to Covid-19.

This time I wondered, darkly, if Klaus came in eagerly because he’d already dispatched his victim. He didn’t have any blood on him, and from what I could tell neither did the opossum. But if he had attacked, I couldn’t be mad. He was just following his instincts. And he had tried to tell me something strange was happening, but I didn’t understand.

Heart racing, I forced myself to stay in the living room for ten minutes before looking again.

Gone. Crisis averted.

Then I glanced at the shed next to the office. There it was, looking just as dead as before.

They don’t call it playing opossum for nothing, I thought.

The creature looked up, moved one front leg, then another, but the back legs remained splayed out. The poor thing dragged its body toward a fence with no gate at the front of my property.

Do opossum also play injured? Or, more to the point, does their body take a while to recover from the involuntary catatonic state they go into when “playing dead,” and would this one recover if left alone, I wondered, hopefully.

If not, and if the injury was as bad as it seemed, it might end up stuck, and cornered. Then I remembered a small hole in the corner of the fence, big enough for a cat but not a Klaus. I wasn’t sure about an opossum.

To give it time and quiet I took Klaus for a walk. The opossum was most of the way through the hole when we returned. What if it got stuck in the fence, I worried?

I set a timer for an hour. When it went off, I glanced out my front window. A neighbor stood on the sidewalk staring into my neighbor’s yard.

I walked outside. The opossum had managed to drag its body onto the lawn, where it remained.

“I think it’s alive,” I remarked.

“Oh it’s alive,” he replied. “But not doing well.”

I told him what had happened and that I would call animal control if it was there the next day.

“Animal control on something that’s alive?” he asked.

“Yeah I don’t know. I’m pretty sure it won’t be here by tomorrow anyway,” I replied, again hopefully.

Sure enough, by the next morning it was gone. Across the street some of the weeds appeared to be tamped down. Maybe the opossum had made its way over there.

Later that week, while Klaus studied the hedge in front of a house on the corner a car stopped in the intersection. I looked to where the driver was looking. An opossum ran along the berm across the street.

But opossums are supposed to be nocturnal. Not for the first time I wondered if something had been wrong with it before the encounter with the dog, and my first thought was rabies.

Turns out they are known to venture out during the day for various reasons, including to forage for food, to mate, if their den is disturbed, or if they’re injured. And though opossum can get rabies they are less susceptible than most other animals due to a relatively lower body temperature.

One night a couple weeks later, as I went to turn out the backyard light before heading to bed, I looked up at the fence line. There in the glow from my neighbor’s outdoor light sat an opossum.

I chose to believe both were my opossum, now recovered, returned to show me she or he was alright.

What’s that, dear reader?

Poppycock, you say?

Possibly. But my after-the-fact wishful thinking doesn’t harm other human beings.

Unlike with Covid-19. We have ample evidence wishful thinking has made the deadly outbreak worse.

But we could still return to a somewhat normal existence within a few months if everyone wore a mask when near others and if we managed to socially distance. I mean everyone. Yes, including you, and for real this time.

We’ll probably never know. Smart enough to dominate nature in many respects, we are not smart enough to recognize we are just another species on this planet, and ultimately we do not call the shots.

Like with the opossum, nature will take its course.

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