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Look who's come to town: Toronto's new Opossum Posse

Not too long ago, Richard Drygas of Port Credit set a trap for what he thought was a raccoon in his garage. The next night (after having caught and released his own cat), he heard the trap spring and went to check what he had captured.

"It had a tail like a rat, short fur and a pointy snout with really sharp teeth," he says. "The pork spare rib we had used for bait was stripped bare and shiny." Because he had never seen one before, it took a few seconds for Drygas to realize that he was looking at a caged opossum. He released it in the Credit River gorge, and it has not returned, but other stories of opossum encounters are popping up around the GTA.

As recently as 1996, the Audubon Field Guide to North American Mammals did not include Ontario as part of the opossum's territory. However, states Ontario's Ministry of Natural Resources, "although native to the southeastern U.S., these marsupials have progressively moved northward and are now common through most of southern Ontario."

About as big as a midsized raccoon, the Virginia Opossum (Didelphis virginiana) is the only North American marsupial outside Mexico. This means the mother opossum rears her newborn babies in a pouch, like a kangaroo; later, they cling to her back. The opossum has bristly-looking grey fur, black ears and eyes, and a big pink nose, but its most recognizable feature is its long naked pink tail. An easy-to-please omnivore, it happily forages for bugs, berries, dead animals and anything that humans eat.

Opossums can survive the Canadian winter, but their tender little hairless ears and other extremities are prone to frostbite, so when it's cold they take to makeshift burrows rather than their habitual treetops. Notwithstanding the pointiness of their 50 teeth, they are apparently not at all likely to bite people. Their primary means of defence include either showing their teeth and snarling or "playing possum": rolling over and playing dead. They are reportedly resistant to rabies, and since they're generally nocturnal, they don't draw much attention to themselves.

The first local reports were mainly west of Toronto. On Valentine's Day about five years ago, urban wildlife enthusiast Tanya Hannah Rumble spotted one on her Hamilton front lawn. "It was eating some havarti cheese that had been thrown away," she says. "It was pretty adorable, I have to say; it was a nice Valentine's Day present."

"Currently I have one living under my shed," says nature lover Rob Mueller, author of the blog Rob and the Animals, who lives on the border of Etobicoke near Scarlett Road and St. Clair. He first spotted "Virginia", as he has named it, one afternoon last winter. "I have about 10 bird feeders out back, and one day I noticed a large grey thing under the feeder eating the Nyjer seed, and I thought 'That's a pretty odd-looking squirrel.'"

Virginia mainly appears after midnight. "I actually saw her last week on my driveway with a raccoon; I don't know what was going on," he says. "They were both sitting there, and when the headlights came up they both ran off the same way."

Writer Aefa Mulholland was downstairs in her Parkdale home when she heard "a succession of startlingly loud cracking noises." When she investigated, she found "a tiny wee furry thing � maybe seven or eight inches long � crunching down the plate of cat food I'd left out."

When it spotted her, the opossum fled. "She fell over backwards in a flower bed with her tiny legs in the air, righted herself and ran away, all the while baring her teeth and making a shrill but menacing noise. She was tiny, but she was fierce."
When the opossum became a repeat visitor, Mulholland christened it "Morag" and continued to leave cat food outside. "She'd have a few bites, then burrow back under the fence to the empty yard next door to eat it, coming back every few minutes for another mouthful," Mulholland says.
"I started messing with her and moving the cat food bowl between each round. Her cat food-smelling abilities were outstanding. It only took her two or three seconds to locate the cat food each time. She got used to me, I suppose, although I wouldn't say she ever became friendly. I'd have my coffee on the doorstep; she'd crunch her way through her cat food four or five feet away," Eventually, though, the visits came to an end.

Once a rarity in Ontario, opossums are now regularly turning up from High Park to Scarborough; Alexandra Hood of ParkblogTO "got spine tingles" when she saw one in a tree in the Music Garden last November. Scarborough resident Rob Snow often sees three using a makeshift trail through backyards near Midland and Eglinton.

"It's amazing what's out in this area; I've seen deer and fox and coyote, and I'm only about 12 minutes from downtown," says Mueller. "The way I look at it, we share the planet with them; they have to live, and I'm fine with that."

Sarah's writing explores the culture of food, fashion, urban life, environment and the arts. Her latest book is We Sure Can! How Jams and Pickles Are Reviving the Lure and Lore of Local Food.
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