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The Nature of Things

By Karissa Stokdal

Q: Please introduce and describe yourself.

A: Hi, I’m Chill Jill and a Didelphis virginiana, otherwise known as a Virginia opossum. Don’t let the name fool you though, my species’ habitat stretches from Canada to Central America! Personally, I am settled in my home town of Washington in Dutchess County. Our species have a grey body and a white head, but my nose, paws and tail are pink. We can grow to the size of a small house cat. Although bullies like to compare us to giant rodents, we are North America’s only marsupial!

Q: What’s in your diet?

A: As an omnivore, I eat all kinds of food, although I love to eat grains, fruits and other plants. I also eat frogs, eggs, insects and other small animals. One of my favorite foods is ticks and I can eat up to 5,000 of them in a single season! I am a master scavenger and once I find food, I’m very good at remembering where it is. Don’t be surprised if you find me hanging around your garbage cans at night; that’s my prime foraging time! I may look scary, but I shouldn’t frighten you. I am really only interested in finding food. I am practically immune to rabies and am eight times less likely to carry the disease than a wild dog. You don’t want me around your horse barn, however, since my feces can carry protozoa Sacrococystis neurona, which can contaminate feed, hay, water or pastures and can cause Equine Protozoal Myeloecephalitis (EPM). While EPM specifically affects horses and is perhaps the most dangerous as it impacts their central nervous system, as a general rule stay away from all animal feces. Inquisitive pets may contract Coccidiosis or Tularemia, while people may be at risk for Leptospirosis or Salmonella.

Q: What’s your personality like?

A: I am not aggressive and when I feel threatened, my natural defense is to roll over and play dead. This immobile state can last up to four hours, complete with muscle stiffness, a fixated stare and open mouth. If we ever meet in person, it’s best to leave me alone so we can skip this dramatic, yet Oscar-worthy performance.

Q: What’s your daily schedule?

A: Because I am a nocturnal animal, I prefer to spend my days sleeping in the woods. I’ll make my den in hollow trees, wood piles or even burrows dug by other animals. Since I am not a very good fighter, I change my nest frequently to avoid confrontation with predators. I do not hibernate, but I will extend my stay if it gets too cold or if I’ve just had babies. I am a busy mom, sometimes having three litters a year with eight to nine little opossums each, keeping my paws full! Like my kangaroo cousin, I carry my joeys in my pouch after they’re born and when they get too big, I’ll carry them on my back. They’ll stick around for about four months before going off on their own, just before the next breeding season!

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