Opossums over o’politics: replacing typical bumper stickers with marsupial matters.

I know this isn’t the first time I’ve created an entire blog post out of little more than the bumper stickers on the rear of someone else’s car.  Heck, one of those glib posts ended up becoming one of my most commented-upon articles. Typically, though, my goal is for bumper stickers merely to supplement or enhance a deeper point.  Not the case this time.  I am struggling to complete my goal of five articles in April, so time constraints prohibit me from doing something more profound.  Besides, I was extra charmed by this car’s bumper because, normally when a car hosts this many stickers, it strives to make a strident political point.  Not this time.  Unless that political point is possums.  Or, eschewing alliteration, opossums—the correct name for the creature as Americans know it.

Bumper stickers with Virginia opossums everywhere, in Virginia

I’m not as averse to North America’s only indigenous marsupial as many people are, but then, I think most people dislike opossums because they are, by general consensus, “unphotogenic”.  Their fur is wiry and unwelcoming.  Their eyes are black and penetrating.  Their hairless tails resemble those of a rat.  And their teeth are more abundant than any other land animal on this continent.  And it is this second-most famous defensive tool—the bearing of those 50 teeth in a slobbery hiss—that effectively intimidates enough humans who encounter them.  Even though the act looks like the behavior of an animal suffering rabies, opossums have a near zero chance of infection; their body temperature is too low to host the virus effectively, unlike most of the placental mammals with whom opossums share a habitat: foxes, raccoons, skunks, etc.  (Their most famous defensive tool—most people know what “playing possum” refers to—is more innocuous but also more disconcerting.  When they involuntarily faint, their parasympathetic nervous system even prompts breathing to slow, heart rate to drop, and the emission of a sort of musk, all of which resembles death, scaring away predators that do not scavenge.)  

But if we were to consider a list of charismatic megafauna from North America, the opossum would rank just about dead last.  It won’t appear as the token animal on any wildlife preservation campaign; it’s too ugly to evoke sympathy or to loosen wallets.  Then again, it isn’t remotely endangered in the United States, so there’s no novelty in the approximately forty states where it’s easy to find the animal.  And most people find them nasty, as though it was the notorious inspiration for the ROUS (rodents of unusual size) in the filmed version of The Princess Bride (1987).  To be fair, no opossum is as big as that critter was, and the action was too fast to determine if it had the appropriate dentition of a rodent.  Opossums lack those persistently growing, oversized incisors, so if the filmmakers modeled the ROUS after an opossum, then it should have been a DOUS (didelphimorphia of unusual size).  But who’s splitting hairs?

I can’t begin to guess what prompted the owner of this car to love opossums so much.  (I’m going to go out on a limb and assume the owner is a “she” because, aside from the Barbie reference here, the other sides of the car have numerous Hello Kitty decals.  And Hello Kitty’s Y-chromosome fanbase is pretty meager, I think.  Perhaps I stand corrected?)  I know that my opinion toward opossums softened considerably when I learned about Heidi the cross-eyed a few years ago, where the opossum’s impairment effectively rendered her so derpy and innocuous looking that I had to second-guess my previous disdain for them.  And after Georgette Spelvin (the Possum Lady) helped open my eyes to the endearing nature of domesticated opossums, they didn’t seem repulsive, or even all that ugly.  Awkwardly cute, even.  Kind of like fancy rats when raised amidst human comforts in an indoor setting.

The defenders of the opossum—this car owner no doubt included—would tell us how useful they are to ecosystems: as opportunistic omnivores, they love insects that most humans would consider pests, potentially (though not verifiably) including disease-carrying ticks.  But they are slow.  And, by most cognitive science metrics, they aren’t terribly intelligent.  Though their opportunistic eating habits indicate some degree of cunning, their socialization and neuron density are typical of marsupials: not very high.  Compared to raccoons, with which opossums cohabit and are of similar size, the brains are a fraction in mass.  Perhaps most indicative of all: possums are the rare North American mammal to have hands with opposable thumbs (on the back feet).  If opossums had front-feet thumbs and dog- or cat-levels of intelligence (whose paw physiology makes grasping impossible), then they would likely prove a threat to human habitation.  But, outside of the rare henhouse invasion, opossums are harmless.

In fact, car/opossum collisions are a major contributor to the early deaths of these creatures—nearly 20 million a year—although their rapid aging process resorts in short lives anyway.  Perhaps opossum awareness explains this car owner’s advocacy for her four-legged muse.  And, of course, the state of her license plate adds to the potency: the opossum or “possum” as most Americans know it is in fact the species Virginia opossum, to contrast it with animals of the same family in South America, where other opossums and marsupials overall are more prevalent.  And, as one of the most successful North American mammals at disperse its population over time, the Virginia opossum is now easy to find in New England, the Upper Midwest, or even southern Canada.  Historically, and in keeping with its name, the Virginia opossum has been more of a stereotypically southern critter, standing in anthropomorphically for the bumpkin in folklore, in no small part due to the opossum’s presence in rural recipes.

My suspicion is that our activist here would prefer her favorite animal spared from both car tires and hunters’ bullets, so that the Virginia opossum might get to live its full two-year life span.  There’s really nothing more to it.  But since I spotted this vehicle in the hyper-politicized environment of Northern Virginia (Fairfax County to be precise), I can only surmise that it is, in fact, absent any subliminal messaging.  And might be wrong.  It’s been well over a century since pundits and cartoonists attempted to shroud the dour figure of William Howard Taft with marsupial mystique in the form of Billy Possum; it failed to take a hold of the American consciousness in the same way as the Rooseveltian teddy bear.  And while Taft is only buried a few miles away from this car over at Arlington, I chalk that up to coincidence and my effort force a correlation.  Most likely, she just likes opossums.  Nothing wrong with that.  And, as one of the most adaptable critters on the content, she can rest assured that no amount of cars squishing them on the road is likely to threaten their domain across two-thirds of the country.

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2 thoughts on “Opossums over o’politics: replacing typical bumper stickers with marsupial matters.

  1. Jerry

    I always learn something from your posts. But one thing I learned from a momma possum who fell into our window well and decided to birth her six babies while confined there: she can make quite a loud roar when confronted!

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      I believe it! But they are almost all bark, no bite. For all their teeth, I don’t think their bite strength is that great–probably a lot less painful than getting bitten by a tiny hamster or mouse with their huge rodent incisors. Opossums hiss to intimidate, and then involuntarily faint to keep predators away.

      They have, however, been known to body slam a skunk. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gz837PJooEY

      Reply

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