The Camera Trap

More Opossums for the Internet

October 7, 2019
virginia opossum
Virginia opossum on a camera trap in the South Bay hills. (Photo by bob-dodge, iNaturalist CC)

Opossums are having a bit of a moment thanks to the internet. America’s only marsupial – the Virginia opossum Didelphis virginiana — is what many consider unlovely. Gray fur and a bare, prehensile tail make it look rather rat-like. Beady eyes and a gaping mouth don’t help the image; their teeth look sharp, and they like to stand their ground. If all else fails, they “play possum,” looking for all the world like they’ve just gone and died.

Naturally, the internet loves them. The open-mouth threat behavior happens to look quite a lot like screaming, making them the perfect fodder for social media memes. A good scream is cathartic, and the opossum’s open mouth is the perfect encapsulation of the mood — yelling into the abyss, perhaps futilely.

Then there’s the opossum’s status as pest. They’ll sometimes eat pet food if it’s left out, but is that the fault of the opossum? They have a reputation for killing chickens and knocking over trashcans, both of which are not their fault; in fact, they typically serve as the clean-up crew, dining on slugs and ticks, and in turn helping to stop the spread of some insect or tick-borne diseases. No wonder they’ve been adopted by millennials on social media – blamed for things beyond their control, they’re symbols for the unfairly maligned.

Luckily, the opossum photographed here doesn’t have to worry about pest control coming to root it out. Living in an area where few humans tread, all they have to worry about is the coyote that iNaturalist user bob-dodge caught on further trap photos. The opossum was actually caught by the coyote, but somewhere in between shots it managed to struggle away, free to survive another day.

Unloved, ugly, scapegoat – and survivor. All words that could apply to the opossum, and all qualities that seem to make them representative. There’s a certain sense of absurdity in loving that which has been deemed unlovable, and there are easy parallels to be made between the human condition and what labels we’ve stuck the opossum with. Yet in making memes, in adding text to photos and creating something to laugh at, the love affair has turned genuine. The relationship between opossums and humans is changing; they are becoming beloved.

About the Author

Elizabeth Rogers is a writer based on the Peninsula. She writes Bay Nature's monthly Camera Trap column.

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