The Misunderstood: Opossums, Skunks, Raccoons, and Foxes
Further up the food chain, we have animals like opossums, skunks, raccoons, and foxes. These animals tend to have bad reputations, but they make valuable contributions to our environment just the same.
Unfortunately, raccoons, skunks, and foxes are prone to carrying rabies, which contributes to their unpopularity. “I’ve noticed that people tend to be either overly concerned about rabies or not concerned enough,” says Juniper Russo of For Fox Sake Wildlife Rescue. Some people mistakenly believe that any raccoon spotted in the daytime is rabid, while others disregard animals actively suffering from seizures or foaming at the mouth. According to Russo, “Rabies is uncommon but does need to be taken very seriously, especially when an animal has neurological symptoms.”
Though exercising caution around these animals is good, it is important to understand why they are necessary to a healthy environment. Raccoons and skunks feed on pests and carrion (rotting animal carcasses), while foxes control populations of small mammals that carry ticks and spread disease. Without them, our environment would be out of balance.
Unlike the other animals in this group, opossums are not prone to carrying rabies, and their poor reputation is primarily a result of widespread misconceptions. “The most common misconception is that opossums are carriers of rabies, when it would be more likely for them to be struck by lightning,” says Jerry Harvey, who rescues countless opossums every year with Opie Acres. In truth, low body temperatures and strong immune systems make the opossum a terrible host for rabies.
Another misconception is that opossums are dangerous and destructive. Though they are known to bare their teeth when frightened, they are docile creatures that only attack as a last resort. They are also unlikely to damage property or landscaping. Because opossums eat decaying plant matter, they prefer cleaning up dead plants to feasting on our gardens.
Despite popular belief, opossums are excellent neighbors that we are lucky to have. These omnivores control pests like insects and rodents, but they stand out when it comes to eating ticks. A single opossum can consume up to 5,000 ticks per season, significantly reducing the spread of Lyme disease. Incredibly, opossums are resistant to snake venom and are known to prey on copperheads and rattlesnakes. Not bad, right?
Opossums are valuable backyard visitors, and as Harvey says, “They’re just darn cute!”