Or, a lesson in learning to love opossums.
Biting bugs suck, so to speak – they are a nuisance and carry diseases. Deer ticks, in particular, are vexing. They put the ick in tick. They bring us Lyme disease, the bacterial infection anaplasmosis, the parasitic infection babesiosis and the Powassan virus, all of which can be serious (and even fatal) at times. And in general, tick populations are expanding their turf.
Most of us know to take precautions when we’re out and about and to check for ticks that have hitched on for a dinner cruise.. But if only there were less ticks out in the wild. Like, if only there were an animal that really really liked to eat ticks. Oh wait, there is!Natural pest control is a beautiful thing. Even if the controller is an animal that many consider less than beautiful. Case in point, the animal that makes more people skittish than most, the tick’s biggest enemy, the opossum.
"Many ticks try to feed on opossums and few of them survive the experience," Ostfeld writes for the Cary Institute. "Opossums are extraordinarily good groomers it turns out – we never would have thought that ahead of time – but they kill the vast majority, more than 95 percent, of the ticks that try to feed on them. So these opossums are walking around the forest floor, hoovering up ticks right and left, killing over 90 percent of these things, and so they are really protecting our health."
Opossums seem to have a knack for ticks. According to numbers calculated from a study published by the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, a single opossum can consume between 5,500 and 6,000 ticks per week.
I, for one, adore opossums – give me an underdog, or undermarsupial as the case may be, and I’m its biggest fan. But opossums are often vilified; they tend to freak people out a bit. OK, maybe the “giant beady-eyed rat” thing is a little off-putting – or the whole "terrifying when playing dead" act (see photo below) – but they are neither dirty nor threatening as many believe. In fact, they are tidy self-cleaners with strong immune systems. One study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that opossums are around eight times less likely to be carrying rabies than feral dogs. And wait, there’s more!
While misperceptions may lead to people shunning opossums rather than encouraging them; they can be your allies.
If you have opossums, consider not calling critter control or trying to get rid of them. Don't scare them away, don't follow tips for discouraging them. The Cary Institute goes so far as to recommend building opossum nesting boxes to entice them to stick around. You may not like them at first, but for the pest control and potential disease prevention alone, they're so worth learning to love ... beady eyes, fearsome death grimace, and all.
This updated article was originally published in 2015.