BY ED ZAHNISER
Our present taken-in-stray cat is fastidious about its food and disdainful of its staff if we alter its diet. (I am using the objective “it/its” forms to avoid close identification.) At our former house, the contrast between our cat and the opossum was acute. The opossum thought cat food was wonderful. Had it read The Book of Exodus in the Hebrew Scriptures, it would probably think “manna from heaven.”
The staff was trained to place the cat’s chow in the cat’s bowl on the cat’s front porch. But it often disdained the food, after harassing the staff, starting an hour before its mealtime. The major mealtime job for 50 percent of the staff—that would be I—was to go out to check on its meal. Somehow both the kitchen and the immediate wait staff labored under the illusion that we’d get a better gratuity by being attentive.
The truth was more like the relationship between Beat poet Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady—the hero of Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road. Ginsberg was desperate for Cassady’s attentions, but Cassady merely played Ginsberg along just enough to keep him crazy for Cassady.
Our neighbor the opossum, by contrast, didn’t give a smooth, over-sized rat’s tail about the Beat Generation. It wanted the cat’s food. I came out on the porch to check on the cat formerly known as “it” but found instead the possum gobbling the food.
“Oh no,” I thought, “ The possum will roll over on the cat’s porch and play dead.
Not so. The possum looked up at me and bared every tooth in its pointy-mouthed head. No tip from this diner—just “Get back, Jojo.”
Obviously, the possum didn’t feel threatened. It didn’t go into its play-dead threat response. That was my karma, which requires some explanation.
My first babysitting job—I believe the job is now classified as “child care”—was for the neighbor lady across the street. I was about 13 years old. The lady’s husband had abandoned her for a younger woman who wasn’t bedeviled by three kids that her husband had gifted her.
The oldest kid was almost my age and a pal of mine. However, his mother didn’t feel she could trust him to babysit his two younger sisters. As his pal, I knew she was dead right. I had no experience with babysitting, but I was the youngest of four kids and had heavy experience with being tricked and having my mind messed with.
Chicanery just might sub for experience at babysitting. So I told the two younger girls that we were going to play a fun game called “possum.” Playing possum isn’t complicated, I explained. You just play like you’re dead. You lie as still as you can and keep totally quiet. The one who plays dead the longest wins.
They bit—and didn’t ask about a prize for winning.
We three lay on the living room rug. All was still and quiet. “This just might work,” I thought to myself. This must be what it’s like to get paid to do sleep studies. Not that this was even up to minimum wage. This was still baby-sitting rates not child care rates.
Many editors refuse to let you write things like: “We lay there for some of the longest minutes of my life.” You can’t qualify the duration of fixed measures of time, such editors tell you. A minute of time is 60 seconds. There is no minute of time shorter or longer than 60 seconds that is a minute.
The younger girl lasted about five minutes. She had never been edited, so I’m sure they were long minutes for her. For me those same minutes were short. Oh no, I thought, I’ll have to baby sit for real. I could tell that a re-match wouldn’t sell.
I had seen only one or two possums in the wild before getting put in my place by that possum on the cat’s front porch at the cat’s food dish. Possums caught my attention in the 1980s, however, when I read in Natural History magazine that possums are not known to get sick.
Possums have been around a long time, unless you subscribe to the idea that God created everything all at once but not quite ex nihilo—sort of like the Big Bang theory but far less wasteful time-wise—in 4004 BCE. Their longevity as a species, scientists speculated, explained their immunity to disease.
A decade or more later, my day job (biased toward the empirical) made it necessary for me to see whether the empiricism of science agreed with the literal interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures. I was not in a position to judge which account was correct, the empirical studies or a literal reading of ancient creation stories translated from another language and another culture epoch.
The plural, “stories,” is operative here, because The Book of Genesis alone has two creation accounts. Five more are found throughout the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures. Old Testament scholar William P. Brown recounts the suite of stories in his book The Seven Pillars of Creation.
The story pieced together by scientists indicates that possums arose when dinosaurs still roamed Earth. Then-tiny possum-like early mammals arose 65 million years ago. Tiny was good, then, even though dinosaurs—some about the size of a Walmart—were on their way out.
High-resolution CT scans of one 55-million-year-old skull were done before The Affordable Care Act kicked in. Why, I don’t know. The skull had been removed from a former lakebed in Wyoming’s Bighorn Basin. Some non-empiricist critics say the Devil sprinkled that skull—and other bones—across various landscapes worldwide to stoke the imaginary fires of science.
A 2009 news release from the University of Florida said that “… the evolutionary split between the ancestor of opossums and the ancestor of all other living marsupials occurred at least 65 million years ago.” Bishop Ussher, who did the date study for 4004 BCE, wasn’t born yet.
It is not known whether the bishop even knew that marsupials—most popular as kangaroos—are mammals whose young are born at an early stage of development and are carried in a pouch. The near-fetal-stage newborns crawl up the mother’s body into her pouch. Conveniently, the pouch is outfitted with nipples to which the little ones attach. Most mammals are placental, which is irrelevant here, where it simply begs explanation.
But this story is only tangentially about possums. It’s more about my first babysitting job, and the attempt to get the girls to play possum. Had I known then what I learned last month, I might have sought a different game metaphor than “playing possum.”
My vision of a possum playing dead went something like the u following: The possum is foraging about and, sensing a threat, plops over on its side and plays dead. When the threat appears to pass, the possum gets up and goes about its business.
Evidently it’s more involved than that. In a blog post to “Adirondack Almanac,” Kenrick Vezina, who works for the Genetic Literacy Project, fleshes out—to put it mildly—the details. Vezina reports that
“… when it comes to feigning death, the possum is anything but playing … . It drops into a near-coma. It’s tongue lolls, eyes open but vacant, and a foul green liquid leaks from its anus.”
Babysitting and playing possum? I was the youngest of four so I never changed a diaper until my wife and I had kids of her own. I passed up the opportunity while “watching” a bevy of nieces and nephews. Among my siblings, I became known as “the changeless uncle.”
A green liquid leaking … Yuck! Today’s young kids may have watched on YouTube what I didn’t even know existed. Vezina doesn’t indicate that the possum lies there straining to produce that green liquid. The liquid leaks—an active verb, apparently independent of possum volition.
Vezina continues: “It may take a possum upwards of four hours to come out of this apparently involuntary biochemical state.”
Four hours? Having those two little girls out of it for four hours—at 50 cents an hour? Still probably not worth the green liquid clean up.
You, dear reader, may wish for a different take-away, so let me share a couple of Vezina’s other facts about possums, facts no doubt due to their longevity as a species, if the science story is correct.
“Possums are highly resistant to pit viper (e.g., copperhead, water moccasin) venoms. Research suggests that possums—which will eat snakes, among many other things—are locked in an evolutionary arms race… constantly developing new ways to combat snake venom. They’re highly resistant to rabies, likely as a result of a slightly lower body temperature that makes it difficult for the virus to thrive.”
They also function as tick vacuums. A possum trundling through the undergrowth accumulates a large collection of ticks, but possums are such fastidious groomers that ticks which latch onto them are as good as dead. A dense possum population may even help reduce the prevalence of Lyme disease.