Monday, October 20, 2008

Opossums, William Howard Taft, and an important book for your survivalist cache

Continuing an occasional series of posts on urban wildlife, here is everything you need to know about North America's native marsupial, the Virginia Opossum (Didelphis virginiana).

Not playing possum: a roadside opossum carcass in suburban Yarmouth, Maine.

One benefit of riding my bike to work in the suburbs is my frequent sightings of urban and suburban wildlife species. Most of them are roadkill.

Because of roads, fragmented habitat, and other characteristics of urban landscapes, the wildlife habitats in which humans are the dominant species tend to favor critters like the opossum, which, like the Norway rat, has a short life span, a flexible diet, and large litters of offspring. Thanks to suburbanization, the Virginia opossum's range is actually increasing, north into Canada and to the west coast.

It's unclear why, but the opossum is frequently associated with hillbilly culture. Abroad, other opossum species are a popular game animal, and as late as the 1960s, opossums were a common enough source of food to warrant this recipe in the Joy of Cooking:
"If possible, trap 'possum and feed it on milk and cereals for 10 days before killing. Clean, but do not skin. Treat as for pig by immersing the unskinned animal in water just below the boiling point. Test frequently by plucking at the hair. When it slips out readily, remove the possum from the water and scrape. While scraping repeadedly, pour cool water over the surface of the animal. Remove small red glands in small of back and under each foreleg between shoulder and rib. Parboil... 1 hour. Roast as for pork, page 421."*
At the turn of the last century, there was an effort to market "Billy Possum," which was associated with William Howard Taft's presidency as the "Teddy Bear" was with Roosevelt's.

Unfortunately, none of the "Billy Possum" references I found were able to provide context for the phenomenon. I'm sure there's scholarly research, somewhere, on whether the "Billy Possum" was a legitimate marketing effort from the stuffed animal industry or a Democratic Party insult against William Howard Taft. Either way, Billy Possum didn't catch on.**

Here's a fact that doesn't really fit anywhere in the narrative, so I'll make a cheap pun and stick it here (and here): the "Didelphis" in the opossum's scientific name refers to the animals' bifurcated sex organs.

There's an Oppossum Society of the U.S. which laments the plight of opossums in urban habitats: "As development of once rural land increases, the opossum continues to be pushed out of its natural habitat and forced into closer proximity to people, often with injurious consequences to the opossum."

The OSUS has an unusually cute picture of an opossum on their home page, but come on: these are animals that survive 2 years, at the most, in the wild. Providing "for the care and treatment of injured and orphaned wild opossums for release back into the environment," as the Opossum Society does, kind of seems like coddling an adult human in a nursing home for twenty years, then dumping him naked in the Alaskan wilderness for his retirement.

*By the way, according to the source of this passage, the 1962 edition of Joy of Cooking also includes this illustration of how to skin a gray squirrel:Urban survivalists, take note: a mid-century edition of The Joy of Cooking is an essential addition to your apocalyptic supply cache.

**Taft didn't catch on, either: he received the worst reelection drubbing in American history when he finished a distant third behind Woodrow Wilson and Teddy Roosevelt in 1912. His post-presidency honors are pretty scant, but the town of Moron, California did decide to honor Taft by changing its name after a big fire in the 1920s (according to Wikipedia).

1 comment:

John Anton said...

Your last line reminds me of the old (really old) joke - "there are 3 towns in Massachusetts named after Governor Peabody - Peabody, Marblehead and Athol."

It still gets a laugh down at the grange hall ...