"People think opossums are ugly, but they're not," maintains Linda Gray, who, along with about 15 other volunteer phone counselors, talks people down from the precarious tower of opossum-human relations. "They're very clean. They're not aggressive. And they were here first."
In fact, Capt. John Smith noticed the opossum before setting eyes on Pocahontas. He even named it. In 1608, he aptly scribed: "An Opassom hath an head like a Swine, and a taile like a Rat, and is of the bignes of a Cat."
The Opossum Society of the United States' hotline--basically an answering machine at someone's house in Irvine--was started in 1986 to help an opossum-weary public grapple with how to coax an unwanted family from a home's crawl space. The hotline, (714) 536-3538, is checked by volunteers who also provide guidance and emergency veterinarian numbers to callers who have come upon an injured or orphaned opossum baby.
Although opossums--North America's only native marsupial--probably consider outdoor dishes of unguarded Meow Mix as charming gestures of goodwill, some city dwellers don't. "People will call me at 2 in the morning, thinking I'm an exterminator service," laments Gray, speaking over a cockatiel perched on her shoulder that, inexplicably, has begun singing the Mexican hat dance. She became moved by the possum's plight after she rescued and raised a baby one.
Local animal shelters or police department switchboards refer most of the five to 10 weekly calls that Gray--a substitute teacher at Paramount High School--fields. She's also made house calls, rifling with residents through their chaotic garages to find the offending creature. Most of the time, the opossum tires of the hubbub and leaves on its own. To be sure, Gray suggests leaving the door open a crack at night, then scattering flour around the entrance. "When you see the footprints leading out, close the door," she says sensibly.
Keeping the critters from wandering inside in the first place requires planning. "Make sure the screens to your crawl spaces are secure," Gray advises. "Don't leave pet food outside. Pick up overripe citrus and avocados when they've fallen on the ground."
And share. "I had one guy call to complain that an opossum was eating the grapes from the top of a vine," Gray recalls. She queried him about how many grapes he would need to still maintain his happiness. "He said he had plenty, so I asked if the opossum could just have the ones on top."
After thinking about it a minute, Gray says, he consented.
Madeleine Albright, take heed.