Virginia opossums are common backyard visitors in Santa Barbara, climbing on fences and meandering across lawns. They are omnivores, feeding on insects, snails and slugs, fruit, and even rodents. Not only are opossums generally harmless, they are beneficial to have around because they keep the populations of rodents and invertebrate pests in check.
Possum or Opossum?
Scientifically, "possum" refers to a group of Australian marsupials, and "opossum" is the critter you'll find in Santa Barbara. However, many people call the opossum "possum" for short.
Opossums Are Not Rodents
Even though an opossum may look like a cat-sized rat, it is not a rodent. Rodents have specially adapted gnawing teeth, which grow constantly, and no canines (sharp teeth for eating meat). Opossums have sharp, pointed teeth and do not gnaw. And because they carry their young in a pouch, they belong to the category of marsupials.
Nature's Pest Control
One of the opossum's favorite food sources is slugs and snails. Welcoming opossums to your yard (e.g. providing a water source and cover) can help keep the population of these invertebrates from getting out of hand. Opossums also prey on other common garden insects, some of which can be pests, as well as rats and mice.
They Don't Carry Rabies
Contrary to popular belief that opossums will give you rabies, they actually have a natural immunity to the disease and rarely get it themselves. However, you should still be careful around opossums and other wild animals, since their instinct is to defend themselves when threatened.
Your Wild Neighbors
If you hear a rustle in the bushes at night, especially near a fence, it may be an opossum. Stay quiet and it might come out for you to see. Just don't approach it, or any other wild animal, and keep your pets inside at night to avoid conflicts.