Christmas Lasagna and Possums

We began a tradition about a decade ago of making lasagna for Christmas.  It originated when we couldn’t decide what to have – turkey was out, being so soon after Thanksgiving, and roast or ham didn’t seem inspiring.  We settled on lasagna.  And given the number of people who were showing up, we made a Lasagna-zilla of a lasagna.  It weighed in at over 30 pounds, with four layers of sausage/beef sauce mixture, portabella mushrooms, ricotta and spinach, and multiple cheeses.

The one we did this year wasn’t quite so large, scaled back to meet the number of guests. But we also have occasional wildlife appear in our backyard that are partial to things like lasagna.  For all of 2011, we had one particular possum (Didelphis virginiana) who I nicknamed “Baldy” – since the first time I saw him he was completely hairless.  Hairless creatures appear now and then – raccoons, foxes, coyotes, possums, and so on – there doesn’t seem to be a definitive cause as many of these animals appear quite healthy and are not suffering from a condition such as mange.  It seems to be sometimes a case of an  allergic reaction to something environmental.

Baldy was quite healthy when I saw him a year ago in January 2011 – other than being hairless.  He made periodic nighttime visits over the coming months.  I would sometimes hear him tucking into various things I put out for him, and noticed his hair gradually coming back in.

Possums are not generally considered aesthetic creatures of beauty, although nature made them to be very good at what they do.  They are North America’s only marsupial, carrying their young in their pouch beginning when these babies are perhaps as big as a shelled almond.  They have four opposable thumbs, and are accomplished climbers, using their tail for additional leverage and balance.

They’re also very timid animals.  Despite having the most teeth of any North American mammal, they are not aggressive.  The hissing they make when they feel cornered is a reflex show, just as their tendency to “play possum” in the hopes that a predator will leave them alone.  There is a world of difference between a raccoon and a possum, as far as aggressiveness and willingness and ability to fight.  Possums rarely (if ever) carry rabies, since their body temperature is not a suitable environment for the virus. And they’re highly resistant to disease.

What possums do very well is quietly go about cleaning up things no one really wants around.  The reason few people encounter dead birds, squirrels, and other such wildlife – despite heavy populations of these creatures – is often because possums have been disposing of these overnight.  They are grazing omnivores and will eat a wide variety of things they sniff out and come across.  They love eating cockroaches and slugs, and for that reason are beneficial to many people with yards and gardens.  They typically consume a number of insects each night, along with whatever else they find.  Many cities and municipalities address possums among the urban or suburban wildlife one might encounter, and encourage homeowners to see possums as a beneficial creature for the community.

But yes, they are not pretty.  Beauty of design doesn’t necessarily translate to beauty of form.

Possums do not live long – they’re one of the few creatures that don’t benefit from captivity in increasing their longevity.  Their lifespan usually is only 2-4 years.  Younger ones die from a variety of mostly human-related causes when in an urban or suburban environment – struck by vehicles, poisoned (ingesting rat poison or more commonly a poisoned rat), shot at, attacked by dogs, and so on.  If they pass the 2 or even 3-year mark, a possum tends to enter senescence (old age) which sets on rapidly.  Heidi, the famous cross-eyed possum adopted by the Leipzig Zoo in Germany died at age 3.5 years:

I have not seen Baldy Possum since January 3, and feel he may have passed on.  I know he was a full adult when I first saw him a year ago – at least a year old and probably closer to two at the time. He was struck by a car in the late spring, causing him to limp afterwards.  I’d considered catching him and taking him to the local wildlife center, but with his age he would almost certainly have been a candidate to be put down.  Instead, he enjoyed (in the way possums can) visiting our backyard and sampling whatever delicacies we set out for him.  Possums  are not like cats, and cannot eat a strictly meat or strictly anything diet.  Their diets are designed around eating a wide variety of things, including fruits and vegetables.  So mostly he got those things, but he always appreciated special treats.  He had a particular fondness for leftover sweet potato fries, and also peanut butter.  And after Christmas when the weather got colder, he made a few daytime appearances and ate lasagna with enthusiasm.

But I noticed he was really showing his age at last.  He was developing a cataract in one eye, although his vision appeared to be fine in the other as he moved with confidence.  His sense of smell was amazing – he could be around the side of the house and smell the lasagna I just quietly set out, turning his nose up and changing course to circle back to the backyard.  His appetite and vigor were still present, but he was nevertheless showing some frailty I recognized (having been involved with others who rehab wildlife).  He led a quiet and unassuming life, and we sometimes watched him chase down cockroaches on the patio or root around for slugs and other insects.

Possums tend to pass away as quietly and usually as alone as they mostly live.  I once found one old male who’d been a frequent backyard visitor, where he had curled up to rest in the neighbor’s garden – and never woke up.  I don’t know what happened to Baldy.  But I hope if he passed, it was peaceful.

Here he is eating his Christmas lasagna December 26, 2011: