All Hail The Grinner: An Ode to the Opossum

Golly Jeff, did you set your traps down in Connecticut? You must have run down a whole litter!
— Harris the Fur Skinner

It was four or five trapping seasons ago; the mink were scarce, the beaver traps were slow, and I had decided it was time to turn to land trapping for raccoons in an attempt to stack up a modest stash of pelts. Back then I was bringing my catches to a local trapping legend, who’d traded in the trapline for skinning and fleshing other trapper’s catches for a small fee to pay the bills. I sauntered into his shop and tossed my latest catch on the floor next to an assortment of beaver and coon from another trapper. “Golly Jeff, did you set your traps down in Connecticut? You must have run down a whole litter!” He chuckled as he lit his smoking pipe and threw another log in the wood-stove. It was my 7th possum in a week, and I was beginning to question whether someone was playing some kind of sick joke on my trapline – replacing primed coons with these ratty looking creatures. Don’t get me wrong, I’m always happy to catch fur, even if its fur that resembles a road killed cat; but the demand for grizzled possum hats and gloves wasn’t exactly thriving back then.

Opossums, or Grinners, as they’re commonly referred to in the trapping community, are North America’s only marsupial. They have a knack for mimicking a Twinkie, in the sense that they can literally survive just about anything. They’re almost completely immune to rabies (only 1 in 800 usually contract the disease), and they’re practically snake-bite poison proof. They’re smart as a whip, able to digest just about anything, and can remember food sources better than any rodent. Add opposable thumbs, two penises (yes, each male possum has two penises), and a durable, hairless tail strong enough to choke-out a toddler, and you have an invasive species that could survive a holocaust. Outside of their devilish grin, lined with rows of crocodile-like teeth, they are void of defenses; yet they seem to survive in unbearable numbers despite a forest full of natural predators. The term “playing possum” is actually legit – a defense mechanism of the possum when threatened. The animal freezes, curls inward, goes limp, and begins drooling; displaying a sick, wounded animal. A foul odor is emitted from the anal glands to help sell the “diseased and undesirable meal” approach. This reaction isn’t voluntary, but rather brought on through a chemical reaction to danger (like fainting), and can last upwards of 4 hours after being induced. If the wild woods were a typical high school setting, the possum would be the pock-marked kid who talks to himself and licks his pennies – not that there’s anything wrong with that, especially when you can curl up in a ball and use the power of offensive odor to fend off the bullies!

For those who "get" the reference! 

For many years, the opossum was (and in some places, still is) viewed as more of a nuisance on the trapline than a prize. When I first started trapping, catching a possum in my sets meant certain doom – a curse of Mother Nature almost impossible to lift. Any set I caught a possum in on my trapline ended with not a single other fur-bearing mammal caught there for months, if at all in that location! On my live-trapping ADC (Animal Damage Control) calls during the off season, whether its for raccoons, skunks, or woodchucks – I’m good for at least one trapped possum during the job. Every time a possum wanders into my sets, the trap needs to be scubbed clean to remove the vile accumulation of vicos substances it leaves behind, and then left to air dry for about a week. I chaulk the lack of willing visitors after a possum catch up to their odorous defenses - a setting compareable to a homless transient sleeping on your couch for a week; you're better off just throwing the couch away! I recall one skunk trapping job back in the mid-2000’s that yielded twelve possums in four cages in one week’s time. I was catching them at a rate that made me consider marking each one before carrying them off to be trans-located, thinking that it was the same three scampering their way back to the property. There’s really no way around the possum; no matter what kind of bait you attempt to switch to, they’ll be quick to take advantage. What’s a trapper to do? Possums eat virtually anything, and I mean ANYTHING.

It wasn’t until those few years ago when the possum fur stacked up, that I overcame my fears of the “grinner curse” and regarded the possum as a full-fledged member of the fur-bearer family. Meals for the crockpot and possum fur lined garments! I’ll admit it wasn’t met without a fair amount of resistance; if I could quote Arnold Schwarzenegger from his 1987 classic Predator, they’re “one UGLY m-f’er!” They seem to crap everywhere when trapped, at times seemingly out of spite, and it’s usually hit or miss during the skinning process whether you’ll get a possum comparable to a clean muskrat, or the equivalent of trying to skin a full baby diaper.

They’re also a trick to dispatch with a firearm – the possum has one of the smallest brain-to-body size ratios among mammals, and with a thick front skull plate in front of that little brain, it takes a well-placed shot for quick, humane dispatch. I prefer body-grip traps when targeting possums specifically for this reason.

Their small brains should not be mistaken for stupidity, however. They are, quite frankly, one of the smartest, and most adaptable problem solving creatures in North America’s woods. They’re also a welcomed sight for the hardcore gardener – with such a varied, non-picky diet, they make short work of slugs, roaches, and other common gardening pests.

They're found up and down the Eastern Seaboard, as far out as the Mid-West, and along the Pacific coast. The northern Maine trappers boast they don't see too many of 'em, if at all; but I would be willing to bet your days are numbered without a visit from the silver rat! They can occasionally be a nuisance with chickens, but they're main call in the ADC world is their knack for finding their ways into homes. Whether through crawlspaces, stone foundation basements, vents, and even attics - they're presence is usually announced when the young start roaming; and the ADC trapper must be careful during removal process, as opossums are common carriers of fleas which can infest homes once their grey host has been removed or dies.

The author with a quality "suitcase" catch on a large Possum. 

The author with a quality "suitcase" catch on a large Possum. 

I have to openly admit that during the harsh New Hampshire Decembers, when the slow pace of Fisher trapping sets in, the sight of a possum in the trap still warms this trapper’s soul and breaks the occasional monotony. There truly isn’t any fur as hardy and insulating as a thick, primed winter possum pelt. So much so, that of all the luxurious pelts that come through my fur shed doors, my fiancé still favors the opossum over the silkiest otter skin. They really aren’t bad in the crock pot either. Considered a staple diet throughout Appalachia, the opossum tastes (without trying to sound cliché) just like chicken! They say you are what you eat, and the grinner isn’t shy about consuming some of the most filthy, vile substances on the planet. I’ve been told that particular flavor does tend to reflect in the meat, on occasion – a flavor masked by heavy spices and a thick layer of barbecue sauce. The possums I’ve sampled were caught well off the beaten path, and while slightly gamey, were not off-putting by any means.

So, in closing fellow trappers, I urge you to look past the foul odors, hoard of fleas, and repulsive looks. No that isn't a mutant rat or a disfigured house cat in your trap - it's just the empty smile of the opossum! If you aren't interested in eating the catch, and don't feel the fur is up to snuff, I strongly urge you to cut the silver rat some slack! Embrace the grinner for what it is. I think you’ll find that under that rough exterior is a hearty meal worthy of the dinner table, and a quality pelt worthy of the tannery!