They prefer penthouse-like living. They prowl at night. They travel far in search of new dining experiences, be it Mexican, Cajun or vegetarian. They sport spiked hairdos. They cart their kids around in designer pouches. They exercise their tails off. They moved here from somewhere else. And when urban living gets to be too much, they suffer panic attacks.
Opossums, the quintessential Southern Californians, have taken well to city life, but it is just this adaptability that has gotten them into hot water. As their population has soared dramatically, the debate over their right to a place in the urban landscape has heated up.
The animals--which look like they were put together by a mad genetic scientist bent on creating a super rat by crossing a well-fed house cat with a pig--seem to inspire either disgust or delight.
Some say they are cute, make great house pets, can be trained to use a cat box and keep down the insect and rodent population. Others label them nuisances that get into garbage cans, eat the pet's food and carry fleas that transmit diseases such as murine typhus. Still others say the only good possum is a dead one, preferably on a dinner plate. ("They taste sort of like greasy pork roast," said one woman whose friends used to serve them at dinner parties in Louisiana.)
Regardless, the possum population explosion has generated complaints, concern and misunderstanding, animal control officials say. While some municipalities have responded with massive eradication, the city of Los Angeles has a relocation program.
"There are thousands, millions of them out there," said Tom Walsh, the Los Angeles Animal Control official who is in charge of travel arrangements for possums. He acknowledged that he may be exaggerating, but not by much.
They were first brought to California from the Southern states in the early 1900s. And while there are no official possum counts, everyone agrees that they are proliferating, along with some other wildlife such as skunks, possibly because of mild weather and bountiful food supplied in a variety of forms by man.
The number of possums captured by the city has quadrupled over the last two years. In the last four months alone, 240 possums have been picked up. Officers do not purposely have a trapping program for possums and respond only when there are complaints.
Earlier this week, seven of the creatures were scurrying around their cages at the West Chatsworth animal shelter making strange clicking noises, which some translate as possum talk for extreme interest or pleasure. However, the only thing these animals have to look forward to, Walsh said, is a one-way ticket out of town via helicopter.
The city's wildlife relocation program also finds new homes in the Angeles National Forest for deer, coyote, bobcats and raccoons. More than 10,000 animals have been relocated since the program began in 1970.
Some wildlife behaviorists frown on the practice, believing that relocation can upset the balance of nature. "They have their heart in the right place, but the consequences can be disastrous," said Larry Sitton of the state Deparment of Fish and Game. "Sometimes when populations get too big, euthanasia unfortunately is the only solution."
Los Angeles County health department officials see opossums as a potential health threat and frown on relocation because infected animals may spread disease. "Those that test positive should be put down," said Frank Hall, the county's director of vector control. "We comb them out all the time during testing and they are virtual fleabags."
Limited testing has found murine typhus in some possums, other wildlife and pets in Burbank, Mount Washington, Eagle Rock, Pasadena, Silver Lake, downtown and elsewhere. While the problem is not an epidemic, there is a possibility that possums can transmit the disease by way of fleas to house pets, which in turn could infect humans.
Little Danger Seen
But Los Angeles city officials such as Walsh see little danger. "The chances of being bitten are pretty remote," he said. There have been no human deaths from murine typhus in California.
In Orange County, at the request of individual homeowners, euthanasia was performed on nearly 4,000 possums that were trapped last year. The death sentences were ordered after an El Toro man contracted murine typhus and an opossum captured in the vicinity was thought to be the source. The killings spurred some angry residents to organize the Opossum Society of California to defend the animals.