While Toronto city councillors dwelled — inordinately deeply — on how to keep the thriving population of dexterous and clever raccoons out of citizens' garbage with a new green bin design, former mayor Rob Ford had moved on to a new, looming menace: the possum. Problem is, he clearly knows nothing about the Virginia opossum he so loathes.
"There's an animal you need to start watching," Ford, now a city councillor, told colleagues at the debate Thursday on awarding a contract for new raccoon-resistant green bins. "It's not raccoons, it's possums. I don't know if you guys have come across possums but they are vicious animals," he continued.
Size: 35–95 cm long without the tail
Weight: Up to about 6 kg
Distinctive look: Naked, prehensile tail
Weird fact: Males have a forked penis, females 13 nipples
Best known for: "Playing possum" — feigning death as a defense mechanism
Cute factor: Low
Range: Central America to the southern edges of Ontario and B.C.
Life span: About two years in the wild
Size: 40 to 70 cm long without tail
Weight: Up to about 9 kg
Distinctive look: Black facial mask
Weird fact: A subspecies of raccoon is found only on Vancouver Island
Best known for: Ravaging garbage, being cute cartoon character
Cute factor: High
Range: Central America to the edge of Canada's north
Life span: About three years in wild
Hearing that quote, three separate urban wildlife specialists independently burst out laughing.
"Opossums don't do anything to harm property or to harm people or to harm pets," said Julia Pietrus, a department head at the Toronto Wildlife Centre, a charitable rehabilitation centre for urban animals.
"They don't chew, they don't dig, they're not very good climbers. They won't go into your attic. They don't make a den because they carry their babies in a pouch. They really are one of the most harmless animals out there," she said. Even most of the diseases they get don't transmit to humans.
Ford's opossumphobia brought an almost identical response from Suzanne MacDonald, a York University animal behaviourist who conducted the city's test of the new green bin against a nighttime raccoon onslaught.
"There is no need to be afraid of an opossum," MacDonald said.
"I can't imagine anyone being afraid of an animal that actually falls unconscious when it is threatened," she said of the involuntary defence mechanism of opossum feigning death which gives rise to the expression "playing possum."
And Brad Gates, owner of Gates Wildlife Control, a private animal control firm, called Ford's notion of opossums "ridiculous."
"In all of my years dealing with them, I've never been attacked, confronted or even approached by one. Nine times out of 10 they open their mouth, fall on their side and feign dead," he said.
They are so benign they're not a moneymaker for his firm since opossums are transient and usually just move on within a short period of time.
But opossums, commonly called possums, do cause a chill for some when first seen — likely because of their long, naked tail and many-toothed jaws.
In other words, they look like enormous rats.
It gives the opossum an image problem.
"We do sometimes get calls about giant rats when people see a opossum," said Pietrus.
MacDonald described them as looking "like a rat from the back and a deranged raccoon from the front. They are not exactly the prettiest animal in the world, which may be why Rob Ford is afraid of them."
When a photo of a startled opossum in Toronto was posted to Instagram, the response was as divergent as the opossum's forked penis: "The freaks come out at night!" wrote one viewer; "Aw poor baby," wrote another.
But opossums are interesting animals to have around, all of the animal specialists said.
They are North America's only marsupial — a mammal that carries and suckles their babies in a pouch on the mother's belly, such as a kangaroo. They can be seen scuttling about with 13 babies clinging to a mother.
They also have more teeth than any other mammal — and a threatened opossum often bares those teeth as a warning before it collapses.
Opossums are also omnivores that will eat things raccoons and other scavengers leave behind.
In fact, said Pietrus, "They are doing us a pretty good service by cleaning up."
MacDonald suggests people think of them as "ugly kangaroos instead of giant rats," to reset the fear factor balance.
Ford is right about one thing on the opossum presence in Toronto: It is relatively new.
Opossums, usually a southern animal common in the United States, Mexico and Central America, have been creeping north over the last few decades, a sign of climate change and urban sprawl.
"They are one of those animals that does really well in cities and in suburbs and as our urban areas sprawl, it gives them an opportunity to expand their range," said Pietrus.
"Opossums are not built for our winters — they've got naked tails, naked ears and naked feet. In a city, there are lot more places to hide that might be warmer. And more food."
Gates said he saw his first opossum in the mid-1990s — in Etobicoke, where Ford was born and still lives.
In the run of a year he might get a dozen opossum calls — usually from people who fear they are rats; by comparison he gets thousands of calls a year each for raccoons and squirrels.
If it were only opossums councillors needed to worry about, it could save $31 million in new bins. Not as dexterous or clever as raccoons, opossums likely couldn't get into the simple latch design bins already in use.
With saving taxpayers' money a much-touted passion of Ford's, perhaps that could change his mind on possum panic.