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dogs are prepared to despatch it. They are so very tenacious of life, that in North Carolina there is a well-known saying, "If a cat has nine lives, an opossum has nineteen."
Should the hunter not happen to have any dogs with him, it does not immediately make its escape, but steals slowly and quietly to a little distance, and then, gathering itself into as small a compass as possible, remains as still as if dead. Should any grass or underwood be near, this simple artifice frequently secures the creature's escape, as it is difficult by moonlight, or in the shadow of the tree, to distinguish it from surrounding objects, and the hunter's labour is often in vain.
After remaining in this apparently lifeless state, as long as any noise indicative of danger can be heard, the opossum slowly unfolds itself, and, creeping as closely as possible upon the ground, would fain sneak off unperceived. Upon a shout or outcry of any tone from its persecutor, it immediately resumes its death-like attitude and stillness. If then approached, moved, or even handled, it is still seemingly dead, and might deceive any one not accustomed to its actions. This feigning is known so well to the country people, as to have passed long since into a proverb; "He is playing 'possum,'" is applied with great readiness to any one who is thought to act deceitfully, or to appear what he is not.
Audubon, in his usual kindly manner, speaks of this ingenious subterfuge of the opossum in one of his papers in the " Ornithological Biography." "Its movements," says he, "are usually rather slow; and as it walks or ambles along, its curious prehensile tail is carried just above the ground; its thin rounded ears are directed forward; and at almost every step its pointed nose is applied to the objects beneath it, in order to discover what sort of creatures may have crossed its path. Methinks I see one at this moment slowly trudging over the melting snows, by the side of an unfrequented pond, nosing as it goes for the fare its ravenous appetite prefers.
"Now it has come upon the fresh track of a grouse or hare, and it raises its snout and snuffs the keen air. At length it has decided on its course, and it speeds onward at the rate of a man's ordinary walk. It stops, and seems at a loss in what direction to go, for the object of its pursuit has either taken a considerable leap, or has cut backwards, before the opossum entered its track. It raises itself up, stands for a while on its hind-feet, looks around, snuffs the air again, and then proceeds; but now, at the foot of a noble tree, it comes to a full stand. It walks round the base of the huge trunk, over snow-covered roots, and among them finds an aperture, which it at once enters. Several minutes elapse, when it reappears, dragging along a squirrel, already deprived of life, with which, in its mouth, it begins to ascend the tree. Slowly it climbs. The first fork does not seem to suit it, for perhaps it thinks it might there be too openly exposed to the view of some wily foe, and so it proceeds until it gains a cluster of branches intertwined with grapevines, and there composing itself, it twists its tail round one of the twigs, and demolishes the unhappy squirrel, which it holds all the time in its fore-paws.
"But suppose the farmer has surprised an opossum in the act of killing one of his best fowls, his angry feelings urge him to kick the poor beast, which, conscious of its inability to resist, rolls off like a ball. The more the farmer rages, the more reluctant is the animal to manifest resentment; at last there it lies—not dead, but exhausted—its jaws open, its tongue extended, its eyes dimmed; and there it would lie until the bottle-fly should come to deposit its eggs, did not its tormentor at length walk off. 'Surely,' says he to himself, 'the beast must be dead.' But no, reader, it is only 'possuming;' and no sooner has its enemy withdrawn, than it gradually gets on its legs, and makes once more for the woods.
"Once, while descending the Mississippi in a sluggish flat-bottomed boat, expressly for studying those objects of nature more immediately connected with my favourite pursuits, I chanced to meet with two well-grown opossums, and brought them alive, to the ' Ark.' The poor things were placed on the roof, or deck, and were immediately assailed by the crew, where, following their natural instinct, they lay as if quite dead. An experiment was suggested, and both were thrown overboard. In striking the water, and for a few moments after, neither evinced the least disposition to move; but finding their situation become desperate, they began to swim towards our uncouth rudder, which was formed of a long slender tree, extending from the middle of the boat thirty feet beyond its stern. They both got on it, were taken up, and afterwards let loose in their native woods."
Some other animals—for instance, the guineapig—resort to a similar trick of pretending to be dead when assaulted violently, as if instinctively aware that the feline, or cat-like, beasts of prey were comparatively regardless of dead game.
The usual haunts of the opossum are thick forests, and their dens are generally in the hollows of decayed trees, where they pass the day asleep, and sally forth mostly after night-fall to seek for food. They are occasionally seen out during the day-light, especially when they have young ones of a size too large to be carried in the maternal pouch. The female then presents a singular