Late last night, as I was getting our son ready for bed, the dogs who were all outside set up a terrible din. Billy our only male dog, was so agitated he was only capable of a high-pitched squeak (the more wound up he gets the higher goes his bark) so I knew it was something he was really bothered by.

Neu was already on his dialysis machine so not able to go outside and take a look and  although there was a good amount of light from the moon, there wasn’t enough to be able to see clearly. I went out through the back door, all five dogs were at the curve of the kitchen wall, all barking like mad, all looking in different directions, I’m not sure any of them other than Billy, knew what they were barking at.

I assumed it was a visiting cat and called the dogs to me, ushering them in through the back door, three of them came but Billy and Totti had no intention of leaving what ever it was. As I shut the back door behind the three dogs, Billy and Totti set off barking again and the three dogs that were inside, shot through the kitchen and out through the front door, which I had forgotten was open. Five dogs barking like mad again.


Cassaco, photographed in our kitchen

I went out through the front door, round the side of the house and was hit by a wave of the most god awful smell, I knew straight away that there was a cassaco or gambá (Didelphis albiventris) which is a type of opossum. One of their defence mechanisms is to let off a pungent smell like a skunk does (though I don’t think it’s as bad as a skunk, not that I’ve ever smelt a skunk and no I don’t wish to). Their other defence mechanism is to play dead.

The dogs were all barking at a tree, I didn’t fancy getting any closer as the smell was really pretty disgusting but I had to stop the dogs waking up the neighbourhood, I stepped forward to grab Billy’s collar and heard an unmistakable HISS by my feet, looking down there was the cassaco playing dead, except for hissing at me when it felt I was about to stand on it (obviously it’s tactic was working because the dogs were all looking at the tree on the other side of the path from where the cassaco was lying, on the other hand may be the dogs are just stupid).

I wasn’t sure if Billy had bitten the cassaco but by the time I’d got the dogs inside,  stinking to high heaven, given them their food and got back out side to take a look, the cassaco was gone.

Last year we had quite a problem with them when a pair made a nest on the roof, they would regularly enter the kitchen looking for anything they could find and were not at all bothered whether we were there or not.

Different types of opossums are found all over the Americas, this extremely successful marsupials happily lives in urban environments and has few natural enemies apart from man (and their cars, cassacos freeze in the headlights and frequently get squashed on the roads) and wild big cats (and perhaps my dog Billy).

Cassacos are marsupials of 45 to 50 cm long, not including their rat like tail which can measure around 37cm in length. They are solitary except when they are breeding, when they pair up and form a nest from twigs and leaves. Reproducing three times a year, they produce up to 14 young, which at birth are no more than 1cm long and have to travel up the body of the mother through her hair to reach the double row of teats in her pouch.

Cassacos are nocturnal, move relatively slowly and are not particularly agile except when they are climbing trees, where they can use their prehensile tail as another hand to hold onto branches. They also use their tail to hold down prey, being omnivorous they eat just about anything and have a particular liking for blood. Some species are immune to snake venom being able to tolerate a dose several thousand times higher than that which would kill a full-grown cow, hence they can add snake to the menu.

They are not popular with people here because they rob the chicken coops of eggs and chicks and an adult cassaco can easily take a full-grown chicken. One morning my mother in law called me over to look at one of her chickens. I have to admit I laughed my head off, the poor chicken was running around with a bare bum, having been partly plucked and missing the best part of her tail feathers. My mother in law didn’t think it at all funny, she really doesn’t get my sense of humour, she said it was probably a young cassaco and I suspect was trying to make me feel guilty because I wouldn’t advocate someone going up on the roof to kill the ones living up there.

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I have no wish to kill the wee beasties but I hope that the reception committee of the other night will put that one-off a return visit.

One of my friends said he thought the cassaco in the top picture was the most bizarre creature he’d seen, saying it looked like a cross between Barbie and Miss Piggy! What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comment box and if you think someone else would like this story, please like and share.