The identification was easily made although the light was poor. The semi-silhouette of the animal’s curved back, the flash of white on the face, and the scurrying motion as the animal crossed the road in front of our car, were enough to confirm another possum was in our neighborhood.

Always curious about the neighbors, we decided to learn more about this cat-sized animal. Steve Marsh, head curator at the Creature Conservancy on Ann Arbor-Saline Rd., told us that the possum is a great animal for the conservancy’s educational programs because it is universally–but wrongly–maligned. (Our photos were taken at the conservancy.)

One good thing about possums is that they’re great scavengers. They’ll eat just about everything, including rats and snakes, insects, snails and slugs, and carrion. They help clean up road kill and other dead animals that might otherwise spread disease or cost money to remove.

Given those tastes, it’s not surprising to learn that possums have incredible immune systems, being almost or completely resistant to diseases like rabies, plague, and botulism. They are also immune to snakebites. Scientists are attempting to develop a new, inexpensive antivenin from possum peptide that would dramatically increase the availability of snakebite treatment for the world’s poor.

Possums have been around since the age of the dinosaurs and are the only American marsupial. About that funny tail: Marsh told us that a possum does not actually hang from it. However, the tail is handy as an aid in climbing and other activities.

The famous “playing possum” trick of appearing to be dead is involuntary and is caused by the release of stress hormones. The dead act may last from minutes to hours.

Marsh’s enthusiasm for possums is shared by scientist Rick Ostfeld, an expert on Lyme disease ecology. He likes possums because they eat a lot of ticks, including those that carry the disease. He writes that “opossums are walking around the forest floor, hoovering up ticks right and left, killing over 90% of these things, and so they are really protecting our health.”

The website of our local wild animal rescuers, the Friends of Wildlife, adds: “If you’re a gardener, you’ll enjoy having a possum in your yard as slugs are a favorite food of theirs.”

To see possums in the wild, Marsh suggests checking out compost heaps late at night. Remember, however, that they are wild animals and therefore the kind of neighbors who generally are best left alone.

To see a live possum up close, consider a visit to the Creature Conservancy from 1 to 5 p.m. Saturdays; admission is $6 for adults, $4 for children. (Starting on Mother’s Day, they’ll be open the same hours on Sunday, and admission will rise to $8 and $6). A volunteer is usually walking around during that time with a possum in his or her arms, ready to answer questions and introduce you to this amazing animal.

Finally, if you find a dead possum (which could conceivably have live babies in its pouch), friendsofwildlife.net is one of several places online that gives suggestions on what to do–starting out with how to determine whether that possum is really dead.