You know all those adorable memes, showing opossums “smiling” while being handled? It’s common for people who find orphaned or injured opossums to project that the animal knows it’s being helped or is happy to be cuddled and pet. Some unethical exhibitors will even distribute photos of smiling opossums as evidence that they love to be passed around and played with by strangers. Yikes. 😞
It’s very important to remember that animals don’t show feelings the same way we do. That’s especially true for opossums, whose jaw shape lends toward the appearance of a “smile,” and who will hold their mouths open when experiencing extreme fear. While it may look cute to you, the opossum’s smile is an attempt to show its teeth and look scary. One of the worst things to do with a “smiling” opossum is to play with it.
Humans are apex predators and opossums are relatively weak, relatively defenseless prey animals. They don’t think of us as friends or helpers. Even tame opossums may experience fear and anxiety while being handled and may express it by “smiling.”
This little cutie was a patient with our friends at Out of the Woods Wildlife Rescue, which of course correctly understood that she was scared and needed space. If you find an animal in need of assistance, please don’t handle it any more than is absolutely necessary to bring it to a rehabilitator.