Talk Dirt to Me

Possum

Most evidence suggests that cats “domesticated” themselves. Sometime after humans began farming we began storing grain. The first applicants for post-agricultural domestication were probably rodents, but they didn’t offer a very good deal: “you save grain in nice dry places and we’ll eat it all leaving you with little bits of poop and a funny smell; also, disease.” Cats, noting the opening on the farm suggested they might handle the rodent/poop/disease problem in return for abject subservience on our part.

Though cats don’t talk, I’m quite sure that they’d argue they’re in a dominant position amongst the world’s species. I suspect that they might claim evolution led inevitably to cats: they live everywhere, often have several servants per feline, and run around naked all day pooping in people’s gardens. In this, they are sadly mistaken, for evolution doesn’t “lead to” something. Neither humans nor cats are the ultimate outcome. In fact, if the earth could argue, it might call us an unpleasant side effect.

My cat Possum passed about a year ago. Possum had a great personality. Here, I use the phrase much the way it is used when setting up a blind date. Possum was overweight, had bad breath, and poor personal hygiene habits. You’re probably thinking, “Caleb, cats lick their butts, how bad can it be”? Well, Possum didn’t lick his butt and it turns out that’s worse. Possum also had bad breath and an ear busting meow.

Possum was born behind a dinghy Austin restaurant, Dirty Martin’s Kum-bak hamburgers. He and his littermate were tiny little abandoned creatures. I had to feed them kitten formula using an eye dropper. When I came home from work the two would come running down the hallway screaming. Possum was always first, always loudest but was entirely unable to get the whole formula from dropper thing down. He was usually caked in dry smelly formula.

He also walked “funny.” Funny as in “not-right somehow.” My roommate Pete determined that my new cat walked like a ‘possum.

It’s funny that cats might think of themselves as pinnacles of evolution, because the Virginia opossum is really far more impressive. Marsupials and placental mammals diverged in the Jurassic ~160 MYA when mammals were basically foot scrapings for dinosaurs. The marsupials wound up doing quite well in Gondwanaland, the southern continent, while the placental mammals did better up north. Roughly 6 or 7 million years ago South and North America were connected and animals started migrating back and forth. The opossum wondered north. It’s worth noting that at this point chimps and humans were just diverging.

The opossum is well suited to just about everywhere, they can eat anything, live in cold and hot and emit unpleasant smells from their anal glands. They haven’t changed a lot, because they haven’t had to, they’re pretty well suited to their niche and they don’t have a lot of predators, in fact things are getting better for possums. I have one that lives down by the compost pile, just a few yards from Possum’s cairn.

He eats well and doesn’t hiss at me too much, though I sometimes wonder whether he gets a bit too much coffee in that compost. It doesn’t seem to bother him. My sense is that long after cats and humans have destroyed everything else, possums will be waiting around for the next pretender.

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