Three Valuable Lessons from an Unusual Source 

Corinne Holt Sawyer


You almost have to be a cat-owner yourself to understand how my basement stairs got involved in all this  -- an open kitchen door, the basement stairs, and an open basement door.


You see, cats can be very demanding, and though they almost housebreak themselves, when they gotta go, they gotta go!  And cats multiply; our two cats had become five in number before my husband agreed to have them spayed and neutered (men being very squeamish about such things).  And five cats are just too many for any indoor sandbox arrangement.  Thus our cats needed a cat door, so they could come and go as they wished, to and from the wooded acres behind the house.


My husband and I lived in a small town, back in the days when neighbors trusted each other and nobody locked their doors.  So it didn’t seem out of line to keep the kitchen door ajar about 4 inches – and at the far end of the basement-garage-laundry-room area, the door to the outside was similarly blocked open about 4 inches.  It worked fine for us and for the five cats; cold air doesn’t rise, and any draft coming from that outside door was the length of the house away from the open kitchen, and as I mentioned, this was not an era (or a place) where we worried about leaving the house open to possible intruders.


And that leads to the first half of this story.  We did have one problem with an intruder.  One night when I was alone in the house but for the cats, I heard wuffling, snuffling, slurping sounds from the kitchen, walked out there, and flipped on the lights to find a full grown possum, head down in the cat’s food, and having himself a lavish dinner.


That was unusual on several counts.  First of all, it takes courage for a wild animal to venture into a human dwelling at all, and this fellow had to dare a narrow entry that surely must have seemed like a potential trap, navigate the length of the darkened basement with its cold cement floor, climb the stairs to the kitchen level --- steep, narrow, open steps that even the cats had found somewhat daunting --- and squeeze through the narrow entry to the kitchen.  Moreover, it can take a domestic animal several tries before he learns how to manage stairs, but the possum had done it in one try.  And finally, assuming he came inside just for a free meal, having smelled the cat’s food, it took some doing to pick up the scent from outside the basement and the length of the house away, even though cat food is by its nature really STINKY.  In other words, this was an unusually brave, resourceful, and intelligent (for a possum) animal with a remarkable sense of smell.


Remarkable animal or not, as soon as the lights went on, he took fright and froze in mid-bite.  And when I started shouting “Shoo…Shoo” ---- not a brilliant bit of dialogue, but all that concerned me at the moment --- he took off at a dead run.


Well, even though he might have been smart enough to find his way in, he wasn’t smart enough to remember how to get out!  He ran past that 4-inch opening that was his exit to the basement as though it wasn’t there.  He galloped through the dining room, skidded across the living room, and went to ground in the guest room, under the studio couch.  I could see him huddled there, backed way against the wall, glaring at me and baring very sharp teeth.  Oh, and did you know that enraged possums hiss like snakes?  At least, this one did.  The display was enough to make me back off, and I was also concerned that my cats --- curious creatures that they are --- would want to investigate this interesting visitor, and might get mauled in the encounter.  So I slammed the door tightly shut (to keep the cats out, and to keep him from roaming freely through the house, and possibly leaving little “possum packets” wherever the urge struck him), and I went off to think the situation over.


It took a while, but finally a solution occurred to me.  After one of my husband’s illnesses, he had a single phenol-barbitol capsule left over, and like most folks we (unwisely) saved our left-over medications and prescriptions “just in case.”  So I found the capsule, opened it, and dusted the contents all over some raw hamburger, which I put on a plate and shoved inside the guest room, slamming the door shut again.


I waited about 45 minutes, and then peeked cautiously in.  The plate lay there emptied of  the meat.  Hopefully  I  tiptoed to the studio couch

and lifted the edge of the cover –but the sedative hadn’t worked, at least not yet.  My visitor was not only still awake, he was still active, and he hissed and charged a few steps, retreated, then hissed and charged again.  I got the hint and went away, closing him in for another hour.  But when I checked back, the situation was exactly the same or possibly even worse;  the possum not only wasn’t asleep, he was wide awake – and not just wide awake, but agitated and seriously annoyed.  He charged  repeatedly, hissing and snapping.  Even if it was just a show, it worked for me.  I backed off again, closing the door behind me, and left him alone for the night.


The next morning I phoned my local vet, told him what was occupying my guest room, and asked for advice.  When he stopped laughing, he suggested I get help, one person to hit the possum over the head from arm’s length --- perhaps with a broom --- until the possum curled up and “played possum”.  Yes, it seems they do that literally!  The other person, wearing stout gloves, should grab the possum by its tail and swing it vigorously back and forth, while transporting it out of the house and to the woods, where it could be released.  Why swing it?  Because an angry possum will go to great lengths to get at its tormentor, including climbing up its own tail to bite the hand that carries it.  But being swung back and forth will disorient the possum so he will just hang there, docile, and allow himself to be carried outside.  (Makes sense! It would surely disorient ME!)


About an hour later, two little black kids about 9 and 11, Bubba and Junior (pronounced “Juner” came around to mow my lawn, as they always did on Saturday mornings.  They were less than enthusiastic when I drafted them as possum catchers, but after I promised them each an extra dollar’s pay for the morning, they agreed to help.  Of course they both demanded gloves and some sort of weapon.  It took a few minutes to find suitable protection, but eventually Bubba was outfitted with a pair of oven mitts and a long, stainless steel meat fork from the barbecue, while Junior, carrying my plumber’s friend as his weapon, wore a pair of canvas gardening gloves; not very good, but we couldn’t seem to find anything better.  Finally I wound toweling around both hands, grabbed up a broom, and we were ready to start Operation Possum Removal.



I didn’t know it then, but one of the cats had disgorged some fresh grass there – something cats do often to clear their digestion.  Actually,

cats have a rather sly sense of humor and prefer to throw up in the middle of a neatly made bed.  Or a newly reupholstered couch.  This time, however, there apparently wasn’t time for the cat to choose a spectacular spot for its display, and the wooden step was slathered with about a quarter-cup of cat spit.


Well, my right foot hit the wet spot and slid abruptly forward.  The left foot did not.  It stayed in place as I lost my balance, and my left leg folded sharply back at the knee and doubled under me as I went sliding down the stairs using my foot and leg as a kind of toboggan!  I bumped the whole way down and hit my head a hearty thump.


It took a second or two for me to get over the shock of the fall and to realize I didn’t seem to be seriously injured.  My head had hit a wooden step, not the concrete basement floor, so I picked myself up, gathered up the scattered laundry, got it into the machine, and limped upstairs. Once in full light, I could see that my left shin was skinned from ankle to knee.  But scrapes would heal, and I could still walk.  So I applied antiseptic, and just went off to bed.


But the next morning I couldn’t put any weight on my left foot, which was hugely swollen and dark purple.  I was stiff all over, mind you, but that foot……   The doctor diagnosed a sprain inside the top of the foot, and scolded that it was lucky it wasn’t broken in two!  And I limped around on rented crutches the rest of the week.


End of story --- and now let’s get to the lessons I learned from all this. 


Bet you thought I was going to say “Hang onto the railing when you’re coming downstairs,” or “Cats and possums don’t mix.” 


Oh sure, but it’s more than that. 


The life lessons I’ll pass on to you after that experience are --- and pay close attention --


1.)  Blistered arm pits hurt worse than a sprained foot.  I know this for a fact, because I didn’t ask anyone how to use my rented crutches properly, and tucked them up under my arms, suspending my whole weight on them that way, and swinging with each step.  Take it from me, you mustn’t do that!


2.)  Watch out for cat spit in odd places.  And,


3.)     Don’t give a possum phenol-barbital; it makes him even madder than he was to begin with.


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