By Brooke Gazer
Nineteen years ago, when we moved into our new villa in Residencial Conejos, there were not many residences. With fewer than a dozen homes, the neighborhood had ample forest for small wildlife to inhabit. Many of our construction workers had lived on site, and we later discovered that their habits of leaving tortillas and other food around encouraged small visitors to drop by. A few families enjoyed the abundant supply of nourishment so much that they moved right in.
Being from Alberta, which boasts of being a rat-free province, I had never encountered a rat before, and even today they make me shiver. Once we took occupancy, evicting those disgusting creatures became our number one priority, and within about a month we felt we had been successful in ridding ourselves of the vermin.
One night we returned home and spotted what looked like the biggest scariest rat we’d ever seen. It was like a rat on steroids, or some mutation that had resisted various poisons. Dominating a planter in our common room, this fat little beast was nearly two feet long and weighed well over ten pounds. Seeing it frightened me so much that the scream froze in my throat. Normally we’d check the internet after being out for the evening, but rather than cross the room to get to our office, we went upstairs to bed. Fortunately, we had no paying guests and hoped this one leave before the sun came up.
The next morning it was gone but our terror remained. Where did it go? When might it reappear? Would it attack if we surprised it? Were there others? When Rick mentioned our unwelcome guest to a Mexican friend, Ernesto laughed. “That’s not a rat, it’s a tlacuache. They’re harmless. They eat worms and bugs. And they aren’t even rodents.” It turns out these really are harmless and they are rather interesting little critters. Tlacuaches are gentle nocturnal animals who live a solitary life except when mating. In English they are referred to as possums.
What is really fascinating about them is that they are marsupials, like kangaroos. They have a pouch for their undeveloped infants, who start out the size of honeybees. For their first two months the babies remain inside the pouch, attached to the mother’s breast. Then they climb onto her back and begin to experience the world. Most marsupials live in Australia, and there are several in South America, but this species is special since it is the only marsupial found in North America.
There are six sub-types of these marsupial mammals in Mexico. They are tough little guys, resistant to rattlesnake venom and they eat all kinds of bugs, including scorpions. Unlike rodents they are not known to carry disease.
With five fingers on each hand, their dexterity is equal to of humans. Unfortunately, tlacuaches are slow movers with poor eyesight; when threatened they often go into a coma-like state hoping to fool a predator into thinking they are dead.
Apparently, tlacuaches have been in Mexico in their present forms for sixty million years. An adaptable species, these creatures eat almost anything, and they have adapted well to urban life. Currently. their biggest predators are humans because it seems that I am not alone in confusing this animal with a rat. However, it would be a pity if they disappeared due to a misunderstanding regarding their identity. So, if you see one try to ignore it.
Brooke Gazer operates Agua Azul la Villa,
an ocean view B&B in Huatulco