DEAR JOAN: For months, I've heard something scratching at the gravel under my gate to the back yard at night and I have seen evidence of tunneling. I've never been quick enough to see what it is. I blocked the area with bricks and have not heard the noise since.

The other day however, I saw a fairly large opossum squeezing under my deck. I have a sneaking suspicion that he or she is living under the deck. I've not smelled anything offensive so I'm not sure it's actually spending a lot of time there.

Do opossums soil where they live? Could it be a health hazard? I'm selling the house soon and wonder if I should declare a "visitor." Is the advice to let it be or humanely trap and release, or contact animal control for removal?

A mother opossum and her family of seven.
A mother opossum and her family of seven. (Courtesy of Liana Bekakos (file photo))

Marj Scooros

San Jose

DEAR MARJ: Opossums don't build their own dens so they love decks, attics, storage sheds, garages and all sorts of fabricated structures. Their one requirement is that the home be near a food source, so one opossum may have several dens, with the length of stay dependent on how much food is nearby. Your deck may be but one location.

Raccoons are known for selecting a latrine and using it repeatedly. Opossums are more opportunistic. When nature calls, they answer, so it could be in their den or outside. Generally, their droppings are found on trails to and from food sources.

Opossums are among the least troubling creatures you can have in your yard. They are highly resistant to rabies, as well as rattlesnake venom. They sometimes get blamed for turning over the garbage, but it is more likely a raccoon got there first and the opossum is just coming to see what's left.

They eat snails and slugs, and have been known to eat snakes and rats. They wouldn't say no to a ripe tomato or two, but generally they aren't pests in the garden. There are exceptions to every rule, however.

The only real danger from the opossum is from the droppings, and only if you have a horse. The droppings carry a protozoan known as Sarcocystis neurona, which is believed to be a contributing factor in horses developing EPM, equine protozoal myeloencephalitis.

You'll have to check with your realtor about disclosures, but if you decide to get rid of the opossum you should know it is against the law to release trapped animals anywhere but from where they were taken. That means you can't set a trap and then release the opossum a few miles down the road. If you trap it, you must either release it or destroy it.

The best thing to do is to wait for the opossum to leave for the night, then seal the entrance. Make sure you aren't sealing in any youngsters or other creatures. Before attempting this, take a few nights to observe. You can sprinkle flour around the deck and then examine the footprints to see who's coming and going.

Easier yet, take away the food supply for the opossum and he or she will move on. Don't leave pet food out and you may want to take in bird feeders for a while.

DEAR JOAN: We have a couple of lemon and persimmon trees.

Our neighbor called the other day to say that fruit that had dropped on the ground might attract rats. My son went out and picked up what was there, but I wonder if the neighbor's concern is valid.

Donald Meyer

Mountain View

DEAR DONALD: Yes and no. Rats are attracted to fruit on or off the tree, but keeping the area picked up will help stop the spread of diseases and is just a good gardener thing to do.

Contact her at jmorris@bayareanewsgroup.com or 1700 Cavallo Road, Antioch, CA 94509.