Critter update: The opossums strike back

Apparently the Opossums That Be didn’t much care for my post on what to do if an opossum visits your backyard.

In fact, they seem to have gotten pretty riled up, because they are now threatening my family. When my brother-in-law showed up for work last week, he found Bruiser here waiting for him.

Thanks to my sister, our family has a new family blessing. “May you never walk in to find an opossum sitting in your desk chair.” (Photo: Bryan Brown)

Some shenanigans ensued, the details of which remain classified. Because the Opossum Army of North America is clearly monitoring this site, all I’m allowed to tell you is that I still have a brother-in-law and he no longer has a furry office mate.

Fear not, brave readers. Even though Bruiser managed to trash every office, hallway, and kitchen in the place during The Omnivorous Opossum Onslaught of 2018, we will not be cowed! Caterpickles journalism continues unabated!

Reminder: What to do when you find an opossum in your home or office

If you too should stroll into your office one fine morning to find an opossum sitting in your chair, you can either:

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“Why can’t you heat a jawbreaker?”

In an effort to finally rid the house of our leftover Halloween and Easter candy, I snagged a copy of Loralee Leavitt’s Candy Experiments and began to flip through looking for a way to dispose of all those unwanted Peeps.

I hadn’t gotten very far before I found this:


The warning from Loralee Leavitt’s book on Candy Experiments that got all our wondering started.

And all I’ve been able to think about since is why? Why can’t you heat a jawbreaker?

The 30-second answer (That’s “tl;dr” for all you youngsters out there) 

Because jawbreakers often explode when heated, and you could get some serious burns.

The 3-minute explanation for “Because jawbreakers often explode when heated…”

The Discovery Channel’s Mythbusters devoted part of an episode to this. Apparently, even though all the layers of the jawbreaker are essentially the same thing (sugar syrup), the outermost layer stays hard when you heat it, while the inner layers become molten and liquid. You can’t tell that this has happened when you look at the jawbreaker, because hot jawbreakers look like cold jawbreakers.

But crack the surface of a hot jawbreaker, and it could explode, putting you at risk for some serious burns.


Watch the Mythbusters video instead.

Cover for Loralee Leavitt's Candy Experiments

Through some light-hearted scientific testing the Mythbusters team found that jawbreakers can heat up enough to melt the middle while leaving the outside intact in the microwave — or by simply being left out in the sun for a couple of hours.

When they cracked open the jawbreaker from the microwave in their simulated human jaws, it exploded.

When they cracked open the jawbreaker heated in the sun, it didn’t explode right away, but was still molten and hot in the center.

Ok. So don’t heat a jawbreaker. Message received.

But now I’m thinking about that microwaved jawbreaker. Why did it explode when the one heated in the sun didn’t?

What happens in a microwave that makes the jawbreaker explode?

But that’s a question for another post.

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Wordless Wednesday: Mood Alert — Slumpy, with a chance of summer

Photo: Shala Howell

Is school out yet?

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There’s an opossum in my yard. Is it time to freak out?

Last week, when The Eleven-Year-Old and I came home from school, we discovered our normally droopy cat on high alert.

When you are used to coming home and seeing some version of this:

(Photo: Shala Howell)

But instead see this…

(Photo: Shala Howell)

It kind of gets your attention.

Normally, it’s something that falls into the Compelling-to-Cats-but-Funny-to-Humans category, like a grey squirrel talking smack to an indoor-only cat, but…

“That’s a funny looking squirrel, The Eleven-Year-Old,” I said.

“That’s not a squirrel, Mommyo.”

The funny-looking squirrel obligingly moved out from under our sidewalk, so I could get a better look.

(Photo: Shala Howell)

“Oh dear. There’s an opossum in our back yard.”

The Eleven-Year-Old, worriedly: “Is it time to freak out?”

The 3-second answer (That’s “tl;dr” for all you youngsters out there) 


The 1-minute explanation for “No”

Although opossums have wicked looking teeth and a frankly creepy tail, they are typically gentle creatures. According to the Opossum Society of the United States, these nocturnal buck-toothed predators are remarkably docile, considering they regularly devour snakes, snails, mice, spiders, rats, and cockroaches.

Some people might even consider opossums a gardener’s best friend. After all, opossums will happily clean up the rotting fruit that dropped off your fruit trees before you remembered to go out and pick it. That’s service.

According to the Opossum Society, the only time you need to do anything about the opossum traipsing through your backyard is if he is injured or shorter than 7 inches from nose to rump. If either is true about your backyard visitor, then it’s time to call the Opossum Society of the United States, a local wildlife rehabilitator, a veterinarian, or your local animal shelter.

I told my husband all this, and you can guess his response:

“The Opossum Society? What kind of fly-by-night possum activist group is that? You need to back this up with data from another source.”

So I visited the website for the Humane Society of the United States. There I found much of the same information I’d already found on the Opossum Society’s page, along with some pretty specific descriptions of things opossums are blamed for, but almost never do.

According to the Humane Society, the opossum isn’t the beast that killed your chickens. Nor is he the guy who tipped over your trash (although as long as it’s already tipped over, our little opossum friend will happily treat himself to dinner).

That open-mouthed hissing and drooling? Probably not a sign of rabies (rabies is rare in opossums), although you really should stay away from the opossum anyway. I mean, you wouldn’t want to him to get really scared and play dead all over your newly laid mulch.

As long as everyone–pets, curious adults, and small children–keeps their distance from the opossum, no one needs to get hurt. Just sit back and enjoy watching this little bit of wildlife do its part to keep your garden ship-shape.

Enjoy that extra help while it lasts. Your new opossum buddy will most likely move on to your neighbor’s garden before too long.

Want to encourage the opossum to leave sooner? 

The Humane Society’s page includes some helpful tips for discouraging opossums from visiting your garden, such as:

  • Putting a tight-fitting lid on your garbage can
  • Keeping holes filled under your deck or patio to discourage mother opossums from denning there
  • Locking your pet doors at night so that opossums won’t use them to enter the house

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What’s The Eleven-Year-Old reading this week?

Animorphs: The Invasion by K. A. Applegate

What the book’s about:

When Jake, Rachel, Tobias, Cassie, and Marco find a downed alien spaceship and its dying pilot, they learn two things:

  1. The Earth is being invaded.
  2. No one else knows about it, so it’s up to them to stop it.

After their encounter with the space alien, the kids are given a spectacular super power — they can transform into any animal they touch.

Will their new powers be enough to save the Earth?

What The Eleven-Year-Old thinks about it:

“The cover is much scarier than the book. This book isn’t nearly as creepy as it sounds. The story itself is amazing.”

The Notebook of Doom: Rise of the Balloon Goons by Troy Cummings

What the book’s about:

Shortly after moving to his new town, Alexander finds a notebook filled with top-secret information about the town’s flock of balloon goons. Can Alexander use the information in the Notebook of Doom to defeat a monstrous gang of twisted, arm-waving balloon guys?

Part of Scholastic’s early chapter book line, The Notebook of Doom mingles black and white illustrations with funny, easy-to-read text to keep newly independent readers turning the page.

Who The Eleven-Year-Old thinks would like it:

“Hilarious! This is a good choice for sci-fi or fantasy lovers of all ages, who want a funny, well-written, and moderately easy read.”

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(Mostly) Wordless Wednesday: Edgar Allan Poe

A life-sized statue of Edgar Allan Poe in Boston, Massachusetts by Stefanie Rocknak. Date Installed: 2014 (Photo: Michael Howell)

Once you start looking for it, public art really is everywhere. My husband passed this guy while strolling down Boylston Street in Boston, Massachusetts last week.

This life-sized statue of Edgar Allan Poe was created by Stefanie Rocknak, and installed at the corner of Boylston and Charles Street South in 2014. You can’t see it in the above picture but there’s a tell-tale heart beating on a pile of books on the back of the statue. My husband kindly texted me a second picture showing it.

(Photo: Michael Howell)

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What’s The Eleven-Year-Old reading this week?

Fever by Laurie Halse Anderson

What the book’s about: 

Fourteen-year-old Mattie Cook dreams of turning her family’s coffee shop into a thriving commercial enterprise. In the summer of 1793, business is booming, despite the fever sweeping through Philadelphia. But the fatalities mount, and inevitably the fever threatens Mattie’s own family. She must choose between building a new life and fighting to simply stay alive.

What The Eleven-Year-Old thinks about it:

“It’s a little heavy-handed, but it gets much better toward the end.”

Guys Read: Other Worlds edited by Jon Scieszka

What the book’s about:

The Guys Read: Other Worlds anthology includes new science fiction and fantasy stories from ten of today’s most popular writers, including Rick Riordan, Tom Angleberger, Shannon Hale, and Ray Bradbury.

What The Eleven-Year-Old thinks about it:

Although Jon Scieszka edited this anthology specifically to appeal to tween boys, The Eleven-Year-Old wants you to know that it’s not just for guys. Also, “some of the stories are exceptionally funny. Hilarious, even.”

She thought for a moment, then added, “But you should warn people that this book contains robotic shoe references.”

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Wordless Wednesday: Flowers

Photo: Shala Howell

I have never seen this kind of flower outside of a florist arrangement before. But there it was, just growing next to a fence post because California is a magical place where that sort of thing just happens.

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Wordless Wednesday: Mood Alert

Found this photo on Twitter this week. Pretty much all I can tell you about it is that I didn’t take it, and this isn’t our cat. Wish I knew who did take it though, so I could credit them properly. For now, let’s call them: Person Who Takes the Sort of Pictures That Become Memes on Twitter.

The Eleven-Year-Old has officially started the last month of fifth grade. The entire house is pretty much feeling it.

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“Can I compost my potentially E. coli-infected lettuce?”

This is romaine lettuce. Don’t eat it for a while. (Photo: Rainer Zenz via Wikipedia Creative Commons)

As you may have heard, romaine lettuce out of Arizona has been contaminated with a particularly nasty form of E. coli, E. coli O157:H7. So far, 53 cases have been identified across 16 states, including California, Pennsylvania, and Idaho. Those cases include 31 people sick enough to have been hospitalized, and five who have developed something called hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). HUS is a severe complication from E. coli infection, in which red blood cells get damaged and the kidneys fail. Even ICU docs are afraid of it.

The E. coli strain involved in this particular lettuce recall is so bad the CDC is taking no chances with it. Because it’s very hard for consumers to tell where their romaine is sourced from, the CDC is telling U.S. consumers nationwide to simply throw away all of their romaine unless they know for a fact it isn’t from Yuma, Arizona(You probably shouldn’t be eating salad at your favorite restaurants right now either, unless you know for a fact that their romaine isn’t from Yuma, Arizona.)

The warning covers all types of romaine lettuce:

  • whole romaine heads
  • hearts of romaine
  • any bagged salads containing romaine

To make matters worse, not all bags of mixed salad list romaine as an ingredient even if it’s in there. If you’re not sure whether or not the bag of salad in your hand contains romaine, the CDC says you should just throw it out and thoroughly sanitize your refrigerator after.

Guess who bought a week’s worth of salad in the hours before the warning was announced?

Hint: This is her cat.

(Photo: Shala Howell)

If we still lived in Chicago, this would be easy. I’d simply toss my lettuce in all of its merry little forms into the garbage bin as instructed.

But we live in California now, and that means we have curbside compost pickup.

Tossing a week’s worth of salad into the trash seems so wasteful. Which got me wondering: Wouldn’t it be better to compost it?

The 30-second answer (That’s “tl;dr” for all you youngsters out there) 

Probably not.

The 3-minute explanation for “Probably not”

I did a lot of reading about composting this morning.

Composting is sort of amazing when you think about it. It turns my spoiled food and rotting yard waste into rich and clean soil for next year’s crop. You know how you are supposed to cook food to specific temperatures and keep it there for a while to kill off the pathogens that cause food poisoning? That’s more or less what composting does.

According to a composting fact sheet I found from the Colorado State University Extension school, properly managed compost piles can achieve internal temperatures of 130-140ºF. A well-mixed compost pile that achieves 130-140ºF for two five-day spans will kill off most of the nasty pathogens hidden within it, especially if that lovely baking period is followed by 2-4 months of curing before you work the compost into your garden.

Unfortunately, the key word in that paragraph was “most.”

Composting does kill off most types of E. coli, but the strain involved in this particular outbreak is particularly resilient. As far as I can tell, E. coli O157:H7 appears to be the honey badger of food-borne illness (parents, don’t watch this video with your children).

It can survive in all sorts of conditions that kill other bacteria off. Freeze it, refrigerate it, dry it out. O157:H7 doesn’t care. It can adapt to acidic conditions and survive for extended periods of time in water and soil. In other words, once this guy shows up, he’s around for the long haul.

Cooking E. coli O157:H7 to 160ºF, though, is one of the ways to kill it.

From what I can tell, the composting process has to be executed absolutely perfectly in order to kill E. coli O157:H7, and even then composting only kills most of it. Most home composting operations can’t eradicate E. coli O157:H7 completely. They are simply too small, don’t get hot enough, and have too much temperature variability inside the pile. Don’t feel bad, home composters. A 2010 study showed that many commercial composting operations couldn’t totally eliminate E. coli O157:H7 either.

That’s a problem because it only takes a few O157:H7 cells to cause infection. Since the resulting illness can become very serious very quickly, especially for young children and the elderly, let’s do everyone a favor and keep our potentially E. coli O157:H7-infected lettuce out of our compost heaps.

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