It’s got beady eyes, a mouth full of sharp teeth and a long ratlike tail.

And you soon may encounter one hissing at you in your garage or lying in the road in front of your car.

But have some pity for the lowly opossum. It’s been a long, tough winter for Maine’s only marsupial, and they’re just cold and hungry.

“They don’t do well in our parts for sort of obvious reasons,” said Lauren Masellas, Sanford’s animal control officer. “They have all these naked body parts – tail, ears, feet. They’re not really built for Maine winters.”

The extreme cold and deep snow this winter have taken an obvious toll, with hungry opossums showing up in sheds, garages and garbage cans, sometimes in the middle of the day when opossums are normally resting and out of sight. And with the stubborn snowpack limiting their ability to forage and move around, they are scampering along roadways and getting flattened in large numbers.

“The amount of roadkill in the last two weeks has been a little depressing,” said Doug Hitchcox, a naturalist with Maine Audubon in Falmouth. “It’s probably exaggerated because of the snow depths this year, but this time of year is really hard on a lot of these mammals (that) are just on the move right now.”

The winter season that officially ends Friday has been a challenge even for many of Maine’s more established and better-equipped small mammals. Municipal animal control officers said Wednesday that they are getting plenty of calls about sickly foxes, skunks and raccoons, for example.

But opossums are neither well-equipped for our weather nor well-established in much of Maine. In fact, they have become a resident of southern Maine only in the past few decades and are rarely seen as far north as Waterville or Bangor.

Opossums – they are often just called ‘possums – are North America’s only native marsupials, meaning the females have pouches to carry their babies.

They are more natural inhabitants of Central America, Mexico and the southern United States, where they also are sometimes hunted for meat. In fact, the species’ official name is the Virginia opossum.

THE RECENT MIGRATION TO MAINE

Over the past century, the species has gradually expanded its range northward, reaching southern Maine sometime in the last 50 years. The expansion has been helped by the spread of suburbs, which provide a food source in the form of trash and compost piles. The migration into Maine also was likely helped by a string of mild winters in recent years – a string that ended last winter and this one.

Opossums are primarily nocturnal but they do not hibernate, which means they have to keep eating all winter to survive. And their bodies are clearly designed more for February weather in Mexico City than in Mexico, Maine.

“‘Possums are kind of famous for getting frostbite (on) their little noses and little ears. They are really not equipped for cold weather,” Hitchcox said.

Hitchcox is among those who have been getting a stream of calls or emails about opossum sightings in the last couple of weeks. Opossums can be the size of a cat and resemble a rat, but with sharp teeth. The sight of them can be frightening, especially when they appear in broad daylight because they are so hungry.

“They’re certainly not much to look at,” Hitchcox said. “The No. 1 question is, ‘Are they rabid?'”

Opossums are not as susceptible to rabies as foxes or skunks, and there have been no cases of a rabid opossum in Maine in at least the past five years, according to state records. Unless they show other signs of illness – such as aggressive behavior and foaming mouths – they are simply hungry, wildlife experts say.

And, despite their sharp teeth, they are not considered a threat to pets or people. They can be beneficial because they eat insects and mice.

Monique Barker of Topsham and her three school-aged children have watched a hungry opossum, or perhaps two, that appeared around their backyard compost pile this week. “We’ve seen them in the last couple of nights,” she said.

The family likes to watch and learn about local wildlife and hasn’t seen any evidence that opossums want to get into the family’s garage.

“We try to appreciate them from afar,” she said by phone Wednesday. “They’re interesting. They’re not the cutest animal. … Wait, my kids are saying they are really cute.”

While cuteness may be debatable, few would argue that they are intelligent.

“They’re really dumb. They have a bad habit of falling into people’s trash cans,” said Masellas, the Sanford animal control officer. “That’s probably the No. 1 call I get. They fall in and can’t get out.”

A DEFENSE MECHANISM WITH A HITCH

Masellas also said they tend to faint if you yell at them. That’s because, besides hissing, the opossum’s prime defense tactic is to roll onto its side, open its mouth and appear to be dead – playing possum.

Joshua Sparks, an animal rehabilitator with Sparks’ Ark Animal Services in New Gloucester, said that the well-known defense mechanism is one reason there have been so many roadkills in recent days and weeks. “When an opossum sees a car coming, it doesn’t get out of the way. It stays there and plays dead,” Sparks said.

On the positive side, the behavior also can make them easy to trap and remove if they become a nuisance. Last year, Sparks was able to trap a nuisance opossum simply by yelling at it until it played dead. “We didn’t have to set any traps for it,” he said.

While those who know what Maine opossums have been up against this winter say the animal deserves some sympathy, they also don’t want people feeding the hungry animals to help them. That can do more harm than good in the long run, they say.

“This is nature. This happens. This is going to be the survival of the fittest,” said Hitchcox, the Audubon naturalist. “I would not want to see these animals become dependent on a person.”