RALEIGH — For 20 years, the jubilant citizens of Brasstown have welcomed the new year by catching a wild opossum, placing it in a Plexiglas cage draped with tinsel and slowly lowering it over a cheering crowd as fireworks explode in the night sky.
But last December, this mountain-town tradition caught the eye of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, who have since fought to stop Brasstowns annual possum drop for the sake of the tree-dwelling, nocturnal marsupials and the animal lovers who cherish them.
Possums are very shy, said Martina Bernstein, director of litigation for PETA. They dont run up to people. They run away. They have no way to hide. They are wild animals. You cant explain to them that you just want to have fun.
On Tuesday, Senior Administrative Law Judge Fred Morrison Jr. denied the states motion to dismiss PETAs case. That guarantees this debate will rage on at least another month and it could put this years possum drop in jeopardy. Over the next few weeks, the question of just what can and cant be done to a woodland creature will persist.
The whole thing is moot, argued Norman Young, assistant attorney general. The possum is back running around in the woods somewhere for all we know.
But he could have trauma, Morrison noted.
He could have been eaten by a bigger animal for all we know, Young said.
The case revolves around Clay Logan, who holds the possum drop at his country store in the small town near the Georgia border. He received a permit from the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission that spelled out the size of the cage and terms of its release.
I tried to figure out what I could do to get attention without going to jail, Logan said in a 2010 videotape shot by photographer Charles Stretch Ledford.
Logans event draws national attention for its offbeat take on the Times Square apple drop in New York, and the Brasstown crowds swell into the thousands.
I think they have a musketry demonstration and some kind of male beauty contest to pick the possum queen, Young said in Tuesdays hearing, describing the goings-on at the alcohol-free show.
PETA filed a lawsuit in December, seeking a temporary restraining order, which was denied. Now, the groups petition sits with the Office of Administrative Hearings, where the parties agreed Tuesday to seek summary judgment. Further appeals are likely.
In her argument Tuesday, Bernstein said PETAs case will not rest on whether the possum endured cruelty.
To us, its clear that the possum suffers, she said. Other people may not see that, and its hard to find experts.
Rather, she said, PETA will argue that wildlife is for everyone in North Carolina to enjoy, and such enjoyment is curtailed if a government agency allows animals to be held captive without special requirements being met.
The arguments got murky Tuesday.
Logan, it was noted, had a sportsmans license, and possums were in season.
They could have taken this possum and killed it and put it in the freezer and had it on New Years Eve, Morrison noted. But you cant capture one and keep it in a celebration in honor of possums?