NC judge halts Brasstown's Opossum Drop

jshaffer@newsobserver.comNovember 13, 2012 

NEW YEAR POSSUM 4

Brasstown is known as the Possum Capital of the South, and at the stroke of midnight on Dec. 31, the city will hosts its annual Possum Drop in which a live possum in a Plexiglas cage will be lowered to celebrate the coming of the New Year. The possum is freed after the event. (Erik S. Lesser/The New York Times)

ERIK S. LESSER — NYT

— Between the bear stew, the musket blasts and the cross-dressing truck drivers, the Brasstown Opossum Drop offered the state’s liveliest party on New Year’s Eve – without a drop of mountain moonshine.

But this year, revelers will mark the year’s last minutes without Brasstown’s fur-covered bigwig, the festival’s namesake. The ‘possum drop will have no ‘possum – not a live one, at least.

An administrative law judge ruled Tuesday that the state cannot issue a special permit allowing a caged marsupial to be lowered 20 feet over a stage – a 20-year tradition once profiled in The New York Times and the highlight of the mountain town’s celebration.

“Hunters must afford wild animals the same right Patrick Henry yearned for,” Senior Administrative Law Judge Fred Morrison Jr. wrote in his order. “’Give me liberty, or give me death!’”

The decision hands a victory to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which sued the state in December and has long argued that confining a ‘possum and subjecting it to loud noises and heavy crowds constitutes cruel treatment, regardless of it being released into the wild after the event. Two years ago, PETA made similar charges about the handling of Punxsutawney Phil, proposing that the Pennsylvania town use a robotic groundhog instead.

“Compassionate citizens can now look forward to a kinder celebration at Clay’s Corner this New Year’s Eve,” said PETA spokesman David Perle.

PETA has famously sued Sea World over the slavery of killer whales and Kentucky Fried Chicken over the treatment of poultry. But the animal rights group’s case against the Opossum Drop didn’t hinge on cruelty.

Rather, PETA argued that the public’s right to enjoy wildlife is curtailed if the state allows citizens to set up temporary zoos, and that the state Wildlife Resources Commission had no right to issue a permit allowing Clay Logan to display a ‘possum at his country store.

Logan had a sportsman’s license and could have killed the animal, which was in season at the time. But he didn’t meet standards for either a license or a permit to keep animals in captivity, PETA argued, and no statute permitted the WRC to allow ‘possum-caging on a special and temporary basis.

Morrison agreed. Killing the animal was lawful; confining it was not.

“WRC should therefore have instructed Logan to immediately release the opossum into the wild where the opossum had been captured, or kill it,” Morrison wrote in his order.

The WRC will consult with legal counsel and decide whether to appeal to Superior Court of Wake County. The appeal must be filed within 30 days.

Though popular enough to merit national media coverage, the Opossum Drop has drawn other pleas for kindness to small critters. The comments section for Clay’s Corner Web sites asks that New Year’s Eve partiers consider the ‘possum’s feelings.

But Logan is sensitive to such remarks. He once told a CBS News team “There are probably opossums up around my house with little signs saying, ‘Use me next year!” His Web site carries this note:

“The opossum is not actually ‘dropped,’ it is lowered with great care. We treat our little friend with respect, hold him in awe, and do not inflict any injury or traumatize God's creature of the night.”

Reached Tuesday, Logan said he’ll wait to see if the state appeals the decision.

“It’s been dragging on for a year,” he said. “We’ll just abide by what the law says. We’ll have the Opossum Drop. I’m just not sure what we’ll have ...”

In a town that sometimes bills itself as Opossum Capital of the World, a robot marsupial may have to greet the new year.

Shaffer: (919) 829-4818