These days, being an opossum in North Carolina comes with a lot of attention — from lawmakers, animal rights activists, and even Superior Court judges. Besides being the official state marsupial (we’re not kidding) they play a starring role in the annual New Year’s Eve Possum Drop in Clay County and over the last few years, they’ve become the subject of some light-hearted deliberations in the General Assembly.
[Editor’s Note: there is apparently a difference between a “possum” and an “opossum.” According to something we read on the internet, the opossum is the only marsupial native to North America (a marsupial is an animal that carries its young in a pouch, like the kangaroo). Possums, however, are found in New Guinea, Australia, Indonesia and other places we’ve never heard of. Here in North Carolina, we use the terms interchangeably. Now back to the story.]
For as long as anyone can remember, people around the world have celebrated the possibilities and hope of the new year — and for some reason, it always seems to involve dropping things. In New York City, hundreds of thousands of people gather in Times Square (and millions more watch on television) as a giant Waterford crystal ball drops while huge digital screens tick down the seconds. In Atlanta, they drop a huge illuminated Peach. In Mobile, Alabama, they drop an enormous Moon Pie. In Key West (and live on CNN) they drop a big glitter-festooned red high-heel shoe.
Here in North Carolina, we have our own unique traditions, In Raleigh, (the “City of Oaks”) they drop The Big Acorn. In Mount Olive, they drop a lit pickle. In Eastover, they drop a three-foot long foam and wooden flea. And in the little mountain burg of Brasstown, folks gather down at the Citgo station to watch a live possum as it’s gently lowered about six feet from a crane in a tinsel-festooned plexiglass box while Mr. Clay Logan, the master of ceremonies, leads the audience in the countdown: “three, two, one…the possum has landed!”
“It’s more exciting than when the hogs ate Granny!” declared The Carringer Chronicle of the event.
The Brasstown Possum Drop at Clay’s Corner Store began back in 1990 with no more than 30 curious onlookers. Now, the town’s population of 240 swells to more than 3,000 festival-goers who enjoy the annual non-alcoholic family-friendly extravaganza that includes music, fireworks, food, souvenirs, and cross-dressing truckers competing for the coveted title of “Miss Possum Queen.” Just imagine the possum-bilities!
“We’re kind of poking fun at all the stereotypes of rednecks and hillbillies,” said Mr. Logan, who also founded the Possum Drop. “See, some people think of rednecks as ignorant skinhead types, waving the Confederate flag and living barefoot in the mountains,” agreed Mr. Crisp, a local building contractor. “We do live in the country. And we like to hunt. But besides that, we’re just trying to have fun.”1
Mr. Logan likes to remind any critics that the possum is not actually dropped, but lowered with great care. “We treat our little friend with respect, hold him in awe, and we do not inflict any injury or traumatize God’s creature of the night.”
But some animal rights activists are not amused. Every year, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) objects to the Possum Drop as somehow being cruel and inhumane — and has filed multiple lawsuits in an effort to put a stop to the event.
“We’re amazed that something as ill-conceived and cruel as dropping an opossum in a box is still taking place in the 21st century,” says Jeff Kerr, PETA’s general counsel in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “This is pure terror for a small wild animal that’s shy and avoids humans at all cost.”
Mr. Logan said of PETA, “I know they’ve been here New Year’s Eve. They’re the only ones not smiling.”
Possession of live wildlife generally requires some kind of permit or license from the Wildlife Resources Commission, such as a Wildlife Captivity License. But the license comes with all kinds of requirements for the sizes of enclosures, care, feeding, sanitation, protection from sun, weather and stress, and so on and so on.
According to the Wildlife Resources Commission, “In North Carolina, you cannot hold a wild animal or wild bird as a pet or for amusement or companionship purposes. No captivity license will be issued until the applicant has constructed or acquired a facility for keeping the animal or bird that complies to that standards found in Regulation 15A NCAC 10H .0302 and the suitability of the facility has been verified on inspection.” Furthermore, “before a Wildlife Captivity License can be issued, it must be determined that the wild animal or wild bird was acquired lawfully and will not be kept merely as a pet or for amusement or companionship purposes as stated in G.S. 113-272.5.”
All these government regulations for something that lasts just a few minutes for just one night a year? (The possum, by the way, is released back into the wild immediately afterwards. We have no information on what becomes of Miss Possum Queen.) The Wildlife Resources Commission was not unsympathetic.
Understanding that Mr. Logan wasn’t in the business of zoo-keeping and that the Possum Drop didn’t qualify for any type of permit they could issue, in the spirit of accommodation, the Commission disregarded the “letter of the law” and issued Mr. Logan a special purpose permit to allow him to include the little critter in the beloved event.
This is where it gets hairy. Senior Administrative Law Judge Fred Morrison, in reviewing a subsequent lawsuit brought by PETA, ruled in 2012 that the Wildlife Resources Commission didn’t have the power to issue any special permits for the Possum Drop. “There is no authority in the wildlife statutes,” he pointed out, “that allows the Wildlife Resources Commission to issue permits for the “temporary possession and public display of a live native animal.”
In response to the ruling, the legislature passed a local act in 2014 (House Bill 1131), which suspended all wildlife regulations in Clay County every year from December 26 to January 2 (the week of the Possum Drop). To protect Mr. Logan from those niggling PETA lawsuits for the possum drops that were held in earlier years, HB1131 took effect retroactively: Section 3 of the bill reads, “This act is effective on and after December 30, 2013.”
According to PETA, this law was an outrage that created a “Zone of Lawlessness” because it would afford no wildlife protections in that county during that period. PETA lawyer Jon Sasser said the law “would have allowed a possum to be burned, waterboarded, crucified or otherwise tortured in Clay County.”
When PETA sued again in 2014 over the local law, Superior Court Judge Bryan Collins thought PETA technically had a sound case and granted a preliminary injunction — blocking the narrowly-tailored law from taking effect.
The legislature, taking its cue from the court’s action, rewrote the law to strike any specific reference to Clay County, thereby creating a General Law that applied to every possum in every county during New Year’s Eve. The reworded bill, introduced this year as House Bill 574, makes possums exempt statewide from wildlife regulations for one week during the period of the famous Possum Drop. [Editor’s note: when it comes to the law, although it may take some time, the General Assembly always has the last word.]
HB574 states simply that “no State or local statutes, rules, regulations, or ordinances governing the capture, captivity, treatment, or release of wildlife apply to the didelphis virginiana [that means opossum] between December 29 of each year and January 2 of each subsequent year.”
In April, HB574 passed the House with broad bipartisan support (94-18) and overwhelmingly last week in the Senate (38-9). The legislation — and, of course, possums everywhere — await the governor’s signature.
[UPDATE: Governor McCrory signed House Bill 574 on Tuesday, January 11, 2015.]