RALEIGH For 20 years, the jubilant citizens of Brasstown have welcomed the new year by catching a wild opossum, placing it in a Plexiglass cage and slowly lowering it over a cheering crowd as fireworks explode in the night sky.
But in December, this mountain-town tradition caught the eye of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, who have since fought to stop Brasstowns annual Opossum Drop for the sake of the tree-dwelling, nocturnal marsupials and 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, guaranteeing that it will rage on at least another month and putting 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 a 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 video.
His event draws national attention for its offbeat take on the Times Square apple drop in New York, and the crowds swell into the hundreds.
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 their petition sits with the Office of Administrative Hearings, where the parties agreed Monday to seek summary judgment. But further appeals are likely.
In her argument, Bernstein said the 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 that enjoyment is curtailed if a government agency allows animals to be held captive without special requirements to be met.
Still, the arguments got murky.
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?
New motions are due back to the court in October.
In Raleigh, the citizens might look to Brasstown and ask, What constitutes acorn cruelty?
Shaffer: (919) 829-4818