After a year-long legal tussle and a tree-high stack of paperwork, the annual Opossum Drop of Brasstown hangs by its hairless tail.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals made final arguments Thursday in its bid to stop the mountain town’s New Year’s Eve celebration, an alcohol-free party in which a nocturnal marsupial is lowered at midnight in a tinsel-covered Plexiglas cage. After the ceremony, the opossum is released into the wild and the new year.
PETA has argued in a court battle that has stretched out over nearly a year that the Opossum Drop’s crowds, fireworks and the lack of any suitable hiding place can agitate the shy creatures. But cruelty – a tricky thing to prove – isn’t the crux of the animal rights group’s case. Rather, PETA maintains, the public’s right to enjoy wildlife is curtailed by allowing people to build temporary zoos.
Over 90 minutes Thursday, PETA attorney Martina Bernstein stressed that Clay Logan had every right to shoot and kill a ’possum last December, when the squabble first arose.
His hunting license allowed him to “take” the animal, which was in season, but not to capture it, drive away with it, keep it caged, and then put it on display before thousands at his country store.
“It is putting the animal in a truck, taking the animal home, confining the animal for days or weeks and then exhibiting him,” Bernstein said.
The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission issued Logan a special permit when he called late last year, fearing a lawsuit from PETA, but Bernstein called this improper. The Clay County store owner did not meet requirements for keeping captive animals, she said, and the state invented a permit to fit the bill.
As she made her arguments, Senior Administrative Law Judge Fred Morrison Jr. tried to clarify PETA’s case.
“They needed to say, ‘No, Mr. Logan. You need to take a pistol, a rifle, a 10-gauge shotgun, a bow and arrow, and kill the possum. Or let it go,” Morrison said.
When Bernstein stressed that a sportsman’s license allows a hunter to take an animal, but not possess a live one, Morrison asked, “How many ’possum and ’coon hunters across the state do you think realize that?”
For two decades, Logan has held the ’possum drop at his country store in the small town near Georgia about 100 miles west of Asheville. He received a permit from the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission that spelled out the size of the cage and terms of the ’possum’s release.
Logan’s 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. Entertainment also includes a male beauty contest and a musketry demonstration.
In his argument Thursday, Assistant Attorney General Norman Young said both the state agency and Logan “were put in the squeeze.”
The commission had to perform a balancing act between hunters, trappers, anglers and PETA – opposed to all hunting and trapping. While the decision over the permit was not perfect, he said, it was made thoroughly and fairly by the commission’s executive director without any ’possums being harmed.
Nobody in North Carolina has cited any problem, he said, and the ’possum drop was profiled by CBS Sunday Morning without any reports of anything being amiss.
Meanwhile, Logan awaits word from 330 miles away.
“This is about stopping Mr. Logan doing what he’s doing without taking him to court where he can reasonably defend himself,” Young said.
A decision is expected next week.