Raleigh, N.C. — The latest chapter in the legal saga of the Brasstown Possum Drop is headed for the Senate floor after winning approval Wednesday from the Senate Agriculture and Environment committee.
For years, animal-rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has waged a legal battle to stop the Clay County tradition of lowering a possum in a Plexiglas box to celebrate the New Year. And every year since 2012, Rep. Roger West, R-Clay, has filed new bills designed to sidestep rulings against the practice.
PETA argues that the event is cruel and inhumane to the possum, which is captured days before, kept in a pen and then released after the drop. The group's lawyers say the animal can die of fright, and if it's a nursing female, the litter of young left behind will starve to death.
Last year, lawmakers approved a bill that would have exempted possums in Clay County from wildlife handling and animal cruelty laws for the week around New Year's. But in December 2014, Superior Court Judge Bryan Collins put the law on hold, ruling that PETA would likely win its argument that the local law was unconstitutional.
Last year's Possum Drop did not feature a live possum, said event organizer Clay Logan.
This year's legislation, House Bill 574, would exempt all possums in North Carolina from any state or local laws or rules "related to the capture, captivity, treatment, or release of wildlife" between Dec. 29 and Jan. 2. West told the Senate committee he believes the latest version will withstand the constitutional challenge that stopped the 2014 law.
Sen. Joel Ford, D-Mecklenburg, said he was unfamiliar with the event and asked West to describe it.
"We go out a day or so before New Year's and catch a possum. They put it up, groom it. On New Year's Eve, they put it in a Plexiglas cage and lower it at midnight," West explained. "After that, it's taken back and released."
"Are you serious?" Ford asked to laughter from the panel. "We're taking up this kind of discussion and debate over that process?"
"It's a mountain thing," replied Rep. Mike Hager, R-Rutherford.
"Thank God for the cities," Ford quipped.
Sen. Angela Bryant, D-Nash, was the only vote against the bill.
"I just have a concern in principle with engaging in inhumane acts with animals," Bryant said. "I don't think we should do anything that could desensitize children to the mistreatment of animals, especially in a government-sanctioned event."
"It's a good clean event. There's no inhumane treatment of the possum whatsoever," West responded. "In fact, the possum's treated very well."
"I think he's treated a whole lot better than if they were out there in the wild or if they were crossing the road in front of a car," said Sen. Tom McInnis, R-Richmond. "That's a right big economic opportunity for that town there, and might give a little glory to that possum rather than being detrimental."
Sen. Erica Smith-Ingram, D-Northampton, asked whether the practice endangers public safety, noting a groundhog bit a mayor's ear in Wisconsin earlier this year.
"In the mountains, our possums are well-behaved," joked Hager.
PETA general counsel Jeff Kerr said the bill is "just as flawed as last year's opossum statute."
"It is a travesty that the North Carolina legislature continues to waste time and taxpayer funds in its effort to legalize cruelty to opossums for a tawdry New Year's Eve event," Kerr said in a statement to WRAL News. "PETA hopes the Senate will come to its senses and reject this ridiculous bill, and we'll continue our fight to end the use of a live opossum in the Opossum Drop and any other events that harm and harass wildlife."