RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A possum drop that attracts thousands of people to a tiny town in western North Carolina each New Year's Eve may have had its last hurrah after a judge ruled Tuesday that a state agency didn't have the authority to issue a permit for the event.
"Citizens are prohibited from capturing and using wild animals for pets or amusement," Judge Fred Morrison wrote in his ruling. "Hunters must afford wild animals the same right Patrick Henry yearned for: 'Give me liberty, or give me death!"
The ruling would end a 19-year tradition of suspending a possum in see-through box covered with holiday tinsel and lowering it to the ground at midnight. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals had sued the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, which issues the permit for the event, saying it's illegal and cruel.
The commission has 30 days to appeal Morrison's decision to Superior Court. A spokesman said the agency will decide whether to appeal after reviewing the 18-page ruling.
Clay Logan, who owns Logan Corner store, manages the event, which attracts 2,000 to 3,000 people annually to the tiny hamlet. The commission "had no authority to issue any permit to Logan for the unlawful public display of a native wild animal" at the drop, Morrison wrote.
Logan said the possum drop will continue in some form, although he won't break the law. This challenge by PETA marks at least the third time that someone has challenged the drop, he said.
"I figured sooner or later they'd get somebody to rule on their side," he said. "It's like a football game. If you play somebody long enough, you're going to beat them eventually."
He started the drop 21 years ago, but only family and friends from the store attended the first two events. He said he got the idea after someone suggested that since the possum is Brasstown's mascot of sorts, the town should have a live animal drop similar to the dropping of the ball in Times Square.
"This thing is more of an opinion than anything," he said. "If's harming the possum in any way, it's just an opinion. Evidently, they got a judge that had the same opinion they did."
Logan didn't meet the requirements for a captivity license or permit so the commission circumvented its duty and invented a new permit called a "temporary possession and release permit," the judge said.
Morrison wrote that although the commission claims to have issued such permits in the past, it produced no evidence to prove that it had. The temporary permit allowed Logan to keep the possum for several weeks and to exhibit the animal before it was release.
Logan's sportsman license only allowed him to take the animal, not possess and exhibit it, Morrison wrote. He was in possession of a wild-captured animal from at least Dec. 15, 2011, through Jan. 1, 2012, Morrison said.
PETA was pleased with the ruling. "Compassionate citizens can now look forward to a kinder celebration at Clay's Corner this New Year's Eve," PETA spokesman David Perle said in an email.
Martha Waggoner can be reached at http://twitter.com/mjwaggonernc