At midnight every New Year's Eve, Clay Logan likes to lower a live opossum in a box to the cheers of a couple thousand spectators as they count down the last 10 seconds of the year.
But there's a problem with this year's Annual Clay's Corner Possum Drop. Three problems, actually:
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has objected to the Possum Drop that Logan has conducted the last 20 New Year's Eves. It's the latest showdown in an ongoing tussle over a common white-faced marsupial in a box.
Last summer, it appeared that Logan, 68, a wise-cracking country store owner in North Carolina's Smoky Mountains, had wriggled out of trouble. A sympathetic state representative here in Clay County persuaded the Legislature in Raleigh to pass a statute suspending wildlife laws in the county, conveniently, between Dec. 26 and Jan. 2.
That's where the lawyers come in.
PETA sued the state for creating an illegal "zone of lawlessness." Jon Sasser, a PETA lawyer, has said the law "would have allowed a possum to be burned, waterboarded, crucified or otherwise tortured in Clay County."
Enter the judge. This month, Superior Court Judge James E. Harden Jr. issued an injunction against the opossum statute, calling it "unconstitutionally vague." Now Logan will need a state wildlife captivity license to lower the opossum. Typically, Logan first dangles the box 16 feet in the air from 10 p.m. to midnight, secured by a rope strung over a light pole. Then he slowly lowers the opossum in a 10-second countdown.
Logan says he releases the opossums — he names each one O.P., for Old Possum — back into the wild after every Possum Drop. "We do ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to harm the possum," declares a proviso on clayscorner.com.
Up to 3,000 people from several states drive into tiny Brasstown for the spectacle. They watch from a grassy hill adorned with big, white, Hollywood-style letters spelling "BRASSTOWN."
The possum drop is customarily preceded by a bluegrass band, a Miss Possum cross-dressing contest, a "Eulogy to a Possum" and a salute to men and women in uniform.
So what will Clay Logan do this year?
Logan strokes his whiskers, deep in thought. He's perched beside a wood stove in the back room at Clay's Corner, a country store with a wooden possum hanging out front and a sign that reads, "Opossum Capital of the World."
Logan has just inspected a shipment of this year's Possum Drop T-shirts, inscribed with the message: "The Zone of Lawlessness — Clay's Corner." He's still wearing last year's shirt: "Possum, the Other Other White Meat."
Finally, Logan speaks: "Oh, we're gonna have a Possum Drop this year."
He won't say whether he'll apply for the wildlife license. He says he obtained a license last year, but only after a wildlife official inspected and approved the box and a veterinarian pronounced the opossum healthy.
"That box is a government-approved possum motel," Logan says, admiring his blue plexiglass creation, which features air holes and images of an American flag and a possum's belly. "Next thing you know, they'll be making me put in a TV for him."
Logan, a former tree specialist for the U.S. Forest Service, is a resourceful man. When PETA threatened to sue him a couple of years ago, he held the Possum Drop anyway — with a dead possum.
If he doesn't obtain a license this year, he says he won't break the law. He may just lower an empty box.
Logan is describing to a visiting reporter how he hunts a new opossum every year — "Now that's legal; I got a hunting license'' — when the newsman's cellphone rings. It's Jeff Kerr, PETA's general counsel in Washington, D.C., responding to a request for comment.
"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," Kerr says. "This is pure terror for a small wild animal that's shy and avoids humans at all cost."
The opossums are subjected to "capture myopathy," Kerr says, a condition he says can kill the animals. Logan's opossums probably die shortly after being released, according to Kerr.
Informed of Kerr's comments, Logan shrugs. "That's his opinion," he says.
The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission does not care to weigh in on the Possum Drop. A spokesman, Geoff Cantrell, says the agency's lawyer declines to comment, citing ongoing litigation.
Cantrell refers a reporter to the wildlife captivity license section on the agency's website, which says: "In North Carolina, you cannot hold a wild animal or wild bird for amusement or companionship purposes."
Logan says he would have worked out a compromise years ago if PETA had just talked to him directly instead of going to court. He says PETA has never approached him or protested at a Possum Drop.
"But I know they've been here New Year's Eve," he says. "They're the only ones not smiling."
Some people in Brasstown say PETA is overreacting.
"They're being totally ludicrous,'' says Rebecca Jacob, who shops at Clay's Corner. "There are lots more important things to worry about in this world besides lowering a possum a few feet.''
Teri Jones, who keeps her River's Rim Studio art gallery in Brasstown open till midnight every New Year's Eve to accommodate throngs of visitors, says PETA is demonizing "a family event that's drug- andalcohol-free and is great for the community.''
Jones' partner, Britt Solomon, says, "The possum never had it so good."
Back inside Clay's Corner, Logan is on the phone with a customer from Virginia who wants to order Logan's canned opossum.
"You want regular or the new diet light?" he asks.
Actually, Logan confesses, there's no opossum meat in the cans, just plain old dirt, hah hah.
Logan likes a good opossum joke. Here's one: "How many fiddle players does it take to eat a possum? Answer: Two — one to eat it and one to watch for cars."
In his back room, Logan is sharing beans and cornbread with the sheriffs of Clay and adjoining Cherokee counties, whose deputies unsnarl traffic jams during Possum Drops. These lawmen have no dog, or opossum, in this fight. But they do joke about lowering a retiring chief deputy named Melvin this Dec. 31 if the whole opossum thing doesn't work out.
Logan gets a good laugh out of that one. He laughs about lawyers, too. Unfortunately, he says, he also has a lawyer now. The attorney has advised Logan to be very careful what he says about the Possum Drop.
Even so, Logan isn't one to lawyer up and decline to comment. He's too fond of gabbing and joking.
He's asked whether he's selected this year's Possum Drop opossum.
Logan pauses and grins. "That's up in the air," he says.