It starts with capturing a possum.
Next, on New Year’s Eve, the possum is slowly lowered in a plastic cage, as spectators watch and count down the seconds to midnight.
Then the possum is set free.
Happy New Year!
This is the “possum drop,” an annual Brasstown, N.C., tradition that locals liken to the Times Square ball drop in New York City. It’s so popular in the North Carolina mountain town that a 30-minute documentary about it, “The Possum Drop,” was released over the summer.
But in 2011, the possum drop got the attention of the animal rights organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
Although locals say the event is just tradition, PETA calls it inhumane.
Last year, a live possum was not permitted at the possum drop, Jeff Kerr, general counsel for PETA, told the Los Angeles Times.
A judge had ruled that the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission couldn’t issue a permit for the event unless there was a change in law to allow it to do so.
In March, state lawmakers passed a law that permits “the taking and holding in captivity of a wild animal by a licensed sportsman for use of display in an annual, seasonal or cultural event, so long as the animal is captured from the wild and returned to the wild at or near the area where it was captured.”
PETA filed a lawsuit in October challenging wildlife commission’s authority to issue a license.
And this week, Superior Court Judge Allen Baddour sided with state wildlife regulators and ruled the event could continue -- live possum and all.
The wildlive commission issued a permit to event organizer Clay Logan, 65, who owns Clay’s Corner general store. He boasts on the shop’s website that the town, which he wrote has a population of 240 -- people, not possums -- is the “opossum capital of the world.”
“The most exciting thing that we do in Brasstown ... is lowering the opossum on New Year’s Eve,” he writes. “If New York can drop a ‘ball,’ Georgia can drop a ‘Peach,’ then we can lower the Opossum.”
PETA officials disagree.
Citing possum experts, PETA argued in court that any possum used at the “cruel event” is likely to die from stress-related ailments within days or weeks, Kerr said.
“The WRC put up nothing – not one shred of evidence – to counter or refute [the research] in any way,” Kerr said. “The WRC, under the law, is required to ensure that any use of an animal like this is in the best interest of the animal.
The license issued to Logan “essentially allows these people to torture an opossum,” he said.
In a video posted on Youtube on Jan. 1, 2011, titled “A Possum’s Tale,” Brasstown locals, including Logan, discuss the traditions and significance of the event.
Event-goers are shown dancing to live music, holding small American flags, taking photos, watching fireworks and, of course, counting down the seconds for the possum drop.
“We put [the possum] in a little cage and it’s let down real easy, it don’t get hurt, we take really good care of it,” a Brasstown resident says in the video. “This keeps animal lovers off our back.... We don’t mistreat animals in this end of the country because we know all about possums. We’ve hunted them, we’ve eaten them, we’ve killed them.... There’s plenty of possums here."
But Kerr said mistreatment is part of the tradition.
“Opossums are shy, reclusive animals, and humans are their primary predators," he said. “At the event, they dangle this opossum in a box above a rowdy crowd of more than 1,000 people and force it to endure a terrifying mix of screaming, thumping, music and fireworks -- all in the name of some kind of entertainment.”
Regardless of what happens this year, Kerr said, PETA will “keep fighting for the opossums.”
The organization is unsure what it will do next.
“The event can go on.… We don’t care if they have a party,” Kerr said. “We just don’t think they should be able to torture an animal in the process.”
The 20th annual New Year’s Eve Possum Drop is scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. Tuesday, according to the Visit North Carolina tourism website. There will be a Miss Possum contest, bluegrass music, Little Brasstown Church Choir, cider and “good clean fun.”