It will never be confused with "New Year's Rockin' Eve," but for one small North Carolina town, the annual possum drop is one fine way to start the new year.
The families living in Brasstown, N.C., take part in festivities beginning two hours before midnight. Local church choirs belt out hymns and there's a tribute to war veterans. Clay Logan, the man behind the festivities, summed up the event: "good, clean, family fun."
"Hunters must afford wild animals the same right Patrick Henry yearned for: 'Give me liberty, or give me death!' "
- Judge Fred Morrison, in his ruling
"We didn't think too much into it," he said. "We figured a lot of other animals were already being used, like the groundhog, for other events, and we wanted to start our own tradition."
The event was conceived 21 years ago, and what started out as a small family gathering grew into a town attraction that draws more than 2,000 spectators.
That streak, however, may come to an end after a recent court ruling. 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!'"
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.
Logan, for his part, says the ruling is unfair. He said the possum is well fed and cared for by a veterinarian. During the event, it is placed in a plexiglass cage and lowered for 10 seconds. Shorty thereafter, the animal is turned loose into nearby woods, he said. A new possum is used each year, in part, because of their short life spans. A 3-year-old possum is considered old, he said.
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.
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.
The judge 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 released.
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."
Logan appears to be keeping a sense of humor about the whole thing, saying, “We’re not optimistic or pessimistic, we’re opossum-istic.”
Fox News' Edmund DeMarche and The Associated Press contributed to this report