Five Days When All Possum Crimes Are Legal
North Carolina has a law that allows people to do practically whatever they want to the official state marsupial. If you think that's weird, wait until you hear the reason why the law's in place.
North Carolina has it in for opossums. Sure, the Virginia opossum was named the official state marsupial in 2013 (It’s the only marsupial native to North America, actually). They’re mostly benign, rarely carry rabies, and are basically nature’s vacuum cleaners, eating ticks, mice, trash, roaches, and all sorts of things that others won’t. However! A former governor once went on a crusade to catch, kill, and eat one, even though the animals, objectively, taste awful. “I shall not be thwarted in my appetite for opossum,” Gov. Bob Scott declared in a political statement that will stand the test of time.
That’s weird, right? Like, that’s really weird, man.
Anyhow, I feel like it’s necessary now to point out that today is the last day of a really strange stretch in North Carolina opossum law. There is a period every year, for five days, when all possum crime is legal in North Carolina. Behold, the title of this law passed in 2015:
AN ACT TO PROVIDE THAT STATE WILDLIFE LAWS DO NOT APPLY TO
OPOSSUMS BETWEEN THE DATES OF DECEMBER 29 AND JANUARY 2.
It’s a short law. For five days around the new year, it states: “No State or local statutes, rules, regulations, or ordinances related to the capture, captivity, treatment, or release of wildlife shall apply to the Virginia opossum.”
This is like The Purge, if The Purge was solely about committing crimes against North American marsupials.
Why does the state have it in for possums?
The law’s in place because a bunch of state lawmakers were trying to preserve a fairly quirky New Year’s Eve tradition in the far western hamlet of Brasstown, an unincorporated intersection surrounded by a few hundred people in Clay County. It’s so remote, Clay Logan told me years ago, that “if the end of time comes tomorrow, you’ll want to be in Brasstown because you’ll have a few weeks left before it gets here.” Back in 1990, Logan, proprietor of the Clay’s Corner gas station and convenience store, first lowered a ceramic opossum in a plexiglass cage at the stroke of midnight. Some suggested he do the same thing next year with a live animal. He did.
The tradition sometimes attracted 3,000 people and ran for more than a decade before the national media caught wind of it. On New Year’s Eve 2003, the New York Times ran a story on the tradition. Folks from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals read it, called Logan, and threatened to sue if he dropped a live possum at midnight. So Logan dropped a dead possum instead.
''Hell of a way to start the New Year, saluting a dead possum,'' a local blacksmith told the Times.
Stop. Drop. Shut ‘em down, possum town drop.
The live possum came back, but the fights with PETA ensued. At issue, PETA eventually said, was a state law the prevented animal abuse that was being ignored every New Year’s Eve in Clay County. Yes, this is an animal known for playing dead, but putting a live possum in a plexiglass box stresses it the hell out, its experts said.
To get around regulations about keeping wild animals in captivity, the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission issued a special permit to Logan, allowing him to catch and cage a wild opossum. In 2012, PETA filed a lawsuit, saying the permit was illegal, and a judge agreed. Ironically, it remained legal to shoot and kill a possum. “Hunters must afford wild animals the same right Patrick Henry yearned for,” he wrote in his opinion. “Give me liberty, or give me death!”
After the suit, Logan cancelled the drop in 2012. A few months later, in March 2013, his local state senator got involved, filing the “Opossum Right-to-Work Act,” which would allow the Wildlife Resources Commission to issue permits to allow people to catch wild animals. That standalone bill went nowhere, although similar text did pass in another, more mundane-sounding bill. The next year, in May 2014, another state senator filed a bill to get rid of all wildlife rules regarding possums in Clay County from December 26 through January 2. That bill passed overwhelmingly with bipartisan support, but PETA filed another lawsuit to stop it, saying that the law was clearly written to benefit one person: Clay Logan. “This person must be the most powerful person in North Carolina because he’s got himself two laws now,” a PETA lawyer told WRAL.
(A note here: The emoluments clause of the state constitution prohibits laws written specifically to benefit one living person. Hence, it’s okay for the house to pass a resolution honoring the UNC basketball team, but not, say, Michael Jordan. You laugh, but it took the state house four attempts to finally figure out a way to name the then-living Billy Graham as one of North Carolina’s Favorite Sons).
A judge agreed with PETA and issued an injunction, but said Logan could still drop a live possum with a proper permit. Logan said he didn’t have time to get one, so he pledged to use roadkill or a pot of opossum stew instead.
A Statewide Possum Purge
You might think, at this point, that everybody would have had enough of the possum dropping business. Nope! In 2015, state lawmakers again passed a bill making crimes against possums legal for five days. Unlike the previous version which only affected Clay County, this one applied statewide. It passed with bipartisan support (again!).
Live possum drops, now state-sanctioned, resumed at Clay’s Corner. However! Logan was getting up in years (“I really didn’t know getting old came this quick,” he told me in 2015 at age 68), and in 2018, he asked the nearby town of Andrews if they’d hold the drop instead. They agreed, but after one attempt where a captured possum named Millie was discovered to have a broken leg, the town decided not to do it anymore. “Instead of a Possum Drop, the town will be celebrating New Year’s Eve with a wrestling match and a womanless beauty pageant – no animals involved,” CNN reported on New Year’s Eve, 2019.
Logan himself is now retired, but the law he inspired is still on the books. Even though no other town has taken up the live possum drop, people are trying to get the law repealed. One petition on change.org has gathered more than 350,000 signatures, although nobody’s filed a bill to repeal the law as of yet. That means the Possum Purge is still legal, five days a year. “A person can take an opossum for those five days a year in North Carolina,” opossum rehabilitator Beth Sparks told the CBC in 2019. “They could catch a possum, take it down, and light it on fire in front of the police department and there would be nothing anyone can do about it.”
Please don’t do that. After today, you have to obey all normal possum laws. That includes a ban on making them your pet. Try as you might, North Carolina just won’t allow you to have an emotional support possum.