Beyond Name-calling: How Smarter Advocacy Can Better Serve Our Animal Friends

The Opossum Dropin North Carolina pits rural folks against people in urban and suburban communities. Advocates would be wise to keep this in mind.

Millie being lowered during the 2018 opossum "drop"

I understand that a human being can be OK with capturing a wild animal for a few days, putting the animal on display, and then releasing the animal back into the wild. I am not OK with it, and very likely you are not OK with it, but I understand that some humans are.

So when a group of people in Brasstown, North Carolina, get together every December 31 to celebrate the new year by hoisting a live opossum in a plexiglass box above a public stage and then lowering the animal at midnight (a la the Times Square ball), even though I’m completely opposed to the activity, I can see how they view this as harmless if not good clean fun.

Those of us who oppose such activities need to understand – there’s a lot at play here.

There’s the empathy gene thing, and we advocates are well served to always keep it in mind, because some people will never, can never “get it.” But a lack of individual empathy doesn’t explain Brasstown. It doesn’t explain dogfights, cockfights, horse racing. And it doesn’t help us stop them. Our efforts must be informed by a constant awareness that such activities are closely associated with culture and community type.

But first, a little background.

North Carolina’s Be Cruel to Opossums Law

The North Carolina legislature legally sanctioned the live opossum “drop” – there’s only one – in 2015 when, after a lawsuit effectively ended the event, state legislators passed a law that suspends protections for opossums from December 29 or each year to January 2 of the subsequent year.

We call this statute North Carolina’s Be Cruel to Opossums law because it not only enabled the Brasstown “tradition” to continue, it also opened a five-day window each year that completely removes legal protections for opossums statewide.

Note: The recently passed federal animal cruelty law does not apply to the opossum “drop”. You’ll find details on this here.

Effects of the Opossum “Drop” on Opossums

Opossum experts, including veterinarians and wildlife rehabilitators, have testified about the harm done to the opossum before, during, and after the opossum “drops.” They state that stress cardiomyopathy, capture myopathy, and stress-related dermal septic necrosis are common in opossums and can be fatal. We know from the opossum “drop’s” history that the event almost invariably causes one or more of these conditions in the trapped opossum, who are by nature shy and timid animals and are afraid of humans.

Millie, post surgery to amputate her leg.

Community Type: The Locals Problem

We also know from experience these facts don’t compel your average Brasstown reveler. (Stressed? Traumatized?! You gotta be kiddin’ me!)

No surprise here. It’s a self-selecting group, after all. And perhaps no surprise really that there’s little apparent local opposition to the event. This is a small and somewhat isolated rural community in the Appalachian Mountains.

A recent PEW Research Center study offers valuable insights into how rural life differs from suburban life, and how each of these differs from urban life – alarmingly, in many ways these differences are increasing. Whether political, demographic, religious, or perceptive, such differences can create massive challenges when urban meets rural meets suburban meets urban.

Consider this finding from the PEW study:

About six-in-ten rural residents say the values of urban dwellers don’t align with theirs; 53% of urban residents say the same about the values of those in rural areas.

That’s a rough foundation upon which to build meaningful dialog on a divisive issue. Nevertheless, we tried last year when the event was held in nearby Andrews, but ultimately talks broke down.

Still, the town won’t be hosting another opossum drop anytime soon. Opossum “drops” are, under the best scenarios, bad for opossums; in Andrews last year, we saw the worst.

Millie’s Story

The opossum we now call Millie was injured and sick when she was hoisted into the air in the town’s Heritage Park at 10 pm on December 31, 2018, and dangled for two hours above the raucous Andrews crowd, while music blared and fireworks were set off. After she was haphazardly lowered to the stage at midnight, she was whisked away by two caring locals who had been promised by the event’s founder and organizer, Clay Logan, that they could take her. (Score a very small point here for Logan. Fun fact: he’s a county commissioner.)

Left untreated by her “handlers” before the event, Millie’s injuries led to an infection so severe that the rescuers reported they could smell it on the stage well before they even reached the box.

The veterinarian who treated Millie after the event stated that her injuries were consistent with those caused by leghold traps and snares. She had suffered both prolonged loss of circulation to her left front paw and a broken bone in her left front leg.

Amputation was necessary to save Millie’s life.

She is learning to get around on three legs, though you can still see her left shoulder joint at work in its futile attempt to move her phantom limb. (Click here for non-graphic video.)

Ending North Carolina’s Opossum “Drop”

An effective approach to fighting animal cruelty is to marginalize it. This shouldn’t be hard with the opossum “drop,” as it was already in the margins before the North Carolina General Assembly (NCGA) ill-advisedly legitimized it. The NCGA isn’t exactly a bastion of progressive politics, but animal cruelty – at least the non-institutionalized variety – is condemned by Democrats, Republicans and Independents alike.

Just as roadshows featuring diving mules and chimpanzees on rollerskates have been pushed to the margins and off the page, so must and so will opossum “drops.”

This is not a Brasstown issue. This is a North Carolina issue, and surely a majority of North Carolinians will recognize their representatives should correct the mistake made by the General Assembly in 2015 and repeal SL 2015-73. Millie is going to help us in this regard. She is surviving proof of the injustice of this ridiculous law.

What You Can Do

First, keep in mind that name-calling won’t get us anywhere. We may never see eye to eye with people who have little respect for animals, but insulting and berating them is not going to help, and indeed it may result in their treating animals even worse.

Second, click here for a list of actions you can take to honor Millie and to relegate opossum “drops” to the dustbin of history.