RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - If a national animal rights group gets its way, people in a small mountain town in North Carolina will have to greet the new year without lowering a scrappy marsupial to the ground.
Clay Logan, who owns the Clay's Corner store in the far western tip of the state, has been lowering an opossum in a transparent box to the ground every New Year's for 18 years, in a local homage to the famous ball drop in Times Square.
This year, though, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has called on the state Wildlife Resources Commission to put a halt to the tradition, saying the activity is both cruel and illegal.
"Ignorance of the law is not a defense, and cruelty to animals is indefensible," PETA Director Delcianna Winders said. "Using a captive opossum as the centerpiece of a raucous party is cruel and illegal."
PETA's letter, sent this week, is being reviewed, according to a commission spokesman, who said no decision has been made yet. The group claims that Logan lacks the necessary permit to have wild animals, and that the annual event fails to meet the legal standard of "humane treatment" of animals.
"Oh yeah, they love me," Logan said of PETA.
Logan disputes the group's characterization of the event, saying the opossums - it's generally a different animal from year to year - are treated well, and that despite the name, nothing is "dropped." Instead, he said, the critter is gently brought to the ground from a height of about 18 feet, although PETA claims it's 40 feet.
"It's a lot of good clean family fun. No alcohol," Logan said. "We advertise it as the only New Year's party you'll remember the next day no matter how much fun you had."
The opossum drop is the centerpiece of the annual event, but it has grown to become what Logan's website calls "the epicenter of the entertainment scene in Brasstown," which has about 250 residents. The program for this year also includes a bull riding competition, a church choir and the traditional cross-dressing beauty competition.
"It fills the place up," Logan said. "On a warm night, it's about 3,000 people. If it's cold, maybe 2,000."
PETA says they've also sent a letter to Logan in hopes of persuading him to find an alternative to using a live animal at the event. They want him to emulate Tallapoosa, Ga.'s New Year's Eve Possum Drop.
"The great thing about Tallapoosa is that they don't use a live possum," PETA lawyer Brittany Peet said. "They use a taxidermied possum." And because it's the same stuffed critter every year, it's become something of a local mascot, Peet said.
The Opossum Drop may be North Carolina's most distinctive New Year's celebration, but the state has plenty of other "drops" planned for that day as well, including a giant acorn, a 30-pound flea made of fabric and wool and a light-up pickle replica in the vegetable-canning hotbed of Mt. Olive.