As It Happens

Activists seek to reverse North Carolina law that allows for New Year's Eve opossum drop

North Carolina can be a lawless place for opossums. For five days of the year, you can do anything to opossums in the state, legally, but Beth Sparks is trying to change that.

Beth Sparks says the law is 'an abuse of power' to continue a cruel tradition

Millie the opossum was injured in a New Year's Eve possum drop and had to have her leg amputated. (Submitted by Beth Sparks)

Transcript

In North Carolina, legal protections for opossums go out the window for five days a year.

Between the dates of Dec. 29 and Jan. 2 of each year, you can legally do anything to an opossum. Animal rights advocates say the law, passed in 2015, is strictly a loophole to allow for a cruel New Year's Eve tradition.

While the organizers of the annual "Possum Drop" in Brasstown, N.C., announced last year that they would only use toy opossums for future events, the law remains on the books. 

Beth Sparks, who runs the Opossum's Pouch Sanctuary in Prosperity, S.C., has been fighting the law for years from the state next door. Here is part of her conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off.

Why is there a law in North Carolina that allows people to do anything they want to opossums for five days of the year?

This law was passed just a few years ago and it's basically, in my opinion, just an abuse of power. 

What is an opossum drop?

You have the ball that they drop in Times Square in New York. And I guess, 20 years ago or so, they thought that it would be cute in this small town to put an opossum in a Plexiglass cage and lower it at New Year's Eve.

They consider it a tradition. But we are trying to get them to understand the fear and the stress that is put on this poor animal.

The animal dangles in a Plexiglass cage up in the air from about 10 p.m. to midnight.

There's fireworks. There's people in the crowd drinking and screaming and shouting. And then, at midnight, the opossum was lowered down, just like the ball in Times Square in New York.

Beth Sparks is a wildlife rehabilitator who runs the Opossum's Pouch Sanctuary in Prosperity, S.C. (Submitted by Beth Sparks)

I guess this came to the attention of many when one opossum really suffered. What happened to this opossum named Millie?

Last year, there was a little girl opossum that was used that had been caught in a leg-hold trap. In catching her, the trap snapped and broke her leg, which is pretty much the case with any leg-hold trap.

Apparently, they had her for a few days to a week before the drop because the leg already had a really bad odour from the circulation being cut off. So she was used in a lot of pain with a broken leg, and she dangled in the air in the rain inside of a box for two hours before they lowered her.

She was turned over immediately to us. She was never given any medication. No vet treatment. No care.

We rushed her to our veterinarian and he did everything he could to save the leg. But four days later, it had to be amputated.

Sparks says it's been difficult to reverse the law because the 'good ol' boy system' wants to keep the opossum drop tradition going. (Submitted by Beth Sparks)

The consequences, though, were that a petition started up that received tens of thousands of signatures of people demanding that this law be struck from the books. Is that right?

That's correct.

And so they figured the only way to shut us down is to omit them from cruelty so we had no defence. 

But they always claimed no opossum was ever injured or harmed in any way. And now [Millie] has shot that out of the water. They can't say that any longer.

This law definitely needs to be reversed. A person can take an opossum for those five days a year in North Carolina. 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.

It's quite astonishing. The statute says, "No state or local laws, related to the capture, captivity, treatment, or release of wildlife, shall apply to the opossum from December 29 to January 2nd." When you describe this scene of them — these are very shy animals that just are very timid — what effect do you think it has on them to be in that box, hanging over the crowd?

I've specialized in the opossums for 27 years and it's very hard to get the general public to understand.

Opossums, if they become very fearful, the whole act of playing dead for them is not just a behavioural thing. It's chemically induced with them. But it causes a lot of stress.

The stress will cause dermal septic necrosis. And the four opossums we were able to get in our care in the last several years all broke with dermal septic necrosis within days after receiving them. It's like a staph infection when they're stressed.

If you put a dog in a box and did that to a dog or a pet, it would be mortified. So you put a wild animal that is very shy, that is nocturnal, and they're put into this type of environment, it never, ever ends well for those animals.

And we just cannot get them to understand this and to see the harm done.

Now that you have a petition, with more than 150,000 people who have signed it, do you think that that will cause lawmakers to repeal that law?

I wish that I could say it would.

I think maybe they will pay a little bit more attention now that we can prove one, like Millie, was harmed. But we deal with — and I can only speak for my state in North Carolina and the few surrounding states — the good ol' boy system is still very much active and in place.

We would like to think we're going to make a difference and I hope that we can. But I know that we're not going to stop fighting this ever. I've done this for 14 years and I'll never give up.


Written by Rachel Levy-McLaughlin and John McGill. Interview produced by Rachel Levy-McLaughlin. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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