Consider the opossum: ‘Justice for Millie’ seeks repeal of law allowing opossum abuse
Millie is recovering from injuries suffered during her unwilling participation in the 2018 “Possum Drop” in Andrews, North Carolina. The young Clay County native is even starting to trust the rescuers, who amputated her broken front leg, left untreated by her initial captors.
The invasive hominids who trapped her did not require a license to so. They face no penalties for exposing their shy and nocturnal official state marsupial to crowds, loud music, bright lights and fireworks, or for allowing necrosis to develop in her shattered limb before surrendering Millie to her current care-givers.
The New Year’s Eve “Possum Drop” was legally sanctioned in 2015. After a lawsuit threatened to end the event, legislators passed North Carolina General Statute § 113-291.13, Application of wildlife laws to opossums, making the litigation moot.
According to that statute, state laws regarding “the capture, captivity, treatment, or release of wildlife” do not apply to the Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana) “between the dates of December 29 of each year and January 2 of each subsequent year.” The bill was sponsored by Roger West, the Republican representative for District 120, who was first elected in 2001 and retired in 2016 at the age of 69. Supported in the House by Republican Jon Hardister (District 56) and opposed by Democrat Pricey Harrison (District 61), it passed the NC House 92-23 and the Senate 38-9.
That state law allows cruelty to opossums for five days each year received national attention in articles such as INDY Week’s “Why does North Carolina hate Opossums?” Then the Justice for Millie movement organized by Animal Help Now collected over 100,000 electronic signatures on its Change.Org petition Repeal North Carolina’s ‘Be Cruel to Opossums’ Law. As of Jan. 7, the signature count was 347, 398.
The Boulder-based Animal Help Now is a project of the nonprofit 501 (c)(3)organization Animal Watch. YES! Weekly reached out to the organization in December but waited until the sanctioned period was over to publish this article, in order not to “advertise” the temporary legality of cruelty to opossums. Millie’s supporters and care-givers hope the law will be repealed by the end of 2020.
Clay County’s annual Possum Drop was first organized in 1990 by Clay Logan, Clay County commissioner and proprietor of the Clay’s Corner convenience store in Brasstown. For the next 27 years, a plexiglass pyramid containing a live opossum was lowered from the roof of the store at midnight on New Year’s Eve. The festivities included bluegrass and a “Miss Possum Queen” contest.
When the store closed in 2018, the celebration was moved to Andrews. This was the event in which Millie was captured in the trap that injured her leg. She is now living with Beth Sparks, director of The Opossum’s Pouch Sanctuary, Rescue and Rehabilitation in South Carolina.
“Millie is doing remarkably well,” Sparks told YES! Weekly. “She has a two-story enclosure, and she goes up and down her walking ladder well, if slower without her leg.” Sparks revealed the name of Millie’s veterinarian but asked for it to not be published, stating that the vet has received threats on social media from some supporters of the Possum Drop. According to Sparks, the vet called Millie’s injuries “consistent with those caused by leg hold traps and snares” and stated the animal “suffered both prolonged loss of circulation to her left front paw and a broken bone in her left front leg.”
Sparks also said Millie is not the first opossum to be injured in the event. “I received the last four with the help of a local lady who gained Clay Logan’s trust. Capture Myopathy [a non-infectious disease of wild and domestic animals in which muscle damage results from extreme exertion, struggle, or stress] was found in the other three, as well as Dermal Septic Necrosis, “a staph-type bacteria that develop during times of exhilarated stress and takes weeks to get under control.” Sparks said she believes that most of the opossums released into the wild before she started rescuing them quickly died. “One year, they injured one’s eye and refused her vet treatment.”
“Many people seem to be under the illusion that the opossum is ‘treated like a king,’ but that’s not true,” Elena Rizzo told YES! Weekly. Rizzo is a Class II RVS Certified wildlife rehabilitator who worked as an epidemiologist for the New York State Department of Health’s Bureau of Communicable Disease Control before joining Animal Help Now as Research Director and Rehabilitator Liaison. “It is impossible not to harm an opossum trapped from the wild, kept caged for days, and suspended above a crowd.”
Rizzo said that the recent Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture Act (PACT) does not prohibit what Millie experienced. “People are under the impression the new Federal law is broader than it really is.”
As the New York Times reported, PACT expands a 2010 law signed by President Barack Obama banning videos of animals being crushed, burned, drowned, suffocated, impaled or subjected to other forms of torture, and makes intentional and extreme cruelty a federal offense. However cruel Millie’s treatment, it was neither intentional nor extreme enough to fall under that law.
A “Justice for Millie Fact Sheet” released by Animal Help Now describes the annual Possum Drop as beginning with the capture of a wild opossum via a leghold trap, snare, or hounds several days before the event, exposing the animal to humans (“who are viewed by opossums as predators”), and caging the opossum in a plexiglass box which is hoisted into the air around 10 p.m. on Dec. 31 “regardless of temperature or weather.” The cage is suspended “above a stage surrounded by a noisy crowd, while loud music is played, and fireworks are shot off.”
This description is consistent with what can be seen in the YouTube video “Eyewitness Footage of the 2018 Possum Drop.” According to the fact sheet, the ceremony concludes “by haphazardly lowering the animal onto the stage during the raucous countdown at midnight and then, either irresponsibly releasing the traumatized opossum back into the wild or handing her over to wildlife rehabilitators so they can attempt to address emotional trauma (the event almost always results in a compromised immune system, for example) and treat any physical trauma and then, if possible, return her to the wild.”
Animal Help Now co-founder and executive director David Crawford told YES! Weekly that some misconceptions have been spread in recent articles such as the Dec. 31 CNN report “North Carolina town ends New Year’s Eve Possum Drop tradition.”
“Media outlets are tending to conflate Andrews and Brasstown. We doubt Andrews will have another opossum ‘drop,’ but we know the urge to abuse opossums is alive and well in Brasstown,” wrote Crawford in a recent email, to which he attached a screenshot of an open-mouthed man in a cowboy hat holding a large opossum by its tail. On Jan. 1, the same screenshot was posted to the Facebook group Justice for Millie Stop the Live Possum Drop Brasstown NC with the following text:
On January 1, 2020, public figure Luke Logan updated his Facebook profile with this photo of himself abusing an opossum. Logan’s family created North Carolina’s cruel opossum ‘drop.’
Holding an opossum by the tail will stress the animal and may break bones or damage tissue. It is a MYTH that opossums hang by their tails, with the exception of some baby opossums, and even they will hang only for a second for two.
An opossum’s tail is prehensile. Females use it to help carry their babies. All opossums use their tails for balance, which is critical, as opossums live in trees. An injured tail puts an opossum at risk for further injury or even death.
“The only reason the event was held in Andrews was because Clay Logan was closing his store, which is where the event was held in Brasstown,” continued Crawford in his email to YES! Weekly. “Now that the store has reopened, the chances of the event happening there again have increased substantially. And the Logans have indicated they might resume the event someday.”
Crawford alleged that the Logan family “told us they might continue to have a ‘private’ opossum ‘drop.’ We are, of course, opposed to the event, whether public or private.”
Crawford stressed that the law created to allow this remains on the books. “The bottom line is, this thing won’t be over – and opossums won’t get the year-round protections they once enjoyed and obviously need – until the legislature overturns SL 2015-73.”
According to Crawford, Jan. 11 will be the anniversary of Millie’s amputation. Due to the unlikelihood of a three-legged opossum being able to survive in the wild, she will remain at The Opossum’s Pouch Sanctuary for the rest of her life.
Opossum’s Pouch director Beth Sparks told YES! Weekly that Millie is now somewhere between 19 and 21 months old, meaning she was about eight months old when captured. She weighed 3.2 pounds before her amputation and now weighs 7.1 pounds. She’s fed 1/4-cup of dry cat and dog food every other day, supplemented two to three times a week with salmon, shrimp, or oysters because opossums need Taurine due to heart issues as they age. Once a week, she gets 1/4-cup of baked chicken, as well as cheese, spinach, kale, broccoli, and other leafy vegetables; opossums need calcium-enriched foods because their bodies do not naturally produce the mineral-like those of other mammals. She also gets a variety of fruit. Sparks said her favorite foods include avocados and bananas.
North Carolina House Republican majority whip John Hardister told YES! Weekly that, although he voted for the law in 2015, he has reconsidered.
“A concern was raised back then which I’ve come to feel is valid, even though I had mixed feelings at the time because you don’t necessarily want to change a tradition meant for fun and family. But things can go wrong, and it sounds like something did in this case. I believe that the folks involved with the opossum drop mean well, but as was said at the time, there could be other private drops that take place, and there could be some bad actors out there, and even if there are no bad actors, you still have mistakes. If it comes up for discussion, I would certainly support repealing the law.”
Ian McDowell is the author of two published novels, numerous anthologized short stories, and a whole lot of nonfiction and journalism, some of which he’s proud of and none of which he’s ashamed of.