By Marti Maguire
RALEIGH, N.C. (Reuters) - North Carolina is poised to adopt its third law in as many years aimed at ensuring a rural community can continue to drop a live opossum to ring in the New Year.
A bill that would exempt the opossum, a cat-sized marsupial, from state wildlife protections from Dec. 29 to Jan. 2 passed the state senate by a wide margin Thursday after earning house approval in April.
The exemption is meant to thwart legal challenges brought by animal welfare advocates who say Brasstown's New Year's Eve tradition is cruel. For decades, the community has lowered an opossum in a Plexiglas box from the roof of the general store, imitating the annual ball drop in New York City.
"There's no harm done to the animal," Republican state Representative Pat McElraft said during the House of Representatives debate on the current bill. "He's actually treated very well."
The practice has been debated in the courts and the legislature since 2012, when the national group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, filed the first of several lawsuits.
Critics contend that the legislature's subsequent efforts to protect the tradition are harming the state's reputation.
Democratic Senator Jeff Jackson said passing what he called the “you can do anything to an opossum for five days bill” might deter companies from moving to a state.
"This is embarrassing," Jackson said before Thursday's vote. "Every time we enter the land of the absurd, we pay the price."
PETA attorney Jeff Kerr said in a statement Thursday that the group will “continue our fight to end the use of a live opossum in the Opossum Drop and any other events that harm and harass wildlife.”
The state Senate made minor changes to the bill that will have to be approved by the House before it heads to Republican Governor Pat McCrory, who declined to comment but has signed the previous bills dealing with opossums.
(Editing by David Adams)