A North Carolina judge is ordering a state agency to pay nearly $75,000 in legal fees to an animal rights group trying to stop a community from using a live possum in its New Year's Eve celebration.
Organizers of the Brasstown Possum Drop trap a wild possum and put it in a clear plastic box each Dec. 31. The box is lowered to the ground at midnight, and the possum is later released.
The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals called the event cruel. An administrative law judge last year agreed, saying the Wildlife Resources Commission lacked specific legal authority to issue a permit to display a wild-caught opossum.
But the agency continued to file legal challenges.
Judge William Pittman in Wake County last week called those filings frivolous.
He said the agency "acted without substantial justification in pressing its claims" against PETA.
Pittman ordered the agency to pay PETA by Sept. 1.
Lawmakers passed a measure earlier this year that says animal cruelty punishments don't apply to a "licensed sportsman" taking a wild animal for display in "an annual, seasonal, or cultural event."
That means that Possum Drop can continue using a live animal in an event that draws as many as 4,000 people to the western North Carolina community.
One of the supporters, state Sen. Jim Macon, R-Macon, has called the Possum Drop, "a good, wholesome event."