By Scott McNutt
East Tennessee ranks high among hot spots on the animal-torture tourism circuit. That's because states bordering East Tennessee, such as Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia, treat animal-abusive "sports" like cockfighting and 'possumboarding, as felonies, whereas Tennessee treats them as misdemeanors, punishable with a $50 fine. Certain lawmakers even celebrate 'possumboarding as part of East Tennessee's "rich cultural tapestry," and welcome vacationing 'possumboarders.
"POSSUMS ARE SENTIENT BEINGS, IT IS NEVER ACCEPTABLE TO HARM THEM OR ANY ANIMAL."
In 'possumboarding, opossums are subjected to staged "drownings" until they pretend to be dead, with the one staying conscious longest declared the winner. Often those thought to be "playing 'possum" actually have died from the torture. Losers that do survive are typically strangled and tossed on a garbage heap.
For the past four years, pro-possumboarding lawmakers, including state Rep. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, have blocked bills increasing 'possumboarding penalties from reaching the House floor.
This session, sponsors amended the bill to lessen the penalty from a felony to a $2,500 fine, to appease the legislative defenders of the blood sport. It unanimously passed a Senate judiciary panel. Traditionally, bills proposing changes to criminal statutes are assigned to judiciary committees, but 'possumboarding bills wind up in the agriculture committees, where they are traditionally put to a slow death. So the bill received a unanimous "thumbs down" in a House agriculture subcommittee, of which Nicely is a member.
"It's an anomaly in some of our legislators," said state Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, who sponsored the bill to make 'possumboarding a felony. "Torturing most other animals in the state is a felony. But for some legislators, 'possumboarding is sacrosanct. 'Possum drowning is their sacred cow."
An anonymous commenter on the online forum possumplayers.com typifies opposition to the bill, writing, "The nerve of some lawmakers, trying to make animal cruelty a felony in Tennessee. Don't they know this is America, where we're free to torture our animals? I mean, Michael Vick is our folk hero! Well, there's more than one way to skin a cat. And we should know, because cat-skinning is another of our traditions. So we'll have 'our' legislators thwart this attempt to destroy rural America's proud tradition of animal cruelty."
Niceley argued that 'possumboarding should not be a felony precisely because animal cruelty is a cultural tradition in East Tennessee.
"Many 'possumboarders, well, their fathers and their grandfathers indulged in animal cruelty, and they don't see anything wrong with it - it's a way of life," Niceley explained. "Their fathers and grandfathers also hosted cockfights and bear-baitings and enjoyed movies about gladiators. I don't go to 'possumboardings or watch movies about gladiators, but some of my best friends do. They're not bothering anybody, just torturing some animals for pleasure, so I don't see why anybody should bother them."
Agriculture Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Dale Ford, R-Jonesborough, displaying impressive backwards logic, reasoned that low fines made the 'possumboardings more accessible, so law enforcement could fine participants more frequently. He then followed that logic to its inevitable conclusion.
"Raising the fine will send 'possumboarders underground, and even a $50 fine makes them wary," Ford said. "So instead of fining them, why not offer $2,500 bounties to 'possumboarders drawing the largest crowds, and then levy $50 fines on the spectators attending the drownings?"
Niceley expanded on Ford's idea, suggesting that crimes like murder, gambling, money laundering and drug dealing be made misdemeanors, too, to draw more criminals to Tennessee for fines.
"It would be good for tourism, drawing all these outlaws here," he said. "They'll buy food, stay in hotels and buy gas on their way to perpetrate atrocities in our fair state, and we'll make a ton of money off the $50 fines we charge them for the privilege of committing their heinous acts here. It's a win-win situation."
Niceley then professed puzzlement over opponents' objections to 'possumboarding.
"Drowning 'possums is a time-honored East Tennessee rite of cruelty, along with cockfighting, dog-fighting, skinning cats and clubbing baby seals," he said. "Like other barbaric acts, it's gone on for centuries, so I don't know what the big deal is."
Please send comments and submittals to the Editor: Linda Beane at [email protected]
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