The Wausau Possum Festival has auctioned off opossums -- and potential politicians -- for 45 years. At the 2014 edition of the festival, which is headquartered at the Possum Palace in Wausau, Florida, Rep. Steve Southerland held a possum by its tail and Dereck Blount was crowned the Possum King. (According to the Associated Press's account of this year's festival, the Possum King and Queen are chosen "for their lack of beauty in a redneck sort of way.")
The day ended with a professional wrestling match.
Gwen Graham, the Democratic candidate challenging Southerland this year, said of the festival, “There is nothing better than the Possum Festival, and, I tell you what, the fact that I actually won a possum with eight babies inside, so I actually got nine possums!”
However, the Florida tradition is currently under investigation by state wildlife officials. PETA has complained that the auction -- where many a possum is held up by its tail Southerland-style -- has led to injuries. Veterinarians interviewed by local radio station WFSU agreed that possums used in the festival could end up paralyzed, or worse.
The event has become less and less popular with politicians anyway -- only one politician running for statewide office showed up this year, a sad end for an event that has inspired headlines like "Possums play role in election" and seen visitors like Jeb Bush and plenty of U.S. Senate candidates. A Florida columnist wrote in 2007, "When I saw that photograph of Charlie Crist choking down a bite of possum during a campaign stop last year, I knew he really wanted to be governor." When the Wall Street Journal covered the festival in 2006, they even included a recipe for possum. It ended, "Serves as many as will eat possum."
There are plenty of other animals that have given politicians an excuse to hobnob with constituents -- while other critters have proved more of a headache than a campaigning boon. Here's a short introduction to the long history of politicians, possums and other creatures. (We will not be discussing "important and relevant American Eagle News®," so if you would like to learn more about that, click here.)
The Gillett Coon Supper
People in Arkansas have been gathering to (allegedly) eat raccoon meat and celebrate high school seniors since 1947 during the Gillett Coon Supper. Although the event was created to help fund scholarships, its purpose has evolved into a necessary pit stop for all residents who would like a job in Washington or at the state Capitol. If you don't eat the raccoon, you can't become an elected official. It's probably in the Arkansas Constitution.
And so last January, Sen. Mark Pryor (D) and Republican senate candidate Tom Cotton both found themselves eating raccoon and enjoying the experience, tremendously, based on photos of the event. The politicians attracted to the event over the years also provide an easy way to show how the political makeup of the state's elected officials has changed. Although the event used to be seen as a Democratic one, Republicans have been coming more often -- and playing a larger role -- as the GOP has taken on a more dominant position in state politics.
The supper hasn't been without its issues, either. As more and more people come to the event, they've needed to find more and more raccoons to feed the crowd. In 2012, there was a shortage, and locals were asked to bring in raccoons; they would get $1.60 for each one. Local news coverage of the shortage included one important reminder for those interested in helping the cause: "The only catch is that it MUST be a raccoon -- organizers say they've had problems with people bringing in other animals, trying to pass them off as raccoons. They ask that you keep at least one leg on the animal so it can more easily be identified as a coon."
Taft and the Billy Possum, together forever
In January 1909, President-elect William Howard Taft ate possum in Georgia. He thought it was great.
Everyone else in the nation thought it was awesome that the soon-to-be president was eating possum too. Fancy restaurants in the North started serving the Southern delicacy, and the New York Times ran an explainer on what possums were, for the "uninitiated." (Some things never change.) The price of possum soared from $1 per animal to $10, as people started ordering them like crazy.
As Jon Mooallem showed in his book "Wild Ones," some even tried to make "Billy Possums" the heir to the Teddy Bear. After the dinner in Georgia, "the orchestra started to play, and the guests burst into song," Mooallem explained during a TED talk he gave about the book. "And all of a sudden, Taft was surprised with the presentation of a gift from a group of local supporters. And this was a stuffed opossum toy, all beady-eyed and bald-eared. And it was a new product they were putting forward to be the William Taft presidency's answer to Teddy Roosevelt's teddy bear. They were calling it the Billy Possum. So this really became a mascot for the Taft administration for, you know, a couple of months. And as he started traveling the country, frequently people gave him live opossums in cages."
Obviously since no one today owns a cute Billy Possum stuffed animal, the plan didn't work too well.
Despite the first impressions that Taft and the possum gave each other, they likely grew to hate one another. People thought it would be hilarious to serve Taft possum all the time.
People sent possums to Taft in the mail.
A possum even tried to break into the White House (and reporters had far too much fun writing about it).
Other people wondered if other small animals could compete with the possum for President Taft's affections.
Poems were written.
(Very dated and offensive) Editorials were written begging the president to stop eating possum before making presidents eat regional delicacies became a precedent for all future presidents to follow. They were too late.
North Carolina's possum drop
PETA protested the annual New Year's Eve possum drop in Brasstown, North Carolina, in which a "trapped opossum is suspended in a tinsel-covered box and gently lowered to the ground at midnight, then released." The event's organizer refused to say whether a live opossum had been in the box in 2013, only saying, "To be, or not to be? That is the question."
Republican legislators then proposed the "Opossum Right-to-Work Act" to retroactively make the possum drop totally legal. In June 2014, similar legislation passed.
As of August, litigation concerning the new law was still pending. In 2011, PETA offered a "$5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of any participant in the turkey drop during this year's 66th annual Turkey Trot festival" in Yellville, Arkansas. The festival -- which draws political speakers -- responded by dropping turkeys out of a second-story window or a courthouse roof in later years instead of an airplane. Progress, or something.
When Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley wouldn't debate his Democratic challenger, Parker Griffith, the candidate decided to carry an 18-foot tall inflatable duck around the state. (Get it? Duck. Ducking.)
When that didn't work, Griffith graduated to using an inflatable chicken.
And then there are the pets who are also elected officials. You can find pet mayors in Corrales, New Mexico, Cormorant, Minnesota and Montclair, Florida. Lajitas, Texas used to have an alcoholic goat mayor -- several, in fact, but they died. Long Island even lets their pets vote, albeit for candidates like Bark Obama and John McCanine.
Correction: A previous version of this post called possums rodents. Far more knowledgeable commenters and tweeters have informed the author that possums are in fact marsupials. The post has been corrected to reflect this very important fact.