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The opossum and her seven babies made the mistake of crossing in front of Steven Garity's car. They got squished. Garity made the mistake of being in front of a police car. He got charged with cruelty to animals.

And so began the Great Possum Debate, with people around here sinking their teeth into a spirited discussion of animal rights: Are opossums such pests that you can't be cruel enough to them? Or do they deserve as much respect as any other living creature?A judge added his opinion Monday, dismissing the case and declaring Tumwater's animal-cruelty ordinance too vague.

But given the opossum passions in this western Washington town, the last word on road-kill morality has yet to be heard.

"I'm not a lawyer and certainly not a judge," said Michael Ellis, director of a wildlife rescue center in nearby McCleary. "But I have to say that any human being with any sense of humanity would realize that aiming a car at any animal and running it over intentionally is cruelty."

The case began March 31, when police officer Johnna Stevens saw Garity, 39, suddenly change lanes and hit a mother opossum and the youngsters clinging to her.

"They're pests," the officer quoted Garity as saying. "All's they do is eat dog food and cat food and be a pest. They just hiss at you."

Garity was accused of intentionally running down the opossums and was cited under Tumwater's animal-cruelty ordinance, which says it's a crime if someone "purposefully or recklessly subjects any animal to cruel mistreatment."

The offense carries up to 90 days in jail and a $5,000 fine.

Garity's attorney, Ken Valz, contended Garity was swerving to miss another opossum. Valz also argued that the whole case was ludicrous because state wildlife officials consider the opossum a pest.

He cited a Department of Natural Resources brochure that tells how to kill a "problem" possum: After trapping it, "gently submerge the trap in water for 10 minutes."

"Most people are astounded that it's gone this far - that any government would prosecute anyone for running over a opossum, intentionally or unintentionally," Valz said.

But the homely opossum - a beady-eyed, naked-tailed marsupial that looks as if nature built it from spare parts - has its supporters, too.

For weeks, opossums have been the No. 1 topic in the letters section of the local paper, The Olympian. Writers have been about evenly split, pro-Garity vs. pro-opossum.

Opossum sympathizers tend to invoke comparisons to more likable animals.

"What's next - my puppy becomes a pest to someone? Our cat becomes a pest in someone's mind? Maybe someday my son will become a pest to someone," wrote Laura Perkinson. "Will that someone then decide to just run over any or all of these things?"

Garity's supporters lump opossums with all manner of vermin.

"What would you have said if it had been a rat? The opossum is worse than a rat," wrote J. Dana Kintner.