updated 12/9/2004 10:42:12 PM ET 2004-12-10T03:42:12

Two students at the University of Missouri-Columbia have been charged with animal abuse for stuffing about 40 opossums — living and dead — into a plastic barrel for a frat house stunt.

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In the bizarre contest, members were given one point for each dead opossum they could find and two points for a live one, authorities said. The Missouri Department of Conservation quoted fraternity members as saying they planned to release the opossums into the yard of another fraternity.

The alleged abuse was discovered Nov. 19 when neighbors complained about the noise. Police reported seeing students gathered around a large plastic barrel about two-thirds full of opossums, only half of them still alive.

Fraternity members Zachary Wade Famuliner and Adam Paul Thomas were charged with animal abuse and illegally pursuing, taking, killing, possessing or disposing of wildlife — misdemeanors. The students, both 19, pleaded innocent.

Philip Josephson, national executive director of Alpha Gamma Rho, said Thursday he found the opossum stunt “deplorable,” but insisted it wasn’t sanctioned or sponsored by the fraternity. He said there are no plans to bar the use of wild animals by chapters — as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals had urged in a letter.

The conservation agency released the live opossums in a remote area. Authorities could not say how many opossums may have died because of being stuffed into the barrel.

Vern Pierce, the faculty adviser for the fraternity, said members are planning professional careers in agricultural and animal management, and are “highly sensitive to any notion of abuse.”

“You ask, ‘What were these two thinking?’ That is the point: They weren’t thinking,” he said. Pierce said the chapter has volunteered to sponsor educational events about proper treatment of animals for all fraternities and sororities.

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