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In a packed Hillside, New Jersey, courtroom last night, a judge dropped animal-cruelty charges against Frank Balun, the 69-year-old gardener who became a cause celebre after he whacked a rat to death with a broom for eating his tomato plants. Ironically, Balun got noticed -- and risked a year in jail and $2,500 in fines -- after he called the Associated Humane Societies to get the carcass. The AHS promptly filed charges against him. The judge found a loophole in state law that allows slaughter if vermin damage crops or livestock. But it took a plea-in-verse from local prosecutor Christopher Howard to put things in perspective: "Because the killing of a rat by this man of this repute/ The state concludes does not fall within the criminal statute." Stacey China, the Star-Ledger (Newark) reporter who broke the story, told TIME Daily she was amazed by the case's worldwide reverberations: "There are letters in the Hillside town hall from all over the world -- from London, from Tokyo and so