‘Pig scramble’ for kids at Sonoma County Fair gives way to watermelons
A half century ago, long before premium wine and a high-tech boom transformed the county, Farmers Day at the annual Sonoma County Fair packed several thousand spectators into the racetrack grandstand for a series of events, including the pig scramble, which involved freshly weaned piglets weighing 40 to 60 pounds.
As a whistle sounded, scores of kids ages 5 to 10 charged toward a pack of a dozen or so pigs. In those days, the winners got to keep the captured porker. The annual scenario stayed mostly the same as Farmers Day relocated to the Chris Beck Arena, except the piglets were quickly retrieved by adult farmers and the participants received gift certificates.
Ending a time-honored event tied to the county's agricultural roots, the 83-year-old county fair next month will not include the formerly favorite event almost as old as the fair itself: youngsters diving in the dirt to capture scampering and squealing piglets. Instead this year on Farmers Day on Aug. 4 at Sonoma County Fairgrounds, 20 elementary school kids will try to tote a vegetable oil-slicked watermelon around an obstacle course, racing against the clock.
Fair board members, acknowledging rising public concern and protests over animal welfare, eliminated the pig scramble from the lineup of agriculture-related contests on Farmers Day.
Rob Muelrath, the fair board president, said the decision reflected a “heightened awareness” toward calls for humane treatment of farm animals.
Muelrath, a political consultant, grew up on a Santa Rosa- area dairy ranch, exhibited livestock at the county fair for 10 years as a 4-H and Future Farmers of America member and competed in pig scrambles at the Sonoma-Marin Fair in Petaluma.
He said he wasn't sure if the new watermelon obstacle course event would succeed in drawing more people to Farmers Day, which fair officials said has recently seen declining attendance.
“The jury's still out,” he said. “We'll see how many kids are interested.”
Animal rights activists hailed the replacement of scrambling for innocent animals with an inert fruit a step towards acknowledging their cause.
“It shows there's always a creative option to animal cruelty,” said Gemma Vaughan, a caseworker for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, known as PETA.
Tawny Tesconi, executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, recalled her own participation in pig scrambles decades ago. “It's been a great activity,” she said, calling the termination an “unfortunate decision” but one she supports as a former manager of the county fair.
The local ag industry was reminded of the cultural headwinds it faces last month when busloads of animal welfare activists descended on a west Petaluma duck farm and nearly 100 were arrested after some walked onto the property and others chained themselves together by the neck at the farm's main gate.
Law enforcement responded in large numbers, including a SWAT team and the sheriff's helicopter.
“We're all aware that we seem to be a target for them now,” Tesconi said, referring to animal rights protests.
Muelrath said he was not aware of any involvement by animal rights advocates in the decision to discontinue the pig scramble.
“We try to stay ahead of the issues,” he said. “We're always trying to do our part to do better.”
Annette O'Kelley, a 19-year fair board member and chairwoman of the agriculture committee, acknowledged the pig scramble's long run, but said it was time for a change.
“It's just the right thing to do,” the retired ag instructor at Santa Rosa and Elsie Allen high schools said, noting the hot weather in August can be tough on pigs. “We don't want to see any of the animals get stressed out or hurt.”
Becky Bartling, the fair's chief executive officer, said the decision to drop the pig scramble stemmed from an effort to boost Farmers Day attendance.
Asked if it had anything to do with allaying concerns that it was harmful to animals, Bartling said: “I can't really speak to that.” Farmers Day planners were given the task of “updating” the program lineup, she said.
“We've had a lot of conversation (for years) around re-energizing the events,” said Heather Borck, the fair exhibits coordinator.
Youth barrel racing - on horseback with adult guidance - was added to the program along with the watermelon obstacle race, Borck said.
PETA lists pig scrambles among the events at state and county fairs it considers abusive to animals.
Pigs are intelligent animals that perceive humans chasing them in a show ring as predators and are “running for their lives,” risking trauma and broken bones, Vaughan, the PETA caseworker, said.