‘Pig scramble’ for kids at Sonoma County Fair gives way to watermelons

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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.

Noting that bullying is now a topic of concern in schools, she said it “seems particularly obscene for these baby pigs being harassed by children.”

Based on media reports of past pig scrambles, it seems debatable who was more at risk — the swine or the determined kids. A Press Democrat report on the 1995 pig scramble noted “when the dust settled there were more kids than animals with scrapes and bruises,” including a 9-year-old Penngrove girl who skinned her knee catching a porker.

An 11-year-old boy was too small to lift his pig off the ground.

“That pig is bigger than the kid,” announcer Don Jesser said.

One local teenager who competed in recent pig scrambles is upset by the demise of an event she enjoyed for six years.

Maddie Vanoni, 15, said she was “absolutely shocked” by the fair board’s decision.

“You’re showing these city kids what it’s like to be on a farm,” she said, adding that she never saw a pig harmed during her efforts from age 6 to 12. Only once, Vanoni said, did she snare a piglet and that was by sneaking up on it rather than pouncing in a rush.

Vanoni, who now lives in Glen Ellen, was born and lived until recently on a family ranch in Geyserville.

Six years ago in a letter to the editor published in The Press Democrat, she defended the pig scramble from criticism then that it harmed the animals, which are returned to their ranching owners and eventually sold.

“If an animal were ‘broken,’ as suggested, a farmer would never lend it for Farmers Day,” Vanoni wrote. “Growing up on a ranch has taught me the value of caring for animals. I am not cruel, and I do not hurt them.”

Although fair officials are moving on from the pig scramble, the Farmers Day lineup for this year’s county fair still includes two other events PETA objects to: wild cow milking and “mutton bustin,” in which little kids ride on sheep.

Matt Johnson, a spokesman for the Berkeley-based group Direct Action Everywhere, said the group, which calls itself DxE, has protested pig races at California county fairs and is considering an information-only presence at the gates to the Sonoma County Fair, which runs from Aug. 1-11.

Muelrath, the fair board president, said of the pig scramble retirement: “If we can do our part to protect animals as well as educate kids about agriculture it’s a win for everyone.” Getting children engaged with farming is “incredibly important” to the county fair and a primary reason for Farmers Day.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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