Eric Mills, a Kentucky farm boy turned activist, has long been a vocal critic of the California State Fair’s handling of animals, from hugely pregnant sows placed on “live birth” exhibits to tiny hermit crabs handed out as carnival prizes.
But as the fair begins its annual run at Cal Expo this weekend, Mills has put down his protest signs and softened his voice. Thanks to legal challenges, protests, public outcry and education, he said, he senses “a sea change” in the fair administration’s attitude toward animals.
“I’ve been on them for 10 years,” said Mills, coordinator of the nonprofit group Action for Animals. “They’re finally doing some good stuff.”
This year, general manager Rick Pickering confirmed, the fair has jettisoned its controversial display featuring pregnant sows in farrowing crates awaiting the births of their piglets. No goldfish, hermit crabs or other live creatures are to be awarded as prizes on the midway. No “raccoon on a stick” or fried scorpions will be served by vendors. All of those attractions have been the subject of public outcry in the past.
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Pickering and others said the changes are not a direct response to advocacy campaigns. Rather, they reflect an evolution in ideas about animal welfare that has evolved over decades.
“Not all change is driven by beating drums,” said Stephen Chambers, chief executive officer of the Western Fairs Association, a nonprofit industry group that works with fairs across the Western United States. “What happens at fairs reflects broader social issues, and within our society there are broad differences of opinion.”
Back in the Depression era, he said, vendors sold live chameleons, inserting pins into their bodies so that people could wear them as jewelry. “It was a common state fair novelty,” he said. “Obviously we don’t do it anymore. Most people would find it horrifying today.”
I’ve been on them for 10 years. They’re finally doing some good stuff.
Eric Mills, coordinator of the nonprofit group Action for Animals, on the State Fair’s change of attitude toward animals
Participants in youth livestock competitions used to routinely “dock” or cut off the tails of lambs, he noted, but that no longer is the case. “We learned that it was not necessary, and fairs decided to tell exhibitors to stop doing it,” said Chambers. “We’ve seen a lot of changes, most as a result of education,” he said.
The changes have extended to domestic animals, said Chambers. In response to the public’s concerns about shelter animals, he said, many fairs now feature booths offering pets for adoption.
“Society is changing, and fairs reflect that change,” Chambers said. “One of those changes is the realization that we have a greater responsibility to look after the welfare of our animals, both those that are pets and those destined for the dinner table. That’s a fantastically good thing.”
Pickering, who replaced retiring Norb Bartosik in the fair’s top job in late 2012, said he is trying to balance the concerns of everyone from animal activists to traditionalists in planning and supervising the event, which at its core is a celebration of California’s agricultural heritage.
One of the biggest clashes in recent years has centered upon the “live birthing” exhibits. They are among the fair’s top attractions, and the main target of activists who argue that transporting pregnant animals and having them give birth before riveted fairgoers is stressful for the creatures and risky to the public.
The topic is at the center of a lawsuit filed in Alameda County by the Animal Legal Defense Fund. The suit alleges that nursing mother pigs are confined in crates at the State Fair, where they are unable to walk or move comfortably in violation of laws barring cruelty to animals. The nonprofit group is appealing a ruling by the Alameda Superior Court, which dismissed the case in December 2013.
“I just don’t think animals should be giving birth for public entertainment,” said Mills, whose grandparents in Kentucky raised cattle, farm and sheep. “They should be giving birth in a dark, quiet place, not in front of big crowds and nightly fireworks.”
Pickering declined to speak in detail about the issue, citing the lawsuit. But, he said, “there will be no sows or piglets at the State Fair this summer.” He said the fair will display an empty farrowing crate and educational materials to help people understand animal husbandry and food production, a critical part of the event’s mission.
The fair decided against displaying piglets last year because of the risk of spreading a devastating virus that killed millions of young pigs across the country. The viral outbreak has since significantly declined, though it is still affecting pork producers.
Society is changing, and fairs reflect that change. One of those changes is the realization that we have a greater responsibility to look after the welfare of our animals, both those that are pets and those destined for the dinner table.
Stephen Chambers, chief executive officer of the Western Fairs Association
Fairgoers can still watch cows and goats give birth in the fair’s “baby barn,” where the animals lie on beds of straw and – unlike the birthing sows – have room to move around. The birthing process will be supervised by UC Davis veterinarians.
The California State Fair is one of few such events in the country that features “a full-fledged live birth center,” said Chambers. “I’m not sure I’ve seen it anywhere else.
“But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea,” he said. “I can make an argument that it is stressful for the animals. But I can also make a strong argument that it is the most pro-animal thing that the fair does. It demonstrates to the urban population in a dramatic way where their food comes from. This is not just chopped-up meat in a supermarket. It’s real life.”
Activists have suggested swapping the birthing exhibits for webcam videos of animals giving birth in private. Pickering said he is open to the idea, but offered no guarantees that it would be part of the State Fair’s future.
“Who knows what the future holds?” he said. “I’m trying to balance a variety of very valuable opinions and ideas.”
In past years, the fair has been the site of raucous protests by animal welfare activists. Those protests reached a peak in 2010, after a pregnant cow that escaped its confines at Cal Expo was shot to death. More recently, activists have decried giveaways of live goldfish and hermit crabs by fair vendors, arguing that many of the animals ended up suffocating in plastic bags or discarded in garbage cans or sewers. They also expressed disgust at the presence of such exotic fare as “raccoon on a stick” at food booths.
“I was embarrassed to be a Californian when these things were happening,” said Patti Breitman, a Marin County book author and literary agent who advocates for animals and environmental issues. “It’s just a horrible way of presenting animals to the public. But I think there is a change happening. I think the fair is turning away from this kind of abuse.”
Objections from the public may have played into a decision by vendors “not to give out live animals,” including goldfish and hermit crabs, at this summer’s fair, Pickering said. He said a few vendors who offered food products that were the objects of derision by animal welfare activists have gone out of business.
The State Fair’s changes have piqued the interest of Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, who in May wrote Pickering a letter praising him for “your openness, responsiveness and governance of the Fair,” particularly with regard to “promoting best practices for animals.”
“It is my sincere hope that these policies be maintained ... in the years to come,” he wrote.
During the past two years, Mills took out costly newspaper ads to draw public attention to animal welfare at the fair. Over the past decade, he has written letters, carried protest signs and ranted at state fair board meetings. This year, he said, he is suspending his ad campaign and toning down his rhetoric.
“Of course, there are still things I wish they wouldn’t do,” he said. “But I do think the fair deserves some strokes for positive changes.”
The California State Fair runs Friday through July 26 at Cal Expo
- Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday
- Cost: $8 to $12 daily admission; free for children 4 and under. Ride wristbands are $28 to $35; parking is $10.
- Special attractions: An entire building dedicated to evolutions in science and technology; a national “drone race” at Bonney Field; a wall-plastering competition.