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State Fairs

Published 06/15/02
Source: Animal Issues, Volume 33 Number 2, Summer 2002

State and local fairs are as much a symbol of America as apple pie and Fourth of July. Traditionally fairs brought communities together to celebrate the bounty of summer and show off the skills of local people through contests and talent shows.

Summer fairs used to include “freak shows” in which humans with unusual physical or psychological conditions were displayed for profit and public entertainment. Thankfully, as a society we no longer exploit such people. Unfortunately, attractions that exploit animals are still a major part of many state and local fairs. While the following attractions are inarguably part of traditional American state and local fairs, like the human freak shows of the past they too have fallen out of step with changing times.


Horses and cows used in rodeos are abused with electrical prods, sharp spurs, and “bucking straps” that pinch their sensitive flank areas. During bucking events, horses and bulls may suffer broken legs or run into the sides of the arena causing serious injury and even death. During calf-roping events, a calf may reach a running speed of 30 miles per hour before being jerked by the neck to an abrupt stop by a lasso. This event has resulted in crushed throats, broken necks, and paralysis.

The Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) and the International Rodeo Association have adopted a number of rules that apply to the treatment of animals during sanctioned pro-rodeo events. However, many rodeos in the United States are non-sanctioned events and the humane standards do not apply. PRCA rules — regarded by animal activists as inadequate — often do not prohibit bucking straps and do not require breakaway ropes be used to reduce harm to roped animals. Furthermore, state anti-cruelty laws dance neatly around livestock so animals used in rodeos are at the mercy of their exploiters.

Despite PRCA claims that animal injuries are “negligible,” several veterinarians and rodeo participants have testified to the contrary. In testimony supporting the banning of standard calf-roping in Rhode Island, Dr. E. J. Finocchio stated, “As a large animal veterinarian for 20 years ... I have witnessed firsthand the instant death of calves after their spinal cords were severed from the abrupt stop at the end of a rope when traveling up to 30 mph. I have also witnessed and tended calves who became paralyzed ... and whose tracheas were totally or partially severed ... Slamming to the ground has caused rupture of several internal organs leading to a slow, agonizing death for some of these calves.”

Not only are rodeos cruel and dangerous, they send the message that it is acceptable and even admirable to abuse animals. The fact that animal abuse has been shown to be a precursor to violence toward humans raises even more concerns.

Horse Racing

Racehorses are bred for one purpose — to make money. Racehorses are often pushed beyond their physical limits and suffer from conditions ranging from bowed tendons and broken bones to bleeding lungs. Such debilitating conditions are called “breakdowns” by the industry.

At the 1990 Breeders Cup, 51,000 spectators witnessed the breakdown of Go for Wand, a three-year-old filly entered in the race. Go for Wand fractured her ankle on the home stretch, fell to her knees, and somersaulted off the track. When she stood up hobbling on three legs her right foreleg was visibly mangled. In a very poignant moment she faced the grandstand with a look of terror in her eyes and fell to her knees before the crowd. Go for Wand was later given a lethal injection where she lay on the track.

Such breakdowns are not uncommon. According to industry reporting papers, breakdowns occur in 1 of every 26.5 starts and these reports do not include injuries sustained by horses during training workouts or unrecorded races. According to 1990-91 statistics from the California Horse Racing Board, 84.6% of problems affecting racehorse of all breeds were those of the musculoskeletal system. One reason for this is that most horses begin racing as two-year-olds when their cartilage is still converting to bone and tendons and ligaments are in the developing stage, thus increasing the risk of injury. Older horses are at risk if forced to run while injured with the use of pain-masking and performance-enhancing drugs. Dr. Arthur Patterson, retired equine specialist for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, explains, “If a horse has a chronic problem, say a hairline fracture, bute (a pain killer) covers it up. The horse feels no pain, then goes out and breaks a leg. The proper use of bute is as an adjunct to rest, not as a prelude to racing.”

Bleeding from the lungs during exercise is rarely reported in other mammals, yet nearly all racehorses experience this bleeding, known as exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage (EIPH). In an effort to reduce this blood pressure in the lungs, the diuretic furosemide (Lasix) has been administered to horses prior to a race. Although studies have shown that Lasix does lower blood pressure slightly, it has never been definitively demonstrated that Lasix reduces the frequency or severity of bleeding. Researchers from the Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine found that 60% of the horses who had been treated with Lasix had blood in their lungs after a race. The researchers also found that Lasix makes a horse run faster by anywhere from 2 to 9 lengths and Lasix dilutes the horse's urine, making it more difficult to detect illegal drugs. Lasix is banned in all major racing countries except the United States and an estimated 80% of all racehorses running in California are on Lasix.

The cruelty of the racing industry does not stop at the racetrack. When racehorses fail to prove profitable on the track, most are sent to the slaughterhouse. In 1998, as many as 7,100 registered thoroughbreds were slaughtered in the United States. Even Exceller who was inducted into the National Racing Museum’s Hall of Fame in 1999 and won nearly $1.7 million in races ended up at the slaughterhouse. Some racehorses are killed or injured by their owners to collect insurance money. In 1996 eight people were charged with killing valuable horses to collect insurance premiums. In one case, a rider and trainer smashed a horse’s leg with a crowbar, and in another case the owner electrified his horse’s water trough causing the horse to rear up, fall down, and break his back.

Exotic Animal Photo Ops

Many state fairs allow traveling exhibitors that display exotic animals to offer paying customers an opportunity to pet or have their picture taken with exotic animals (usually young animals) despite the animal welfare and public safety issues raised by such exhibits.

While “public education” is often touted as justification for such displays, this excuse relies on the assumption that simply seeing wild animals up close, even in an unnatural setting, fosters an appreciation for the animals in the wild and thus encourages conservation. No research supports such an assumption. Several studies have shown that visitors receive very little if any education while visiting wild animal displays. The average visitor spends as little as 12 seconds and no more than two minutes at the typical animal exhibit. Very little information can be acquired in such a short time. It is likely that the only message gained from such a display is that the exotic animal would make an intriguing “pet” — an endeavor that often leads to neglect, abuse, improper breeding, and attacks on people.

Another concern is what future such animals have once they grow up and no longer exhibit the “baby appeal” or become unpredictable and hence unsuitable for public photo purposes. Even animals bred and raised in respected institutions often end up in the hands of backyard breeders, or chained in the basements of unqualified individuals, or at the receiving end of a gun on an exotic game ranch.

Petting Zoos

At first glance farm animal petting zoos seem benign. What could be wrong with providing children an opportunity to interact with farm animals and possibly learn to see them as more than just a source of meat, milk, or eggs? Just as in any situation where animals are used for entertainment or profit, there is potential for abuse. Petting zoos can be stressful to the animals especially if they are not provided an opportunity to escape unwanted contact and if children are not closely supervised. With traveling petting zoos one also should question how long the animals are forced to live “on the road” traveling from one fair to the next.

Since most animals used in petting zoos are young animals, what happens to them when they grow up? The reality is that when the animals outgrow their usefulness to the petting zoo they will likely be killed — a fact that few children are aware of as they bond with the playful calf or fluffy chick. Parents should also be aware of the potential health risks when visiting petting zoos and should be aware that petting zoos featuring exotic animals are particularly dangerous and should be avoided.

In 1999 at least 16 children (ages 1 through 10) contracted E. coli from cows at the Merrymead Farm petting zoo in Pennsylvania. New guidelines issued in 2001 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that persons who provide public access to farm animals inform visitors about the risk of transmission of pathogens from farm animals to humans and the strategies for prevention of such transmission. They should also ensure that washing facilities are available with running water, soap, and disposable towels, and prohibit eating and drinking as well as toys and pacifiers in interaction areas.

Other Animal Exhibits

In addition to the petting zoos and the livestock exhibits, most fairs also exhibit rabbits, chickens, and exotic fowl. While many of the rabbits and exotic fowl are kept as “hobby” animals or breeding stock, and so will not be auctioned off and sent to the slaughterhouse when the fair ends, the animals may experience considerable stress as a result of being taken from their homes and placed among strange sounds, smells, and people. In nature these are “prey” animals and are instinctively wary of new things and their natural instincts tell them to run and hide when they are scared — something they are unable to do while locked in the small display cages.

Displaying animals in this way also perpetuates the idea that confining these animals in cages is acceptable. Many people are under the assumption that a wire cage is an appropriate environment for a rabbit, chicken, or exotic fowl. While it is true that these animals can survive in cage environments, such enclosures are completely inadequate to meet the instinctive needs of these wonderful animals. Chickens and other fowl are very energetic and highly social animals who spend much of their day foraging and interacting with flock members, and rabbits are just as curious and active as cats, yet few would think of forcing a cat to live in a wire cage for her entire life.


One of the most common and enduring symbols associated with state and local fairs is the 4-H clover. (The four H’s of 4-H stand for Head for clear thinking, Heart for greater loyalty, Hands for larger service, Health for better living.) 4-H is the youth education branch of the Cooperative Extension Service, a program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and more than 6.8 million kids belong to 4-H. While the 4-H program offers many activities or “projects,” ranging from photography to foreign exchange, 4-H is perhaps best known for its livestock programs.

As a young girl API staffer Monica Engebretson raised pigs as a part of the 4-H livestock program. Each year she looked forward to the fun of bringing home a new baby piglet to name, feed, bathe, walk, and play with. As summer approached, anticipation of the county fair grew with dreams of winning in the showmanship competition or having her pig declared “Grand Champion” and all the attention and praise that would come with those accomplishments. This excitement however, was always tempered with the reality of another integral part of fair time — the auction.

Tears are plentiful at 4-H livestock auctions. Although kids are coached not to cry while in the auction ring it is terribly difficult to hold back the tears as buyers shout out offers to buy your friend by the pound. Monica usually held it together during the auction then broke down after leaving the ring. The night after the auction her friends and she would sit cherishing their last moments with their pigs and discuss grandiose plans to save their lives before the livestock trucks arrived to take them to slaughter. Their plans were always futile. When the trucks arrived they watched the handlers load up the animals, cringing every time the electrical prod was used to move the pigs along. One year a pig escaped from the loading dock and they all jumped up and down and cheered, “Go pig!” and were angrily ordered out of the area by the handlers. The following year no kids were allowed to watch the loading procedure.

Monica loved her pigs and she loved giving them the very best possible care. However, in the end they were forced onto a crowded loading truck and after what may have been several hours without food or water they arrived at the slaughterhouse to wait a week or more in crowded pens frightened, stressed, and confused before finally being slaughtered. The loss of each pig who had become a beloved companion was extremely painful. The pain she felt differed from the pain of loss from a cat or dog because this pain was combined with the guilt she felt for having sent her friend off to die and from having profited from it.

For a while she justified her participation in the project by reasoning that since people were going to eat animals anyway, at least her pigs and most of the animals raised by 4-H’ers were given much better care than those raised on factory farms. But at age 16 — two years after becoming a vegetarian — it occurred to her that no matter how the animal was raised the killing was unnecessary. She quit the livestock program.

It is hard to say what long-term impact 4-H livestock programs have on the children who participate in them. At least three girls who raised pigs in Monica’s 4-H club (Monica included) gave up all meat and are still vegetarians to this day. However, it is suspected that while most former 4-H’ers know firsthand that farm animals are sentient beings with personalities and interests, they still eat them and probably even purchase meat that comes from animals raised on factory farms. This is probably also true of most people who visit the livestock areas of local and state fairs. What they learn about farm animals does very little to help the animals.

There are many wonderful 4-H programs that do not center around raising animals for slaughter. In addition to the livestock program, Monica participated in sewing, gardening, horsemanship, summer camp planning and counseling, foreign exchange, community service, and leadership. There are also guide dog training, woodworking, arts and crafts, cooking, and photography programs. These programs leave children with feelings of accomplishment and pride not pain and guilt.

Petting zoo incidents involving exotic animals

  • 1996 — A girl was attacked by a baby Bengal tiger in a petting zoo at Ohio’s Trumbull County Fair. The girl walked into the petting zoo with her parents when the cat jumped on her back and sunk its teeth into her neck. The tiger was on a leash at the time of the incident.
  • 1998 — An elephant trainer and a 3-year-old girl were injured at the New York State Fair when the elephant being used for rides with the Cumerford Petting Zoo protested. The elephant kicked the trainer and stepped on his back causing the girl to fall off.
  • 1999 — A black bear cub traveling with Swenson’s Wild Midwest Exotic Petting Zoo in Clermont, IA died of rabies. An estimated 400 people from 10 states were invited to feed, and wrestle with, the bear during the 28 days before his death, during which the bear could have transmitted the virus through his saliva to petting zoo patrons.
  • 1999 — A fair worker scaled a 4-foot safety fence to pet a white tiger traveling with the R.W. Commerford and Sons Inc. petting zoo at the Orange County Fair in Mechanicstown, NY and was attacked by the animal.
  • 2000 — A man was bitten on the arm by a white tiger cub from Perry’s Exotic Petting Zoo in Albuquerque, NM.

What You Can Do

  1. Refuse to patronize exotic animal exhibits, horse races, rodeos, petting zoos, when you attend your local or state fair and encourage your local or state fair to prohibit such exhibits and activities.
  2. If you observe an animal being abused, living in deplorable conditions, etc., at a state fair attraction, document it in writing and/or with photographs or videotape and report it to your local humane society or appropriate animal control agency. If an exotic animal is involved also report the incident to:

    USDA Animal Care
    4700 River Road, Unit 84
    Riverdale, MD 20737-1234
    phone 301-734-4981
    fax 301-734-4978

  3. Host a booth or table at your local fair providing information on animals used in agriculture and entertainment, and on exotic “pets,” and other issues affecting animals. (API offers an Activist Starter Kit that contains fact sheets that can be reproduced for tabling purposes and a sample of brochures that can be ordered in quantity if needed.)

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