A brief and extemporaneous debate on the values of the Old West took shape on Tuesday, June 28, at the Woodside Town Council meeting as members of the public disputed the character of a July fourth junior rodeo event in which screaming children chase and subdue small pigs, also screaming, in a dusty arena on the grounds of the Mounted Patrol of San Mateo County.
The "pig scramble" had not been placed on the council's agenda, so the council members were not allowed to discuss it or take action, so the arguments from the public were over ideas.
"The pig scramble is wholesome, a part of Western tradition that's being lost in this country," said Terry Welcome, captain of the Mounted Patrol. "That tradition is not one of shooting and killing people, cattle rustling and hangings, but one of independence, hard work, responsibility, compassion for animals that help to do much of the ranch work, and camaraderie."
"Banning the pig scramble is to deny 250 willing children and parents who desire to have their children have the experience of attempting to catch a pig under strict supervising individuals," Mr. Welcome said.
Resident Steve Hope had a different take. "We have a long cultural history of casual cruelty for sport, right? And when you really think about it, that's all this (pig scramble) is," he said. "There's a lot of stuff in Western cultural history of Western Europe, of the U.S., of the Western U.S. where we do things like this and we are hopefully moving towards a world where we do fewer and fewer of those. ... I just don't understand why it's OK to do that to baby pigs for fun."
Mayor Deborah Gordon asked staff to work with her or perhaps Councilman Tom Livermore, the mayor pro tem, to determine an appropriate course of action or conduct research, perhaps with the help of a summer intern. If the matter were to be placed on an agenda, advance notice would be important so as to represent all points of view in the discussion, she added.
The public comment included remarks by two veterinarians, one who communicated via a letter read to the council and the other who spoke in person.
"I ... urge you to not allow this exploitation and demonstrate that our community is aware of and values the importance of animal protection rather than animal abuse," wrote Woodside resident Dr. Bonnie Yoffe, veterinarian for the city of Palo Alto and a former medical chief of staff for the Peninsula Humane Society and SPCA, in a letter read by Woodside resident Jennifer Gonzales.
The pigs may have their limbs pulled out from under them and be dragged, Dr. Yoffe wrote. "This is a painful, terrifying, and dangerous ordeal for the pigs, who can sustain severe injuries such as broken limbs and backs, as well as muscle trauma and joint dislocations," she wrote.
The anatomy of a pig's front legs is unique, she wrote. "Lifting and pulling by their front legs is painful and can result in injury. ... Clearly this is abuse, bullying, and terrorizing of a defenseless animal."
Dr. Yoffe quoted Temple Grandin, a noted authority on farm-animal husbandry, saying that fear-based stress in animals "should be considered as important as suffering induced by pain" and "very detrimental to (their) welfare."
Veterinarian Bill Bentham, a member of the Mounted Patrol and a pig-scramble patron, told the council that pig anatomy is "identical to every other animal." He said he's been coming to Mounted Patrol rodeos since the early 1990s. "I've seen the pigs," he said. "I look at them rather closely and I have seen no injuries throughout the course of this time."
Resident Grace Welcome told the council that the pigs are treated well, including being fed by hand, and that "from their point of view, (the scramble) is like pig playtime."
Pigs are prey animals and consider being chased an existential threat, Dr. Nedim C. Buyukmihci, an emeritus professor of veterinary medicine at the University of California at Davis, said in an email. "Being chased by screaming people, regardless of age, will cause extreme stress for the pigs. ... Further, restraining or suspending pigs by their legs is not only painful in itself, it can lead to dislocation of joints which adds to the pain and suffering endured.
"Treating pigs in this manner is undoubtedly cruel," Dr. Buyukmihci said. "The people involved as well as the audience may be 'enjoying' themselves, but at great cost to the pigs. Allowing such treatment teaches children and others, by example, that it is acceptable to use nonhuman animals in general and pigs in particular for any human purpose, regardless how trivial and even when such use is potentially dangerous to the animals. Our society desperately needs to foster a greater respect for the other creatures with whom we share this planet. Pig 'scrambles' are antithetical to that aspiration."
Woodside Planning Commissioner Aydan Kutay, speaking as a private citizen, told the council of text messages related to the pig scramble that are helping to generate bad publicity for Woodside, characterizing the town as "really backward."