Does an event that allows children to chase down frantically fleeing baby pigs to capture one for a ribbon constitute animal abuse? An equally important question: Do the values imparted to children who participate in such an event reflect the values we want our children to embrace as they find their way in the world?
These questions are the core of an important debate being waged locally, on the Peninsula and beyond. The debate pits the Mounted Patrol of San Mateo County, which sponsors an annual "Pig Scramble" during the Fourth of July rodeo in Woodside, against animal welfare groups and a growing number of veterinarians and community members who consider the event inhumane and barbaric.
Several Woodside residents, including a veterinarian, recently formed the Committee for Humane Woodside to advocate for ending the pig scramble, arguing that the chaotic chase causes extreme distress to the animals that are set loose from a trailer, forced into an arena, then are converged upon by a large and noisy group of kids racing to capture them. The committee has circulated a petition, signed by hundreds of people, opposing the event, which we agree is inhumane and barbaric.
If one has any doubt about it, last year's scramble is available on video here. Watch it, see how these small animals are harassed -- terrorized might not be too strong a word -- and listen to their loud squeals and screams as they are captured and carried away by their legs.
In a recent newsletter, the Mounted Patrol's captain challenged the claim that the event is cruel and stressful to the piglets, and asked: "Do (the critics) speak pig?"
Well, no one we know speaks "pig," but there are scientific researchers who focus on what pigs are communicating with their range of sounds; those researchers include animal health, behavior and welfare epidemiology specialist Lisa Collins of the University of Lincoln in England. Dr. Collins has done extensive research on the personalities and emotions of pigs, and according to news reports has determined that the sounds they make "convey a wide range of information such as the emotional, motivational and physiological state of the animal. For example, squeals are produced when pigs feel fear, and may be either alerting others to their situation or offering assurance."
Patrol Captain Victor Aenlle also asserts in the newsletter that the effort to end the pig scramble "is an attack on an American tradition and western culture." The argument that this event reflects Western cultural values rings hollow to those of us who grew up on farms where such treatment of animals would never be considered acceptable -- even of those animals ultimately destined for the dinner table.
But it appears the Mounted Patrol has dug in its heels, compelling the committee and others concerned about this annual event to seek other means to end it.
One appeal that must be made is to parents: What are children learning when told it's acceptable to treat another living creature cruelly, as long as they have fun doing so? Pediatric psychiatrist Sujatha Ramakrishna is right on the mark in her letter to the Woodside Town Council, which reads in part: "If (children) are taught that tackling and dragging a squealing pig is 'fun,' they won't understand why pulling a yelping puppy's tail and pummeling a crying boy in gym class are not also 'fun.'"
In the face of the Mounted Patrol's resistance, the committee is appealing to the Town Council, and the council will discuss the matter at a future meeting, probably on March 28, according to Town Manager Kevin Bryant. Although Mr. Bryant has publicly stated that the town could ban the practice, last week he told the Almanac that the legality of a ban isn't clear-cut, and more research must be done.
But first, council members will be asked if they are interested in pursuing a ban, and if the answer is no, the town will drop the question of whether a ban would be legal, and the decision on whether to continue this cruel and harmful event will remain with the Mounted Patrol.
Mahatma Gandhi famously said: "I hold that the more helpless a creature, the more entitled it is to protection by man from the cruelty of man." We hope members of the Town Council take these words to heart and fully explore the town's options in ending the pig scramble. And if the law permits a ban, enact that ban before July 4.