A group of Woodside residents under the banner of the Committee for a Humane Woodside is calling on the Town Council to ban the traditional pig scramble, when kids chase and capture pigs, at the annual July Fourth Junior Rodeo in Woodside. The group says the event is inhumane.
Such a change in the rodeo would be the first step in a campaign to undermine Western cultural values in Woodside, according to the captain of the Mounted Patrol of San Mateo County, which hosts the rodeo.
The February 2017 edition of the Patrol's newsletter doesn't mince words. "Our pig scramble is under attack," Patrol Captain Victor Aenlle wrote. "There's a movement aimed at putting an end to one of our longest running traditions. They claim that this event is stressful and cruel to the pigs. Do they speak pig? I believe this is an attack on an American tradition and western culture. We will take a stand and continue to fight and maintain our 4th of July traditions."
"Western identity and culture is far deeper than one event," resident Lorien French of the Humane Woodside committee told the town's Livestock and Equestrian Heritage Committee recently during a discussion about whether the pig scramble is cruel to pigs and a lesson in cruelty for children.
The council is likely to address the pig scramble at its March 28 meeting, Town Manager Kevin Bryant told the Almanac.
The pig scramble involves three rounds, in which about 12 pigs are released from a trailer and chased around the arena by 30 to 50 children. When a child manages to capture a pig, an adult is supposed to carry it back to the trailer, but the overall scene has aspects of mayhem about it.
In a January 2016 letter, Ken White, president of the Peninsula Humane Society & SPCA, said: "Although this 'event' may not in itself violate State anti-cruelty laws, there is no question that (the pig scramble) is a barbaric and inhumane activity which is passed off as some form of entertainment."
The Humane Woodside committee formed after Dr. Bonnie Yoffe, a resident and veterinarian, read about the pig scramble on NextDoor Woodside, Ms. French told the Almanac. Three Woodside residents and one former resident form the group's core.
"We have sought to raise local awareness about this inhumane activity mostly through circulating petitions and reaching out to the Town government," Ms. French said in an email. A petition the group is circulating that asks the council to stop the pig scramble had 139 signatures of Woodside residents as of March 1, member Jennifer Gonzales said.
The Livestock Committee is appointed by and advises the Town Council on livestock and equestrian matters. On a 7-0 vote on March 1, the committee approved a statement to the council saying that the pig scramble "does not meet the highest ideals" and that the committee would "encourage modification" of it.
A few Patrol members attended the meeting, but quietly. ""We're here to listen, and we'll be at the Town Council (meeting)," Patrol member Scott Dancer said.
What can council do?
In January, Mr. Bryant told Livestock Committee members that despite there not being a state law banning pig scrambles, the council had the discretion to ban them in Woodside.
Town Hall has had second thoughts, Mr. Bryant said. The Patrol has a use permit that allows rodeos. While the pig scramble is not officially sanctioned by the Northern California Junior Rodeo Association, which runs the Woodside rodeo, the town has not made a practice of discriminating between sanctioned and non-sanctioned events, Mr. Bryant said.
Town Attorney Jean Savaree is looking into the possibility that the Patrol has "grandfathered in" rights, Mr. Bryant said. A grandfather clause is a legal concept that protects activities by a permit holder that are ongoing and that would be outlawed by a new law.
At a previous Livestock Committee meeting, two women -- not members of Humane Woodside -- offered to try to find a compromise.
Mr. Aenlle, who said he talked with one of them, said he was under the impression that she was a Humane Woodside member. He said he offered to put the pigs in a corral before the event to allow children to interact with them, and to have two Humane Woodside members in the livestock trailer to ensure that the pig wranglers handle the pigs gently.
Commenting on the corral idea, Ms. French said in an email that the scramble should be replaced by an activity that, if pigs are involved, would teach children to "handle them humanely and respectfully and would not involve chasing or attempting to capture them."
As for the offer to monitor pig handling, Ms. French said Humane Woodside would not be put into the role of "monitoring an unsanctioned, inhumane rodeo event year after year."
The pigs used in the chase are about 4 months old, free range, weigh about 30 pounds each, and have been weaned about two months earlier, arena manager Michael Raynor told the Almanac. Many, but not all, are sold within a week after the event to be roasted whole, Mr. Raynor said. "The pigs are about at full size for their intended purpose when we use them at the scramble," he said.
A video from the 2016 event shows pigs in the first two rounds assembling on their own, far from the trailer, then heading off as a group as the chase begins.
In the third round, this routine broke down as the pigs clustered around the trailer door trying to get back in. The pig wranglers sent them back out, sometimes unceremoniously: The video shows that several were bodily tossed out. One was picked up by the tail. One landed on its cheek. Several pigs subsequently hid under the trailer and had to be dragged out.
Were they reacting to being chased and handled during the first two rounds? In an interview, Mr. Aenlle insisted that each round involves different pigs. "You don't know what pigs are going to do," he said, responding to a question as to why the third-round pigs acted as they did.
There were 26 pigs in all, Mr. Raynor said in an email. "We order and pay for enough pigs that each pig only goes one round. ... The pig owner does sometimes put a couple of the already used pigs out for a second round if they are particularly active and more difficult to handle. Most of the time the pigs only go out once though. We have enough pigs to only use them once."
Livestock needs to be handled to build "emotional maturity," a notion not obvious to people from urban backgrounds, Mr. Raynor said. "The livestock is less stressed when it is exposed to handling, exposed to being caught and released," he said. "The premise of (the pigs) being terrorized and becoming harder to handle is erroneous. It doesn't work that way. They are easier to handle after the experience, not harder."
As for the pigs hiding under the trailer, the use of the word "hiding" is "not an accurate evaluation of the circumstances," Mr. Raynor said. "In general, pigs won't go to open areas but will more likely try to hide under structures, brush, or trailers. In this case, the trailer was a likely place. This is true in any situation, pigs are more comfortable when they are near structures, not in the open."
"It's very unusual for animals to want to get back into the transport trailer," Ms. French told the Livestock Committee, citing a comment from the author of the pig-handling section of a pork industry handbook.
San Rafael-based pediatric psychiatrist Sujatha Ramakrishna emailed the Woodside Town Council in February. "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,'" Dr. Ramakrishna said.
Child aggression toward peers and family members can lead to criminal behavior, she said. "The last thing that we need ... is the creation of more bullies by encouraging kids to manhandle those who are in audible distress but cannot defend themselves."
"Not all psychiatrists are created equal," Mr. Aenlle said when asked to comment. "I think that's a pretty far stretch that she made. ... A pig scramble, for a pig activist, is not going to look nice," he said. "That doesn't mean it's evil."
Evil behavior requires malicious intent, he said. "Just because you're chasing an animal around doesn't mean you have malicious intent. (The children) are smiling. They're happy (and thinking) 'I've never been able to do something that's this fun,'" he said.
Asked to comment on children chasing foals rather than pigs, Mr. Aenlle described it as apples and oranges. "One of them, we eat," he said. "It's on our table every day. It's livestock."
"We respect all animals," he added. "We just don't see a pig scramble (as) disrespectful to the pig. We love all animals."
Pigs are stressed when "chased, grabbed or tackled" by children, Ken White of the Humane Society said in his letter.
Stress is normal for livestock, Mr. Aenlle said repeatedly. "I wouldn't word it as 'kids chasing pigs,'" he added. "'Kids having fun with pigs' or maybe the other way around, 'Pigs having fun with kids.'"