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Small Animals a Big Draw on County Fair’s Opening Day

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Leo Vanoni was ready for his role as barnyard teacher when the 1991 Ventura County Fair opened Wednesday morning.

Sitting on a bale of hay inside the exhibit known as Leo Vanoni’s Barn near the livestock area, Vanoni presided over a room of curious children who peered through pens at a huge sow with her 10 pushy piglets and a pygmy goat and her twin 4-day-old kids that are no bigger than house cats.

Vanoni, a retired farmer and member of a Ventura County pioneer farming family, said he hears lots of remarks from surprised city children who think “milk and pork come from the market.”

“Last year, they watched a kid being born,” Vanoni said. “You might as well teach them a little about nature right off the bat.” Vanoni expects another nanny pygmy to give birth this year.

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Vanoni’s barn was one of several animal exhibits at the fair on opening day. Others included a petting zoo and large and small livestock displays.

About 300 people lined up at the gates before the fair opened at 11 a.m., but total first-day attendance figures were not available. About 17,500 people attended the fair on opening day in 1990, said fair spokeswoman Teresa Raley.

The fair runs at the Ventura County Fairgrounds at Harbor Boulevard and Figueroa Street through Sunday, Aug. 25. Admission is $6 for adults and $3 for children ages 6 to 12. Children under 6 are free.

Through Sunday, the large livestock area at the fair’s northwest end will remain filled with sheep and goats shown by professional breeders and ranchers. Entries have increased to nearly 1,000 animals from just over 700 last year, officials said.

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A good showing in one of the state’s county fairs can earn the breeders several hundred dollars in prize money and can increase the value of their animals for sale, said Tom Dingwall of Diamond D Southdowns of Lakeport in Northern California.

Dingwall, who raises a breed of sheep known for its meat rather than its wool, had to speak loudly over the protests of two bleating sheep that he had tethered to a water spigot.

“These are the lamb chop variety,” he said. “They don’t much like getting their Saturday night baths.”

On Monday, once the professionals have gone, the amateur breeders will bring their livestock in to prepare for the junior auction Aug. 23.

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“The professionals really like our show,” said Earl McPhail, Ventura County Agricultural Commissioner and a fair board member. “But the main emphasis is really on the kids.”

Congressman Robert J. Lagomarsino (R-Ventura), who toured the fair Wednesday, said he will probably bid on one of the children’s lambs as he has in previous years.

“We’ve already had about 100 letters requesting our bid,” his aide said.

The 25 animals at the petting zoo near the fair’s main entrance competed for children’s favors instead of judges’ marks. Children lined up with their parents to buy $1 ice cream cones filled with animal feed before they entered the enclosed corral.

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“That big one stepped on my foot,” protested 6-year-old Kristin Older of Washington state, referring to the year-old llama named Cody who waited at the gate to pull the cones from the children’s hands.

The smaller and more docile black potbellied pigs and a 2-week-old fawn were among the children’s favorites at the zoo.

At Vanoni’s barn and the rest of the fair, it was also the smallest animals that attracted the most attention.

A crowd of children gathered around Leo’s 11-year-old granddaughter, Michela Vanoni, who held one of the two tiny pygmies. Michela rears the small goats on her family’s farm in Somis.

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“I like playing with the babies,” she said. A second adult pygmy, a very pregnant nanny named Hedi, shared the pen with new mother Star and her two kids.

“Hedi was due Aug. 4,” Michela said. “I think she’ll have two babies because she’s bigger than Star was and she had two.”

Vanoni’s collection of animals on loan from area farms and the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department’s Ojai Honor Farm also include an indulgent sow who lay almost motionless as she suckled 10 rambunctious piglets.

“Look at the poor mother,” sympathized Chris Cramer of Fillmore. “She’s saying, ‘A mother’s work is never done.’ ”

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