Pig wrangling out, greased watermelons are in at longtime county fair event

Pig races and pig scrambles are staples at many county fairs. Pictured above, three American guinea hogs race around the track during pig races at the Orange County Fair in 2011.
Pig races and pig scrambles are staples at many county fairs. Pictured above, three American guinea hogs race around the track during pig races at the Orange County Fair in 2011.
(Don Leach / Daily Pilot)

The Sonoma County Fair is putting the brakes on a longtime children’s event pitting kids against pigs.

For half a century, the fair in Northern California has hosted a “pig scramble” in which dozens of children race after a drove of squealing piglets, dragging the swine out of a dirt pit by their hind legs to the amusement of cheering parents.

The annual event was meant to expose kids to farm life, fair officials said.


But this year, there will be no animals at the Aug. 4 event. Instead, children will be given greased watermelons to carry through an obstacle course.

Board members say the change is part of an effort to boost Farmers Day attendance, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat reported.

“Attracting more individuals to the Farmers Day event has been a topic of conversation for years,” Sonoma County Fairgrounds CEO Rebecca Bartling said in a statement emailed to The Times. “This past spring, our planning committee put their creative hats on and came up with a program that we think is going to be fun for all.”

Bartling didn’t mention the end of the pig scramble, but said the fair’s new watermelon obstacle course will challenge children ages 5-10 in a race holding a slippery melon.

Fair officials said the decision to end the pig chase wasn’t prompted by animal rights activists. Board President Rob Muelrath could not immediately be reached for comment Monday, but board member Annette O’Kelley said it was time for a change.

“It’s just the right thing to do,” O’Kelley told the Press Democrat. “We don’t want to see any of the animals get stressed out or hurt.”

Matt Johnson, a spokesman for Direct Action Everywhere, said the group has never protested against the Sonoma County Fair. Nonetheless, Johnson said the group was glad to hear of the end of event, which he characterized as “children chasing terrified baby pigs” causing “psychological torment” and physical injuries.

“It’s an indication that the times are changing and we’re shifting in a compassionate direction,” he said. The pig scramble “is not what we should be teaching our children.”

Gemma Vaughan, a caseworker for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said the organization was not involved in conversations about the pig scramble, noting that it was local community and board members who led the change.

“They’re running for their lives and tackled by children who they perceive as predators,” she said. “We’re glad [the Fair] has found a fun and humane alternative to the pig chase.”

The Santa Rosa, Calif., locale is not the first to eliminate fair events involving live pigs. In Canada, the Westmorland County Fair and the Lombardy Agricultural Society’s fair also ended pig scrambles after complaints from animal activists.

At Maine’s Skowhegan State Fair, a petition has garnered 2,664 signatures to eliminate the activity.

Meanwhile, the Orange County and Los Angeles County fairs have no plans to remove animals from events, including pig races. At the L.A. County fair, pigs come in contact only with their handler, said Renee Hernandez, a spokeswoman for the fair.

“The Farm @ Fairplex is one of the L.A. County Fair’s most treasured visitor experiences and we take great care in the handling of all our animals,” she said.

Terry Moore, spokeswoman for the O.C. County fair said the fair doesn’t have a pig scramble, or any event in which guests interact with animals aside from petting zoos.

“We hadn’t even heard about pig scrambles,” she said.