The state and county fair season is in full swing, and the times they are a-changin'. Segway rides are replacing tired old pony rides, hands-on clean power demonstrations have taken over petting zoos and people are waiting to ride a vegetable oilpowered car instead of an elephant. Cruel animal displays are making way for fresh and innovative exhibits that appeal to a generation that cares about animals and our planet.
Mobile solar panels, hybrid water heating systems and wind-powered generators are drawing tens of thousands of fair visitors who leave entertained, informed and empowered. This year's Green Long Beach Festival showcased an art project with 23,000 water bottles representing the wild dolphins who are killed for food in Japan each year. The Spring Green Expo in downtown Los Angeles featured student-designed sustainability projects and panels on organic gardening. Similar "green" fairs are sprouting up all over the country.
Yet some fair organizers--refusing to accept that times and sensibilities have evolved--continue to fall back on stale old midway displays such as tiger cub photo booths, pig races and goldfish ping-pong games. And for these ill, exhausted and dispirited animals, the shift to the 21st century can't come quickly enough.
Animals used on the fair circuit are hauled from one location to the next in transport cages in which they can barely move. Hot, fetid and cramped, these trucks can become their coffins. It's cost-prohibitive to hire an on-site veterinarian, so sick or injured animals may go unnoticed and untreated.
It's impossible to know how many animals suffer and die because these caravans are constantly on the move, and for the most part, they are self-regulated. Local humane authorities usually don't have the staff or resources to monitor traveling shows, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees animal exhibitors, has fewer than 100 inspectors covering the entire country.
Elephants live shackled in chains except when being prodded with bullhooks (a rod with a sharp metal hook on the end) to give rides. Tiger cubs who should still be nursing and be nurtured by their mothers are held and handled by streams of people looking to take home a photo souvenir. Sea lions and sharks who should be swimming in the vast oceans are lugged around in cramped tanks as shameless hucksters shill them as "educational."
But it's not just exotic species who suffer. Goldfish given away as prizes are more likely to end up flushed as to make it home. Ponies on turnstiles are so spent that they move on autopilot. Smart, sociable pigs go hungry so that they'll "race" for cookies.
Parents and grandparents can make a real difference by explaining to children why they won't be petting or feeding the animals, having their photo taken or taking a ride. As long as kids are led to believe that these kinds of cruel and exploitative displays are "OK," animals will continue to suffer.
This summer, seek out something new, something fresh, something relevant. For the sake of the animals and our planet, don't be mean--go green.
Jennifer O'Connor is an animals in entertainment specialist with the PETA Foundation, 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; http://www.PETA.org.