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Cruelty on the midway

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The state and county fair season is just underway, and if animals knew what was in store for them, they would attempt an escape worthy of a Prison Break episode. Animals used in fairs face months of debilitating trips in stifling tractor-trailers as well as exhausting interactions with an onslaught of fairgoers. Midways are rife with cruel animal displays such as elephant rides, tiger photo booths, petting zoos and more. Life for these animals makes the Ferris wheel operator’s job look glamorous by comparison.  

Animals are forced into cramped transport cages and hauled from one venue to the next, receiving little more care than the rigging or equipment does. There’s no time to let tired and anxious animals rest or recuperate. Hiring a veterinarian to come along would reduce profits, and few small-town venues have vets on hand with expertise in treating exotic animals. So ill or injured animals often go untreated.


It’s impossible to know how many animals suffer and die on the fair circuit because exhibitors’ convoys are constantly on the move, and for the most part no one is watching. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) oversees traveling animal shows, but with fewer than 100 inspectors covering the country, it’s virtually impossible to monitor exhibitors with any regularity.


Animals who are meant to roam far and wide, such as elephants and camels, are forced to spend their days confined to transport trailers and cramped display pens. At booths shilling the “world’s largest rat” (usually either a South American nutria or a capybara), fairgoers gawk at and ridicule animals, showing the same disdain for them that people once reserved for physically disabled humans in medieval “freak shows.”


Rabbits, goldfish and hermit crabs who are given away as prizes are as likely to end up in a garbage can as in a loving home. Ponies are excluded from the protection of the federal Animal Welfare Act, and if local authorities don’t intervene, they can literally be ridden until they drop. Parents would be horrified to learn that the adorable animals their children are cuddling in the fair’s petting zoo spend most of their lives in crowded, filthy pens that are breeding grounds for disease.


In order to have a ready supply of tiger cubs to entice fairgoers to pay for photos, exhibitors continually churn out baby tigers. But when the cubs outgrow their “cuteness,” they are dumped at roadside zoos or left to languish in cramped cages for the rest of their lives. Some don’t even make it that far. Three 11-day-old tiger cubs died while being used in photo sessions in Craig Perry’s Exotic Animal Petting Zoo. Even though Perry knew that they were sick, the cubs received no veterinary care whatsoever.


Four days-old tiger cubs who were traveling with exhibitor Marcus Cook’s Zoo Dynamics died at a Duluth, Minn., fair. After Cook was found guilty of numerous violations of the Animal Welfare Act—including using electric prods to “control” a tiger during a photo session and failing to provide sick animals with veterinary care—the USDA finally revoked his exhibitor’s license this year.


Humans who interact with exotic animals at fairs are also at risk. A 5-year-old boy suffered severe facial cuts and required plastic surgery and rabies shots after a tiger cub at the North Dakota State Fair attacked him while he was having his photo taken with the animal. At the New York State Fair, a 3-year-old girl was injured after an elephant she was riding tossed her off and kicked the handler. Scores of adults and children have been seriously injured at state and county fairs across the country. Why would parents expose their children to such great risk?


This Memorial Day, please remember the animals who have lived and died in misery on the fair circuit. Vow to turn your back on cruel animal displays when you visit your local fair this summer; the animals will be suffering long after you’ve come and gone.


Desiree Acholla is an animals-in-entertainment specialist with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510;

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