Deerfield Fair pig scrambles: Dangerous, or barnyard fun?

  • Carole Soule of Miles Smith Farm demonstrates how to catch and handle a pig. Caitlin Andrews—Monitor staff

  • Pictures of children participating in the Deerfield Fair's 2010 pig scramble taken from their Facebook page. —Courtesy

  • Pictures of children participating in the Deerfield Fair’s 2010 pig scramble taken from their Facebook page. —Courtesy

  • Carole Soule of Miles Smith Farm demonstrates how to catch and handle a pig. Caitlin Andrews—Monitor staff

  • Carole Soule of Miles Smith Farm demonstrates how to catch and handle a pig. Caitlin Andrews—Monitor staff

  • Carole Soule of Miles Smith Farm demonstrates how to catch and handle a pig. Caitlin Andrews / Monitor staff

  • Carole Soule of Miles Smith Farm feeds piglets that are the right age to be used in a pig scramble. Activists have started a petition and plan to protest the pig-handling event at the Deerfield Fair, arguing that grabbing piglets causes them unnecessary pain. Caitlin Andrews photos / Monitor staff

  • Piglets at Miles Smith Farm in Loudon. Caitlin Andrews—Monitor staff

  • A piglet inspects the camera at Miles Smith Farm in Loudon. Caitlin Andrews / Monitor staff

  • Kristina Snyder sits on Concord’s Main Street for an interview on Aug. 31, 2017 Caitlin Andrews—Monitor staff

  • Pictures of children participating in the Deerfield Fair’s 2010 pig scramble taken from their Facebook page. —Courtesy

Monitor staff
Monday, September 18, 2017

To catch a piglet, you gotta go for its hind legs.

That’s what Carole Soule, standing amid a litter of pigs, thermometer in hand, will tell you. On an overcast afternoon at Miles Smith Farm in Loudon, she’d been tasked with catching one of her sick charges and giving him medicine and a shot.

“They really have the advantage,” Soule said, stooping low and making a grab for the red piglet. Her aim is off, and her hand slides harmlessly over his back, yet the baby boar squeals and skitters away.

In two weeks, children will have the chance to try their luck at the 34th pig scramble at the Deerfield Fair. The rules are simple: Wrangle a pig in under three minutes, and you get to keep it at no cost. Those who work with pigs will tell you it’s one of the cheapest – and most fun – ways to get started in pig raising.

But opposition to the pig scramble has been growing in the form of an online petition. That petition, now with more than 104,000 supporters (1,800-plus from New Hampshire as of Friday), has since spawned a protest planned for Sept. 28 – the fair’s opening day.

At the heart of the controversy are questions that should be simple: Does a pig scramble serve any purpose other than traditional fair entertainment? And does it hurt the animals?

The answers, it turns out, are anything but simple for animal lovers on both sides of the fence.

‘Why is this happening?’

There is no doubt Kristina Snyder loves animals.

You can hear it in her voice: the pain that threads it when she talks about big-cat trophy hunting and industrial farming, the love that replaces the pain when she talks about her 22-year-old cat.

Snyder, who created the Care2 petition against the Deerfield Fair’s pig scramble, said she’s devoted her life to animal welfare advocacy, a cause she said sometimes puts her in the spotlight, often to her discomfort.

“It comes with a lot of negative abuse,” she said. “People take their livelihoods, their animal industriousness – they take this stuff seriously. When you question it, they get very offended.”

Since starting the petition, Snyder’s said she’s seen firsthand how people feel.

“People will tell me, ‘This is food, why do you care? Don’t you know pigs are bacon?’ ” she said. “And that’s very hard for me; I mean, we could go into why is it that a dog is considered your best friend, but a pig is food, when there’s research that pigs are just as, if not smarter than, dogs.”

But Snyder, a vegan, said she isn’t looking to take down the fair, or change anyone’s mind about eating meat with her petition.

“I’m not trying to close fairs down, or be against farmers,” she said. “We just want people to look at something as simple as this cruel event, that serves no purpose, and ask, ‘Why is this happening?’ ”

To Snyder, the answer isn’t about promoting agriculture or education, the mission statement of nearly every agricultural fair across the state.

Instead, it’s about human enjoyment, often at what Snyder sees as the animal’s expense. She pointed to the event’s time limit, the method of how the pigs are caught and the squealing of the pigs as they’re chased as proof.

“People tell me that it doesn’t hurt the pig, that they have different joints,” she said. “Well, who tells you this? Where’s the evidence to back that up?”

Snyder said she’s seen the evidence otherwise; she’s researched veterinarians who testified to pigs being injured in pig scrambles, and even heard testimony from farmers who advocate against them.

She pointed to a letter written by Nancy Lidster of DNL Farms Ltd., a small company that provides consulting for low-stress pig handling. In a January blog post, Lidster stated she wrote the letter after she was asked to weigh in on a pig scramble.

“I understand the tradition of pig scrambles at rodeos and sports days as a way to involve kids in an activity that – aside from a few bruises and scrapes – is relatively safe and exciting for the kids and entertaining for the audience.” Lidster wrote. “... Attitudes towards farm animals have changed. We now acknowledge that pigs and other animals experience fear and pain. ... By their very nature, pig scrambles are frightening and carry an increased probability of pain or injury for the pigs involved and they are not necessary.”

Necessary. That’s the word Snyder wants you to focus on.

“Look at this event, and say, ‘Does this animal deserve to be chased, pulled on, jumped on?’ ” she said. “These pigs are terrified, and people will say to me, those pigs are squealing out of fun. I say they’re projecting your feelings onto the pig, because this is fun for you.”

The other side of the fence

Back at Miles Smith Farm, Carole Soule finally chases her piglet into the corner. He squeals when her hands close around his leg, but it’s only when she bundles the pig into her arms that the pig’s squeals begin in earnest.

Don’t pay that any mind, Soule said; the piglet just doesn’t like to have his feet off the ground.

“That’s just how pigs talk,” she said. “It’s what they do – they squeal when they’re hungry, when they’re scared, when they’re bored.”

For Soule, pig scrambles are a way of life on the farm, but they’re not enjoyable. Just the other day, a sounder of swine decided they didn’t want to be in their pen anymore and ran through the fence, leading Miles Smith Farm workers on a 20-minute pig chase.

“If someone’s able to catch a pig, that’s a necessary skill for working on a farm,” she said.

If squealing meant pigs were in pain, Steve Ackerstrom of Montainview Farm in Gilmanton said, he wouldn’t permit his pigs to be used in the Deerfield Fair’s pig scramble.

In fact, everything Snyder said is evidence of the pig’s discomfort in a pig scramble – the grabbing them by hind legs and the time limit – is proof the Deerfield Fair is interested in the animal’s welfare, Ackerstrom said.

“If they don’t get caught, they don’t go out for the rest of the day,” he said. “And if it’s too hot, the pigs won’t go out at all.”

Donna Peck of Pembroke Animal Hospital agreed that, under the right circumstances, a pig scramble doesn’t hurt the animals. She’s been a farm animal veterinarian for 30 years, and she said pigs are some of the toughest animals out there, with hardy bodies built for speed.

If something significantly heavier than a piglet laid down on them, or picked them up and swung them around, that would be one thing, Peck said.

But that doesn’t happen at the Deerfield Fair.

In fact, fair spokesman Richard Pitman said the scramble has a litany of rules. There’s no grabbing the animals by the ear, or laying on top of them; that behavior will get you disqualified by any one of the six judges in the ring. You have to snag it by the leg and place it in the bag headfirst. Dropping the bag to free a hand is not allowed.

The fair has even been given the go-ahead by the state’s vet, Stephen Crawford, Pitman said. An email to Crawford was not returned by press time.

But that doesn’t mean the fair isn’t paying attention to the forces gathering around the scramble. Pitman said protesters will have their own space on the fairgrounds to separate them from scramble watchers, and extra security has been planned for the event.

“The fair has no intentions of backing off because of the threat of a protest,” he said. “We know we’re doing it well and we’re doing it right.”

(Caitlin Andrews can be reached at 369-3309, candrews@cmonitor.com or on Twitter at @ActualCAndrews.)