SACRAMENTO — If you had to name the last place you'd find an animal rights activist, the California State Fair probably would be near the top of your list.
Between the rodeos, the caged birds, the wiener dog races and exotic animals sold deep-fried and on a stick, state fairs never have been the most animal-friendly settings.
But this year, for a handful of volunteers from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, it's the front line. "We had some mixed reactions from people," said Matt Bruce, a PETA campaigner who set up the booth. "Everybody's been civil."
Until the end of the fair, local PETA volunteers will staff a booth with a banner reading, "Watch Secret Video, Get Free Stuff." The secret video is a two-minute exposé of "dehorning," a process in which a cow or goat's horns are cut off, seared off or chemically removed, and PETA says it's common practice in the dairy industry.
Bruce said PETA is targeting the dairy industry because California is the highest-producing dairy state in the nation.
Adrienne Ramirez, a volunteer at the booth, said she has seen two people swear off dairy. "They said, 'I can't take part of this,' " said Ramirez, who has been vegan not eating meat, eggs or dairy for three years.
Ramirez said that in keeping with the family-friendly atmosphere of the fair, the video which was screened on a monitor that was not visible from the walkway would be shown to children only with the consent of their parents.
Many people at the fair hadn't seen the booth but weren't necessarily opposed to it.
"As long as they don't harass us here," said Stephanie Hill as she pinned ribbons on award-winning turkeys and bantam chickens at the exotic bird showcase she has managed for 20 years. She said that in the past, animal rights activists had protested and stolen animals at the fair.
"(The animals) are in an air-conditioned building, so it's like a vacation for them," she said.
At an exhibition tent staffed by people from the University of California at Davis veterinary school, Professor Joan Dean Rowe said cutting off horns is relatively rare. Instead, she said, most livestock have the buds of their horns eliminated "very early in life," before they grow in, to prevent cattle from injuring one another.
"We all care about the welfare of animals as well," Rowe said. While she hadn't seen the video at the PETA booth, she said other videos she'd seen "depict processes that we would also find objectionable."
But Bruce, the PETA organizer, said most of the video's clips are footage of debudding. "The metal scoop gouging out the horns, that's debudding. It is incredibly cruel," he said.
Still, the booth's volunteers were mostly upbeat.
"The fair is very family-friendly, and we want to keep with that," said Ramirez.
Beside the dehorning video and a spinning wheel with pictures of livestock on it called the Wheel of Torture, PETA's table was covered in booklets and fliers that feature famous vegans, such as singer Paul McCartney. Volunteers occasionally put on a cow suit and wore a sign that said, "Cheese comes from unhappy cows," a play on an old slogan of the California Milk Advisory Board.
Some friendly exchanges
Some people conversed pleasantly with the PETA volunteers. Joel MacPherson, who was carrying a corn dog and described his diet as "eat(ing) what's in front of me," said he already knew animals were hurt by the meat and dairy industries but enjoyed discussing how proteins could be obtained from a plant-based diet.
"I wanted to pick their brains," he said.
Other exchanges were more contentious.
"That is highly unusual," Margaret Moore said as she pointed to a photograph of a cow whose udders were swollen from a disease called mastitis, which is caused by poor sanitation. Moore said she used to raise calves and dairy goats, and found fault with PETA's handouts.
Ramirez said such debates don't deter her. "If it happens in one place, it happens in more and more places," she said.
Should PETA ever ask to rent space at the Stanislaus County Fair, the group likely would be accommodated.
"If we had the space, we would allow them to purchase commercial exhibit space," Chief Executive Officer Chris Borovansky said. He pointed out that the fair is open to public discourse on lots of issues, and that Republicans and Democrats occupy booths each year.
But like those other groups, PETA's content would be monitored.
"We have standards of decency, in terms of shock value and that kind of thing," Borovansky said. "But the fair is a celebration of the entire community, and PETA in many cases is part of the community."
Modesto Bee Breaking News Editor Patty Guerra contributed to this report.