Animal cruelty at Stanislaus County Fair? No, but wildcat exhibit missed mark

To shut down any criticism of animal abuse — real or perceived — fair organizers in Sonoma County this year are dropping their decades-old tradition called the pig scramble, featuring children charging and diving in the dirt to capture squealing piglets. Unfortunately, our own fair here in Stanislaus County went the other direction.

Complaints about this year’s exotic wildcat exhibit at the fairgrounds in Turlock should have been predictable, if not inevitable. You can’t have thousands of people strolling in 95-degree heat past a relatively small cage, by zoo standards, containing a bored-looking tiger without someone feeling sorry for it.

The Modesto Bee received a letter to the editor whose author was “dismayed and appalled,” calling the exhibit “cruel and inhumane” because the Siberian tiger and other exotics, including a binturong bearcat, a wallaby and a baby serval, were “heartless(ly) displayed in tiny, barren cages.”

Another woman posted a complaint on the Stanislaus County Fair’s Facebook page, saying, “These are not the conditions that these animals are meant to be in. This is absolutely heartbreaking.”

Still another said on her own Facebook page that she was “completely disgusted” and would never return to the fair, whose 10-day run ended Sunday, and urged others to boycott it, too.

I don’t share that view — boycotting the fair. But the criticism is understandable.

The fair is a good thing. For a reasonable entry fee, families wander through exhibits, watch performers and have good times in a usually fun and safe atmosphere.

I say usually, because there was that unfortunate melee late Sunday, the last day of the fair, when a man punched a deputy’s patrol horse, four deputies were injured and five people were arrested. It bears noting that alcohol was involved: tensions were running high because one of the beer booths had closed early, making for longer lines at the remaining booths just before the brawl broke out, and the horse puncher was upset that his beer spilled when the horse knocked him down, the sheriff’s department said.

Years back, they used to allow beer sales until 11 p.m. To cut down on late-night unruliness, the fair some time ago moved up that deadline to 10 p.m., and things seemed calmer. But this year, the fair bowed to vendors, who make more money if they sell more beer, and bumped the cutoff to 10:30 p.m. — about the time the brawl broke out. The fair board might want to rethink that policy.

They also should reconsider their Walk in the Wild exhibit, with the wildcats.

Strident animal cruelty protests effectively forced Ringling Bros. to shut down its elephant acts in 2016. SeaWorld San Diego ended its theatrical orca shows in 2017. Instead of staging its usual pig scramble, the Sonoma County Fair next month will have kids carrying watermelons slicked with vegetable oil through an obstacle course — specifically because people had started to complain about cruelty, real or perceived, to piglets.

Did we really need to put a tiger and a lynx out for everyone to see, and an inevitable few to complain about?

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The tiger at the Stanislaus County Fair in the day before opening night Brian Clark bclark@modbee.com

“We really wanted to bring an educational component to the fair,” spokeswoman Adrenna Alkhas told me Tuesday. People could read posted information about the wildcats. They were well fed and treated with kindness, she said, and enjoyed a constant breeze from big air coolers, just like cattle and pigs and goats in livestock exhibits across the fairground.

Many of those farm animals will end up on the dinner table long before the wildcats die of old age, by the way. That’s our food supply system and it works well.

The nonprofit exploiting these exotic animals, Oregon-based A Walk on the Wild Side, rescues all sorts of strange critters; they currently have 175, of 84 different species, their website says. “They were all facing an uncertain future and possible death sentence before being adopted by our facility,” it says. Staff is committed to treating each with loving respect, it says, and Alkhas called them “amazing people to work with.”

I’m good with that. I’m just not sure we need them at the fair.

This is the information age. Are kids really all that intrigued to watch a wallaby watching them?

If they are, take them to the zoo, where tigers typically have room enough to run about and not just sit in a cramped cage. Micke Grove is just up Highway 99 in Lodi; Applegate Park is just down the road in Merced. There also are zoos in Sacramento, Fresno and Oakland.

My guess, though, is far more people around here will head to “The Lion King” in theaters than went to see the yawning real thing at the fairground.

Garth Stapley is The Modesto Bee’s Opinions page editor. Before this assignment, he worked 25 years as a Bee reporter, covering local government agencies and the high-profile murder case of Scott and Laci Peterson.