Fairs' livestock birth exhibits produce controversy

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Calves and piglets likely will be born at the Oregon State Fair this year. But if "the miracle of birth" happens, it will be in a quiet spot, away from bright lights and enthusiastic crowds.

Ditto at state fairs in Texas and Colorado.

California is one of only about a dozen states around the country where fair visitors can still witness the live births of farm animals. They can do so once again this summer at the California Exposition and State Fair -- which opened here Thursday and runs through July 31 -- despite last year's dramatic escape and shooting of a pregnant cow headed from a trailer to the exhibit.

The incident sparked fierce debate over whether the killing was an overreaction, and whether transporting pregnant animals and having them give birth before riveted fairgoers is too stressful for the creatures and risky to the public. The State Fair board received hundreds of letters from people around the country.

The board decided that the birthing display's educational value outweighs any potential risk, but it made changes.

"The tragedy that occurred last year, we take it very seriously," said Joan Dean Rowe, a veterinarian at University of California, Davis, who is supervising the farm animals' care at the fair.

The "live births" debate continues. Animal welfare activists have petitioned state lawmakers to end the exhibits. They plan to protest near the fairgrounds and to monitor birthing areas, said Jennifer Fearing, California senior director for the Humane Society of the United States.

Fair officials in California and elsewhere staunchly defend the exhibits, which for decades have been popular attractions in some states.

Public viewing of farm-animal births once was common at fairs, which highlight a state or county's agricultural roots. But because of concerns about animal welfare, staffing demands and public safety, they have disappeared from all but about 12 major fairs nationwide, by the Humane Society's count.

The Oregon State Fair has never featured live births, mostly out of concern for the health of animals, said livestock coordinator Debbie Lund. "Our policy is to secure the area from the viewing public if it's too late to move the animal. Once the animal has given birth, it's up to the owner" whether to return it to public display.

The same is true at the Colorado and Texas state fairs, among others. Some fairs arrange for animals to give birth privately in their pens, but show the events live on video screens.

"I can see the educational value of a birthing exhibit for people who don't live in rural areas," said the Colorado event's general manager, Chris Wiseman. "We just don't do it. It really comes down to space, proper facilities and staffing."

In Minnesota and Iowa, the "live birth" tradition continues.

The Minnesota State Fair's "Miracle of Birth Center" is among the event's top attractions, said Mark Goodrich, deputy manager of livestock and competition. "The barn is standing room only every minute that it's open."

Iowa State Fair spokeswoman Lori Chappell said 75 percent of its fairgoers are from urban areas.

Goodrich said pregnant animals are thoroughly screened before they are placed on display, and jittery ones aren't exhibited. Animals are unloaded from trailers directly into the birthing center, and while on display are 10 feet from the public, he said.

The Cal Expo incident last year, in which officers shot and killed a pregnant, agitated cow that escaped its handlers an hour before the fair opened, shook livestock managers across the country.

"I was saddened by it, and I had the same questions that the media had," Goodrich said. "What procedures were in place? What could have been done differently?"

At this year's Cal Expo, pregnant animals will be unloaded and give birth in a new location near the back of the fairgrounds, said Norb Bartosik, general manager. They no longer will be moved to a display area once labor begins, but will stay in their pens at least 4 feet from spectators. Cal Expo's police force has undergone extra training in handling runaway animals.

But Fearing and others argue that live birthing displays should be eliminated. The Humane Society's guidelines call for farm animals to be transported only in emergency situations and to give birth in seclusion.

Fearing suggested to the fair board that it was time to install "cow cams" offering streaming video from farms.

"We don't educate children about human reproduction by taking them to a labor and delivery unit," Fearing said.

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