Rodeos are rough and tumble, but they are not without scenes of animal grace. A bull leaping in balletic arcs, legs extended, to free himself of the interloper on his back; a bucking bronco making a move that looks practiced to quickly rid himself of the interloper on his back; a steer, its matte-tan hide gleaming in the sunshine, twisting and turning, but finally accepting the lasso around its horns and turning, rather deliberately, to face the interloper at the other end of the rope.
At the July Fourth junior rodeo in Woodside on the grounds of the Mounted Patrol of San Mateo County, there were no bulls and no bucking broncos. Calves and steers were roped, but frequently with break-away lassos. Often they managed to avoid the lasso altogether and meander around the arena. With encouragement by mounted cowhands, they would eventually find the exit and rejoin their herd.
Horses were graceful, too, particularly in a slalom-like event in which horse and rider weave twice through a line of flexible poles. Some of the horses seemed to know what was expected of them and showed agility and concentration. And the announcer, in play-by-play style, spoke highly of them all, losers included. As he did during the cow-roping events.
Respect seemed the order of the day. If these animals were stressed, they weren't showing it with their voices. No bawling and no whinnying, at least not during the action. What, then, was passing through the minds of the pigs?
The pig scramble, an annual event, involved two groups of about 20 adult pigs who, upon being released from a windowless livestock trailer, tumbled out into the open air and got to snuffling enthusiastically in the arena dirt. Their silent explorations were short-lived. In seconds, they were inundated by a wave of humanity -- three times by children and once by adults. The goal: catch a pig and maybe win a trophy, while the pig was manhandled back into the trailer.
The pigs made a noise. When in captivity, they would scream loudly, intensely and continually, enough to undercut the sounds of enthusiasm from the crowd. A 3-year-old boy in the bleachers began to cry while his dad, smiling, looked on.
Each round of the"scramble" meant five minutes of mayhem as impromptu gangs of people roved the arena in the manner of predators. Clusters would accumulate around a captured pig like ants subduing a victim. One pig was seen trying to re-enter its trailer. It was twice intercepted and kicked away.
The pig scramble is not illegal, said Christina Hanley, an investigator for the Peninsula Humane Society in San Mateo. A veterinarian is on call during the event, she added.
"Pigs do scream a lot," she said. "Any time you try to handle them, their reaction is to scream. They can make a lot of noise even if they're not stressed."
There's no record of pigs being injured, said Ronald Johnson of the Mounted Patrol in a statement. The animals are local and brought in "just in time for the event," cared for by the farmer, and returned to the farm "immediately" after the event, he said. "There is no special training or program for the animals that participate," he added. "The animals are a commercial product for the farmer, and it is not in his best interests to have any of his stock injured."
Mary Paglieri is the founder of The Little Blue Society, a Redwood City nonprofit dedicated to resolving land and resource conflicts between animals and humans. Her comment on the pig scramble: An "exceptionally cruel" form of "fun" that can cause invisible injuries. "Pigs are sensitive, social creatures," she said in an email. "Their intelligence is comparable to a three-year-old child. They are one of the most intelligent animals that humans eat."
Invisible injuries can happen to any animal, Ms. Hanley said when asked to comment. "To (the Mounted Patrol's) knowledge and to our knowledge, no animals have been injured."
That's not to say that she looks kindly on pig scrambles. "Even if animals aren't being injured, it is definitely stressing them out," she said. Would she let her child participate? "I would never let my child do that," she said. "There's a huge chance that someone is going to be injured. I think it's irresponsible parenting."
Is the pig scramble animal cruelty? "It's a tricky issue, especially with rodeo," Ms. Hanley said. California animal welfare laws "aren't where they need to be," and have gaps in defining animal cruelty, she said. And rodeos have lobbyists. "I don't think that there's really any need for rodeos anymore, (but) it's an uphill battle because there are so many people who are lobbying to keep rodeo in California," she said.
The key to this event is human dominance. The pigs don't have a chance. Try it with an animal that can fight back.
Even if this "contest" is not as traumatic for the pigs as it appears, it sets a bad example for kids and is beneath our dignity as thinking, feeling human beings to be a party to it.