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Pig catching rubs some the wrong way

Dozens of kids and adults get low and muddy in the ring for "old-time fun," but some folks say the contest is abusive to swine.

By ERIN SULLIVAN
Published September 4, 2006


[Times photo: Zach Boyden-Holmes]
Nathan Hunter, 17, of Dade City tries unsuccessfully to hold on to a piglet Saturday during a greased pig contest. "We don't have any flashy rides or rock climbing or anything, so we thought this would be a good way to encourage young families to come out and see what we do," said Christine Smith, the Pioneer Museum's director.

"Do they usually scream like that?" I asked the rancher next to me as some kids hauled the latest pig to the ring. I was feeling like Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs.

If I'm about to cover my ears because some pigs are crabby about being covered in Crisco, I think I might faint at a slaughterhouse, swear off meat and start wearing hemp.

"They're not hurt," said Ken Freeland. "Though there ain't any free land anymore," he sniffed.

The pigs are "just talking," he said. "It's like a dog barking."

We were watching the first Greased Pig Contest, held Saturday afternoon at the 32nd Annual Pioneer Days Festival at the Pioneer Florida Museum and Village in Dade City. The grounds are just off Highway 301 N, across from the train tracks and an adult novelty and video store.

I'm not sure which was there first - the history museum or the novelty shop - but I imagine their visitors' paths cross as little as possible, one set being mostly retirees and children and the other, well, others.

More than 70 children and a smattering of adults registered to chase greased pigs - smothered with a handful of Crisco from a jumbo tub and then doused with a cup of olive oil, for good measure - which ranged in weight from 20 pounds to 60 pounds. The breeds of pigs were Yorkshire a pinkish white and Hampshire (bluish black with a white belt around the neck) - and the spotted offspring of both, which are called blue butts because, well, their butts are blue. They were brought in by B&B Farms, also of Dade City.

"We don't have any flashy rides or rock climbing or anything, so we thought this would be a good way to encourage young families to come out and see what we do," said Christine Smith, the Pioneer Museum's director. "It's an old-time fun activity."

There were several rounds of greased pig catching, sorted in age groups.

To win the event, small children just had to touch the pig. The bigger ones had to grab the pig by the hind legs and drag it to the center of the ring. The pigs did not seem to care for this.

The spectators and participants did, though, even after a minefield of glass shards was discovered in the newly tilled and muddied ring. The brave went barefoot. The extremely brave - yes, this is a euphemism - belly-flopped.

Winners in all age categories then had to stand in the center, flash a gritty, mud-flecked smile to the crowd and raise his or her arms in victory, much akin to flexing body builders. Winners also got to take their pigs home.

This led to one Brooklyn, N.Y., native whose exceptionally quick son had snared a pig to mutter continually to himself upon leaving, "What am I going to do with a pig?" Though the man, as he put the pig in the backseat of his station wagon, perked up a bit after learning pigs can get to be 250 pounds - and then be sold for $2.50 a pound.

The event staff gave him directions to a feed store.

Smith, the museum director, said the greased pig chase harks back to the strong agricultural history of Florida. She wasn't exactly sure how the sport began and took root at fairs and festivals in small-town America.

Actually, no mention has been found - by this reporter and this newspaper's research staff - as to when someone first got the notion it would be cool to chase greased pigs. A few people interviewed thought it was started by farmers who had to round up pigs for slaughter.

Knowing people, it probably went something like this:

"I bet I can catch that pig faster than you can."

"Nuh uh."

"Yessir."

"Nuh uh."

"Yessir."

"Prove it."

"Okay."

Pig fossils have been found in Europe and Asia dating 40-million years. So, the first pig chasing competition might have been started with some hunched-over talk consisting of pushes, grunts and smoldering looks at the opposition. In addition to first dibs on the pig, a rock miraculously shaped into a funny or lewd shape might have been the prize.

The Tampa Bay area is the first place swine set foot in the new world. Hernando de Soto brought 13 of them here in 1539.

Three years later, his herd had increased to 700. So, the very land you tread today might be sacred greased pig chasing ground - one of America's first sports, perhaps.

America is third behind Denmark and Canada in exporting pork. (I learned this from the ode to pigs section on the National Pork Producers Council Web site, which has its facts and figures listed directly above the link to recipes. The site also says that pigs are the fourth most intelligent animal. It did not say which three are above pigs, and if humans who pronounce filet mignon as "fil-ETT MIG-non" are included.)

There are more than 180 species of pigs on every continent except Antarctica. So, with that in mind, are there greased pig contests worldwide? Is there an international greased pig chasing champion lurking somewhere? A lanky Dane with a mantle full of trophies, a back yard with a rehearsal mud pit and an ample supply of lard? A Canadian with a T-shirt saying, "World's Best Pig Grappler," and then, on the back, "Got a problem with that, eh?" (Or, in the French regions, it would be black and of good material, a size XX-small and smell of smoke and coffee.)

How exactly does one - a person who is not a pig farmer, obviously - practice for this? Are there slicked-down and lubed-up dogs and cats (declawed, preferably) screeching across the globe?

Speaking of dogs and cats, this leads me to my conversation with Lisa Wathne, the captive, exotic animal specialist for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

I phoned her on Friday afternoon, after I had gotten home and scarfed down a handful of thinly sliced honey ham. I washed my hands before dialing because I felt a little guilty.

PETA, of course, is against greased pig chasing.

"It's very upsetting to many people. If something similar was done to a dog or a cat, people would be up in arms," Wathne said. "People should be no less horrified about this being done to a pig."

She said that the pigs are terrified and often get hurt during these events. She mentioned a pig chase in Maryland where contestants used ropes.

One man nearly killed a pig when he lassoed it and then dragged it across the finish line. A newspaper article about the 2004 event said the unconscious pig was picked up and plopped into a cart by a rodeo clown but then came to after a while.

Wathne said that there is little evidence of other hog injuries because, if they are hurt, these animals aren't being taken to a vet. They're all headed for a slaughterhouse anyway.

"It's 2006. It's time we realized that it's not appropriate to be chasing greased pigs," she said.

Staff at Saturday's event told contestants to avoid hurting the pigs: no biting, scratching, pulling, yanking or diving on the pigs, though some did. I squealed like, well, a pig each time a person dove on top of one. I kept waiting to hear bones break. But the pigs seemed okay. Not happy. But okay.

Lisa Henry of B&B Farms said the pigs aren't hurt at all. She, like most of the people interviewed, described the greased pig contest as "good, clean fun." She has fond memories of pig chasing when she was a teen.

Paula Roderick, whose children competed in the event, said "this is great for kids. It's not something that has just started - people have been doing it for generations.

"God gave us food to eat. He didn't just give us bread and water."

And, then she smiled.

"I love bacon."

Freeland, the rancher who said squealing pigs are like barking dogs, said "these pigs probably love this.

"They get to run around and show off," he said. "Pigs are smart and they have a little personality."

He stood by the wire fence and hollered with laughter as he watched.

"That pig is having a blast," he chortled. "Look at them kids getting dirty. For every child who grows up in the city, they miss out.

"This is what life is all about. These kids will never forget this."

I left thinking that I am definitely, absolutely going to become a vegetarian. But then I started having visions of pulled pork and pork chops and ham sandwiches on nice, crusty bread, and I decided, "Heck with it." But I can still hear them screaming and it bothers me.

The Pioneer Days Festival continues from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. today. For more information about the festival, go to www.pioneerfloridamuseum.org or call (352) 567-0262.

Erin Sullivan can be reached at esullivan@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4609.

[Last modified September 4, 2006, 06:53:31]


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