Stoughton’s 91-year-old, agriculture-proud Junior Fair has found itself grappling over the past week with city officials, skittish sponsors and a well-organized animal rights group.
The concern is about a pig wrestling event, in its seventh straight year as grandstand entertainment.
The battle line between the nonprofit fair’s volunteer organizers and pig wrestling opponents has been drawn deeper than the event’s muddy ring.
Fair board vice president Trevor Dybevik wrote online that Madison’s Alliance for Animals are “animal rights terrorists” for pressuring fair sponsors to cancel the event. The fair’s official Facebook page called the group “bullies.” Dybevik launched an online campaign Thursday, June 9 and raised nearly $4,500 to support the fair.
But to Sara Andrews, Alliance for Animals executive director, pig wrestling’s “time has come and gone.
“Animals are mistreated during these events,” she said.
Nearly 9,300 people have signed an online petition – which stresses that pigs are “manhandled and assaulted” during the event – opposing it in Stoughton. Andrews said the group will protest at the fair on the pig wrestling night.
According to the fair’s website, four-person teams have one minute to grab a 200-pound pig in the muddy ring and place it atop a barrel. It costs $20 per team. Anyone age 9 years old and older may participate. Although it is a free fair, grandstand admission for pig wrestling is $5.
The Common Council added a pig wrestling discussion to its Tuesday, June 14 meeting with “possible development of an ordinance” to prevent it, according to an amended agenda on Monday, June 13.
One Stoughton alderman has called for the city’s Junior Fair to cancel the event.
Michael Engelberger – whose district includes Mandt Park, where the June 29 to July 4 fair is held – wrote an email Friday, June 3, to the fair’s 16-person board of directors. He did not think an ordinance could be passed in time to stop pig wrestling this summer.
Still, Engelberger called the pig wrestling event “embarrassing” to Stoughton.
Engelberger said there are plenty of Stoughton residents upset, too. He also feared backlash against local businesses.
“This should be a wake up call to all city officials and the local Chamber (of Commerce),” Engelberger wrote in an email to Mayor Donna Olson. “We certainly do not want business driven away.”
Several Stoughton business owners declined to comment when asked about the situation. The Stoughton newspaper Facebook page has become a battleground, too.
“I’m hoping the fair will change events and have a little vision. They can come up with something more appropriate,” Engelberger said. “This is not appropriate.”
The fair is not run by the city, but Engelberger said the Common Council discussed developing an ordinance to stop pig wrestling last year, prompted by Ald. Regina Hirsch. At the time, pig wrestling proponents said the event is a money maker and supports dozens of activities on the fairgrounds.
No business directly sponsors the pig wrestling event. All business supporters donate to the fair and lost funds hurt the whole event, Dybevik said.
“These funds are extremely important to the success of the fair,” he wrote on the fundraising site gofundme.
Alliance for Animals first raised concerns about pig wrestling to the Stoughton Fair board in 2010. The group touts that last year it helped to end a similar “Pig Rasslin’” event, which had been part of a west-central Wisconsin fair in Stephensville for 44 years.
“These (complaints) aren’t new. There were complaints by constituents and others,” Engelberger said, adding that some alders felt it wasn’t a problem.
After being read Engelberger’s email, fair board president Luther Sperle said Friday, June 10, that he had no comment. Sperle canceled a scheduled interview with the Hub that day to discuss the pig wrestling controversy.
The fair board met the night of Wednesday, June 8, to discuss the matter. Nothing so far has indicated that board members are backing down.
Engelberger hopes the fair will voluntarily stop pig wrestling, but he’s determined to take another step to stop it by next year.
“If the fair isn’t going to do anything about it, we’ll change the ordinance to stop it,” Engelberger said.
According to the event’s rules, 30 teams, including 10 youth teams, are the limit for participating.
What isn’t lost on many fairgoers is the Junior Fair’s many other 4-H and FFA events. Support for the rest of the fair has been unanimously positive.
Samantha White of Stoughton wrote on the fair’s Facebook page and the Hub’s, urging everyone to realize the fair’s importance.
“It supports youth in agriculture from over five counties,” White wrote. “It does an outstanding job of supporting our future agriculturalists.”
(Post-script: Five days later, fair officials reluctantly cancelled pig wrestling even after village officials gave the fair $6,000 to stop the activity.)