As the Wisconsin State Journal recently acknowledged, the Madison-based Alliance for Animals has been on something of a roll lately. It's forced the UW-Madison to deliberate the ethics of primate research and lined up support on the Dane County Board for an outside review of same.
And early this month, a Dane County judge sided with the Alliance and the national group PETA in appointing a special prosecutor to weigh whether UW researchers and officials involved in decompression experiments that killed sheep should face criminal charges.
Now the Alliance, armed with similar arguments drafted by a volunteer attorney, is taking aim at a popular but often unheralded rural tradition: contests involving humans and greased pigs in mud pits.
"When we talk about this, most people are not even aware of it," says Alliance co-director Lynn Pauly. "When they find out, they're like, 'You've got to be kidding.'"
The group has created a website and sent letters to 10 state events that feature pig wrestling or pig-catching contests. The letters warn organizers that these events are in "clear violation" of state statute 951.08(1), which outlaws any "fight" between two animals or between animals and people.
In fact, another part of the law, 951.08(3), appears to make it illegal even to be a spectator at such an event.
The statute excludes "events or exhibitions commonly featured at rodeos or bloodless bullfights." But Rick Bogle, the Alliance's other co-director, doesn't think this protects greased-pig contests.
"I grew up in Texas and have been to so many rodeos," he says. "I can list off the events that commonly happen at a rodeo, and pig wrestling is not one of them."
The only Dane County recipient of the letter (PDF) is the Stoughton Fair, held June 30 to July 4. The event, which says it "strives to provide good clean family entertainment to people of all ages and economic backgrounds," includes a pig wrassle on July 2, with a separate $5 admission charge.
Event organizer Rob White says it involves 30 matches between greased pigs and groups of four contestants, in both adult and child classes. The object is to hoist a pig on a barrel; no pig is used for more than one match, and no match runs longer than one minute.
The Stoughton Fair's website links to a YouTube video of one of last year's contests. A group of young men lift a squealing, struggling pig onto a barrel - it takes just 11 seconds - then crow about their achievement. "That's what you call pig wresting," shouts one.
White denies there's any cruelty in these contests. He says that it's a pig's nature to squeal, and that, even on his farm, "there's pig wrestling going on when we give them a vaccine." Plus, the pigs used at the Stoughton Fair get to live a little longer than the usual six months from birth to slaughter of a pig raised for food.
"Do the pigs enjoy it?" White asks of the contests. "I don't know - they've never told me they don't." But he can't fathom why a statute that exempts rodeo events would not also allow pig wrestling: "What is the difference? One animal has a snout and the other has a tail."
The Alliance asked recipients of its letter to call off their events no later than 14 days before they are scheduled. For the Stoughton Fair, this deadline was last Friday. The fair did not respond, so the Alliance has sent a letter (PDF) asking Dane County DA Brian Blanchard to bring charges.
Blanchard, who earlier agreed the sheep experiments were illegal but decided not to prosecute, on Wednesday rejected the Alliance's analysis and said he planned no further action. "I do not believe that what is occurring here could be described as a 'fight,'" he wrote (PDF), calling it "akin to exhibitions commonly featured at rodeos."
Even before this response, White wasn't worried, saying events like the one at the Stoughton Fair "happen all over the state."
Pam Williams, board president for the Columbia County Fair, which plans a pig-catching contest on July 25, agrees. "Even the Boy Scouts in Baraboo have a catch-the-pig contest," she says. "It's a big moneymaker for them." But they don't publicize it, she adds, for fear of drawing flak from animal rights groups.
Williams says the event itself is harder on the people than the pigs: "The people chase the pig. The people fall in the mud. Half the time they don't touch the pig. The pig goes through more traumatic stuff at the farm some days."
The complaints she gets every year come from folks who don't come. "They should really go and watch it, and then judge it," she says. "Maybe even enter as a contestant."
Tune in, turn on...
Local folk who just can't get enough about the workings and dysfunctions of Madison city government - yes, we're talking to you, Rosemary Lee - have a new place to turn.
Madison Alds. Bridget Maniaci and Bryon Eagon have launched a new weekly radio talk show, Alder Hour, on WSUM, the UW-Madison's student station. The program, which airs Fridays at 3 p.m., each week features a council member or other guest to discuss the issues of the moment.
"Every week there's something new and exciting going on," says Maniaci, who worked at WSUM when she was in college, a few short years ago. The show is "something I kind of wanted to do since I got into office."
The inaugural program on June 11 featured Ald. Shiva Bidar-Sielaff; last Friday it was Ald. Chris Schmidt. Maniaci says the time slot is nice because at 3 p.m. on a Friday, "people are looking to get out of work."
In homage to the city's recent decision to make plastic pink flamingos the official city bird, the program each week bestows a positive "Pink Flamingo Award" and negative "Black Flamingo Award." Eagon actually missed the first show, to attend a Democratic Party event, so Maniaci gave him the Black Flamingo "for ditching me."
Perchance to perch
Speaking of the official city bird, Madison Metro transit service manager Ann Gullickson confirms getting two recent reports of bus drivers giving citizens the middle finger.
Both bird sightings took place June 10. In one, a driver saluted a car driver who cut him off while talking on a cell phone, then reported the incident to his supervisor before a complaint came in. The other, in which a driver allegedly gave the New Jersey greeting to a 15-year-old boy, is still under investigation.
In addition, a caller to the office of Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz on June 14 reported getting a middle-finger salute around 2 p.m. that day. The caller was directed to Madison Metro but seems not to have followed through.
Gullickson says this particular brand of bad behavior would likely not lead to serious discipline, unless the driver has had trouble before.
Madison Metro has the ability to impose progressive discipline ranging from verbal coaching to one-, five- and 10-day suspensions, to termination, always a last resort.
Gullickson provides a spreadsheet of customer feedback (PDF), which tracks complaints by category. For fixed-route buses in the first three months of this year, there were 28 complaints of drivers being rude, 18 for "other driver conduct" and nine for "unprofessional conduct."
So which category does giving the finger fall into? "Any one of those three," says Gullickson, explaining that this judgment would be made by the person taking the call. "The good news is, it doesn't [happen so often] that it has to have its own category."
Marino case gets national coverage
Investigation Discovery, a Discovery Channel (available on the Dish Network and through Direct TV but not regular expanded basic cable), will air an hour-long program on a notorious local crime case next Monday, June 28, at 8 p.m. The program is Solved: Extreme Forensics, and the episode is called "Murder in Madison," about the Jan. 28, 2008, murder of Madison resident Joel Marino. The case was solved and Marino's killer convicted; he later took his own life in prison.
Joel's father, Lou Marino, says he has not seen the program but was interviewed for it some time ago.