You could say The Kentucky State fair is a cornucopia of moral relativism, from the fatasses and their poor food choices to the carnival slicks smiling through the scam to the pens full of farm animals that seem rather displeased to be there.
You could also say that is thinking too sensitively. Some things are easily rationalized, others less so, and who are we to infer whether animals give a damn about being manhandled, or to look askance at someone who eats fatty food, even if the unhealthy hacks in your insurance pool at work cost you more real money every year?
And so it goes, and the people who come to the fair every year to be fascinated keep coming back to be fascinated, and they don’t seem to give it a thought, whether they get their kicks watching the mucketymucks bid on The Award-Winning Country Ham at an ungodly early hour or on thrill rides at dusk.
The ham that, by the way, used to suck air not so long ago.
Walking toward the Midway from behind the West Wing of the Kentucky State Fairgrounds last Thursday around dinnertime, I pass an oblong tractor-powered tram, creeping along with benches full of parched fairgoers. They may be literally dying to get to their cars, because as the TV has told us more than once, the heat has been setting records around here.
There are people here tonight, but not enough to create critical mass. There is a seeping wave of sound, becoming predominant, a rock band playing AC/DC, amazing in how it reminds you the drums had so much to do with that sound, and walking eastward, past another tent, the predominance dissolves and yields to the slightly off-key strains of “Rhiannon.” On past Freedom Hall (didn’t the Mac play there in ’77?) and another music tent, something Country and Western, and there it is, the Fair’s new little slice of exotica. Gators. And tigers. Oh, my. Hard in the full sun right out in front of the South Wing.
Fake wrestling, this is not. Bert Lucas, a nervy man in a bush hat and the sort of khaki uniform you’d see in a national park, thrusts himself down into the water and wraps up a good-sized alligator (actually catching the beast in the portable pool is the most difficult thing he makes look easy, Bert tells me later) while his similarly clad cohort inveighs as to the interesting facts and figures about the gator (it’s education, folks — that’s why the Fair Board asked State Fish & Wildlife to grant an exemption to Kentucky’s ban on exotic animals), which, it must be understood, really could rip your arm off.
Things seem tense a bit later, even though you know Bert’s in control, when an adorable little girl, maybe 9 or 10 and wearing a fuchsia top and chartreuse skorts, her jet black ponytail jutting out the back of her pink ball cap, answers their call for a volunteer from the audience, with her adult supervisors’ apparently hearty approval. (And really, who are we to say this is a bad idea?)
After a few gotcha jokes — the girl sits on the gator behind Bert, who’s sitting atop and holding its mouth shut; Bert fakes like the gator’s gonna slip his grip and so on — it’s over, and nothing scary has happened, although it could’ve, don’t you think? And then a bunch of people line up to get a Polaroid of themselves holding a smaller gator, five bucks a pop.
“You don’t need to shake it like that,” Bert tells a guy who’s trying to dry a photo. That’ll actually mess up a Polaroid, he says.
The Little Exoticaville shows are timed to segue, and so several of the people who packed the three sections of bleachers around the gator exhibit mosey down a few paces and fill a similar area circumnavigating a large covered ring, maybe 30 by 30 with various perches and nondescript props inside. At the head of the ring, at 12 o’clock, a lengthy, sectioned series of cages snakes back under a canopy, where you get the vague sense of human motion, the calm before the storm.
“ATTENTION. ATTENTION FAIRGOERS. THE TIGER SHOW WILL BEGIN IN FIVE MORE MINUTES,” the loudspeaker blares, carrying the voice of the tiger handler, Bruno. “Yeah, yeah,” a woman next to me mutters impatiently, “you said that five minutes ago.”
Inside the first cage, a large Siberian, the only male in tonight’s lineup of eight big cats, seems agitated. He paces rapidly for a while before lying back down. Soon enough he’s the first animal into the pen (he pees immediately) and an apparent problem; he just doesn’t want stay on his perch, and Bruno keeps threatening to pull his tail. More than the others, the male cat seems afraid, like the handler has had to break bad on him a time or 20. Later Bruno tells me that’s not his style — he relies on love, hand motions and meat treats — and explains that some of the ladies are coming into heat. There ya go.
Bert and Bruno are easy to track down after their respective shows, and both seem to talk easily, about what they do and the justifications thereof. Clearly they’ve heard it before, how some people just aren’t down with forcing exotic animals to submit to humans.
Bert explains that they feed the gators several pounds of raw meat a day and change their water often to prevent it from overheating. He says Florida is overrun with gators and that his show buys castoffs from government-hired trappers who would just as soon kill them. He says he’s trying to make an honest living.
Gators, by the way, are reptiles, and reptiles are not protected by the American Wildlife Act. Tigers are, though, and so Bruno must get U.S. Department of Agriculture approval for the right to own exotics. USDA has 100 inspectors nationwide who can show up for spot inspections, and Bruno’s Tiger Show was inspected while in Louisville. (Results only available through a Freedom of Information Act request, which is pending.)
It seems Bruno has a harder case to make, relatively speaking, in that his animals are bred in captivity and have never known anything else. (At least the gators once tasted freedom.) There are some 10,000 to 15,000 big cats living in captivity in the United States, about 5,000 to 7,000 of them tigers, says Don Elroy of the Humane Society of the United States, a lobbying organization not to be confused with the Humane Society of Kentucky. One of the animal rights activists’ chief complaints is that such animals are forced to exist in non-native habitats and prompted, by forced submission, into behaviors (like jumping hurdles or walking tightropes) they would never enact in the wild. Every once in a while the animals rise up and take their pound of flesh.
As for Bruno, maybe he can make an argument that there is value in preserving the species, so when the big cats become extinct in the wild — and it is heading that way — your kiddos can come to state fairs and see what they used to look like, never mind how they acted.
Now that Michael Vick is a household name, though, it’s fair to wonder if we’re seeing a tipping point in the never-ending battle over animal rights. Burt and Bruno exude a “live and let live/don’t come if it offends you” attitude, but they note that the animal nuts (my term, irony intended) are feeling emboldened. They’re not gonna change the world, Bruno says, and it’d be a sad day for the nation if they kept a guy like him from giving the people a show.
As for a tipping point, it’s hard to say, and harder still to imagine any meeting of the minds between the two poles.
A friend speaks of the time Steve Irwin (the late croc hunter, not the Louisville artist) had been caring for an ancient croc and found it dead while cameras rolled. Irwin lay on the carcass and sobbed uncontrollably.
Does Bert ever feel that way when one of his animals dies? Bruno? Does it matter? And really, who are we to say?
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