The Tampa-based Warrens travel the Northeast as promoters for Robinson's Racing Pigs and Paddling Porkers, a carnival-type show featuring a miniature race track for pigs, complete with checkered flags and starting gates. The show has been a crowd-pleaser at the fair for nearly a decade. But this weekend, when the Warrens pulled into town with their eight-pig team, they ran into controversy.
Accusing the Warrens of animal cruelty, the national animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals filed a complaint with Spencer police. The group took particular issue with the Robinson's newest race innovation, a 24-foot long, 2-foot-deep swimming tank that the piglets have to swim across before being rewarded with food pellets or an Oreo cookie.
"I deal all day with animals exploited for entertainment," said Amy Rhodes, PETA's animals and entertainment specialist. "It still amazes me the ways people find to exploit animals for just a laugh or to line their pockets."
A law enforcement officer from the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals reviewed the charge on Thursday, but after witnessing a mock race, inspecting the horse trailer the pigs are transported in, and interviewing the Warrens, Sergeant Peter Oberton found no cause to press charges.
Still, thanks to the PETA complaint and the ensuing media coverage, this year's pig races have been a bigger draw than ever. At yesterday's 2 p.m. race, about 125 fair-goers filled a section of bleachers and encircled the track.
"Hey, saw you on the front page [of the Worcester Telegram and Gazette]," hollered a man passing by the Warrens' horse trailer, which has separate living quarters for the couple and the pigs.
"They end up complaining about it, and it increases my business," said Mike Warren.
PETA, however, finds fault with almost every aspect of the pig racing business, including the interstate transport of animals in trailers, the training methods, and the swimming tank.
"Oftentimes, these people use food deprivation or electric shock or beatings to train them," said Rhodes, adding that she had no knowledge that the Warrens used such methods. "But we don't get to see that, and law enforcement officials don't get to see that."
Oberton, who has worked 34 years for the MSPCA and has overseen animal events at the Spencer Fair for the past 26 Labor Days, agreed that he could only make his assessment based on conditions he found at the fair. The pigs, yorkers, pot-bellied, and mixed breeds, looked well-kept, he said.
"During the actual attraction, there is really no [physical] prodding or nothing to indicate the animals are being mistreated," he said. "From what I saw, they didn't appear to be stressed . . . They appeared to be [running and swimming] willingly."
Charlene O'Brien, vice president of the Spencer Agricultural Association, which has run the fair for more than a century, said organizers would not have offered pig racing if they had any concerns.
The Warrens say they treat their pigs like children. For five months, they share the horse trailer with the animals, who have separate living quarters. They never physically force the animals to race, even when they train them.
"We had a pig last year who didn't want to go in the water. She would just go to the edge of the tank and just look left and right. We called her Pokeyhontas," said Mike Warren. "But the crowds seem to love it. Because she wouldn't swim, it was so funny."
"There was no way I would treat any animal unlike I would my own kids," added Kathy Warren, who quit her job at Wal-Mart to race pigs. "I love animals. If I thought this was hurting them, I wouldn't be doing it."
The pigs race four times a day, with a typical race taking less than a minute. At season's end, they are sent to a farm in Florida run by the racing outfit's owners -- the Warrens are only promoters -- where Mike Warren said they are bred.
Yesterday, as Kathy Warren taped multicolored cloth placemats -- their racing silks -- to the pigs' backs, Mike Warren, microphone in hand, bellowed out the names of the heat's entries. A recording of a bugle blared on a loudspeaker, and the pigs were off, their tiny feet pitter-pattering on wooden shavings as they rounded a 150-foot enclosed circle.
The pack finally reached a small ramp leading to the tank, and after a momentary hesitation, jumped in, quickly swimming to the other side within seconds and finishing the race. And a little pig named Hog Hogan won, munching contentedly on the prize Oreo at the end of the race.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.