No frogs: County Fair drops live critter contests

Since the days of Mark Twain's "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," frog-jumping contests have been a time-honored part of county fairs.

But they hold no honor for Daily Progress nature columnist Marlene Condon, who, in an August 8 column, condemned the frog jumping and insect races held at the Albemarle County Fair. She urged her readers to call Fair officials. As a result, Fair officials have issued their decree: no cricket races or frog jumping this yearat least of the live variety. Critter competitions will be held, but using paper bugs and rubber frogs.

Neither side is happy about the outcome.

"It was a hollow victory," says Condon, "because they were pretty nasty."

"I think we've been smeared," says Albemarle County Fair president Barbara E. Shifflett, who alleges that Fair volunteers received "abusive" phone calls.

It all started last year when Condon wrote a letter to Fair officials complaining about the "inappropriateness of encouraging children to use wildlife as toys." When she saw the games scheduled again for this year's Fair, she blasted the planned events in her weekly column.

Why does Condon care so much about insects and amphibians?

Part of the reason, she says, is that the drought has affected the number of insects at the bottom of the food chain. That, in turn, has lessened the number available for birds to eat.

As for frogs and toads, Condon claims they're disappearing. "I've only seen one green frog this summer," she says. She's disturbed by the idea of kids going out to catch them and then letting them go at the Fair.

"To our knowledge, no wildlife has ever been harmed at the Fair," counters Shifflett. "We've had the SPCA make presentations to the kids before the events, and they also monitor the games."

SPCA executive director Carolyn Foreman says if there had been a problem, the SPCA would have noted it. "There's no reason," Foreman says, "to believe any animals were mishandled or mistreated."

The frog and bug events were changed not only because of drought conditions and public concerns, says Shifflett, but because of cautions from the Wildlife Center, a Waynesboro-based nonprofit best known for healing injured animals.

Lisa Briskey, vice president of the Wildlife Center, says there's no law prohibiting amphibian and insect races, but the Wildlife Center opposes such activities.

"It's not always safe to have little kids poke and prod them," she says. "Frogs are not designed to jump on land, and it puts stress on their legs."

She adds, "We're concerned about the message that it's okay to take animals out of their natural environment to use for our own enjoyment."

Fair organizers aren't happy about how the change from live to artificial critter contests came about and call Condon's article "misconstrued."

"The public concern came at a bad time when materials already had been printed," says Shifflett. "We don't want a war with Ms. Condon."

Condon, however, didn't mind employing battle tactics. In her column, she listed the names and phone numbers of volunteers, who apparently were inundated with phone calls.

"It was a huge strain on volunteers at a busy time of year," says Shifflett.

Condon points out that the names and numbers were also listed in a County Fair insert in the Daily Progress. And she says she received an angry call from one of the volunteers, who also called the paper to complain.

"She asked if I'd ever seen the races," recounts Condon. "And I said I don't have to. My philosophy is you don't use animals as toys."

As with any small-town feud, versions differ on details, such as the way the cancellation would be announced.

Condon says Hank Creasy, a lawyer for the Fair, called her to say the Fair wouldn't be issuing a press release, and it would be up to her to make an announcement in her column.

"I'm not a Fair official," says Condon. "I wondered if it was a crank call. A lawyer would know I can't make an announcement for the Fair." Creasy did not return The Hook's call.

However, Shifflett denies that Fair officials pressured Condon to make an announcement. "We'd prefer she not write about us," says Shifflett. "I went on WINA, and the Daily Progress announced it. That was her suggestion."

And indeed, buried on page B2 of the August 18 Progress is a blurb about the change in the critter competitions– curiously devoid of any mention of the role played by the Progress' columnist.

The critter controversy is just the latest vexation for the County Fair. For two years, rain dampened attendance and created a financial deficit from which the Fair still hasn't recovered, according to Shifflett. This year, because of the avian flu threat, the state veterinarian has banned all birds– i.e. poultry– from fairs.

And now, people who come from as far away as New York to show off their prize-winning frogs are going to be disappointed to find that Albemarle isn't Calaveras County.

As for Condon, she says that after earning such enmity, she won't be attending the Fair.

"I did hear from a lot of people who said I'd spurred them to action," she says. "But the yucky part outweighs the good."

Albemarle County Fair officials can take comfort in the fact that they never scheduled one animal event that's generated complaints to the Wildlife Center and that's illegal in most states: skunk racing.

And if the Fair decided to stage, say, a flea circus, the Wildlife Center's Briskey says, "I think even the Wildlife Center would pay to see a flea on a trapeze."



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