Nightmare at the Los Angeles County Fair

Celeste Robinson
From the May/June 1997 Rat & Mouse Gazette

It was with eager anticipation that Aries and I awaited the 1996 Los Angeles County Fair Rat and Mouse Show. His mom and dad had done well at the show the previous year, taking home ribbons that still hung in his room. Aries was in prime form to win ribbons to hang next to theirs. In his short life he had already won his share of ribbons and trophies: two times Best Tailless, Runner-Up Best in Show at the Pet Expo, Sweetest Rat, and Best Pet to name a few. Yep, September 28, 1996 was going to be his day.

The other rats who were also going to the Fair were looking forward to it as well. They knew they were going to get a lot of attention from Fair-goers and get treated with yogurt drops. It was Aries who was the most excited, however. He wanted to be in the show, but he also was looking forward to it being over. He had been separated from his cagemates for a week so he wouldn't get any sores or scabs, and he didn't like it. He was a "rat's" rat as well as a "people's" rat. He loved his cagemates and had rarely been in any scraps with them. He was a happy, active, exceptionally curious little guy and was always the first one to run to the cage door whenever he saw anybody enter the room. If you put your fingers through the cage he would always lick them, and if you took him out and held him close, he would always kiss you (one reason he won Sweetest Rat and Best Pet). Most of all, however, Aries loved to run. He would always check out every corner of the house when he was out, moving so fast he would sometimes seem to be in two places at once. Another of his endearing qualities was that he would always come when he was called; a great trait that ensured many romps around the house for him.

Aries and Scot When the morning of the Show arrived Aries was ready and eager to go, running around the cage in his excitement, readily going into his carrying case. After loading Aries and the rest of the rats and our paraphernalia, we were off to the Fair. Little did we know of the nightmare that was to follow.

Upon arrival at the Fair building (around 8 a.m.), we noticed there were only four or five seats available, and these were brought by the people sitting in them. Okay, we'd stand. We also noticed the area was not cordoned off, leaving the animals vulnerable if they were not being watched all the time.

When the show began, mice were judged first. It seemed to go slowly, however, and it soon became apparent that it was because there was only one judge, and she was training someone. It also became apparent that the day was going to be hot and humid; not good conditions for animals in a building with only a swamp cooler for air conditioning. We brought plenty of water and oranges though, so we figured the rats would be okay.

As the judging and day progressed, however, we realized it was going to be a very long day for the rats (and us). Security seemed to be non-existent in the area, and the lack of ropes around the animals made for much cage finger-poking and hitting by children whose parents should have known better. It thus made it almost impossible to leave your animals unless a friendly neighbor would watch them for you. (We later learned that, indeed, a mouse had been stolen from the Show.)

By early afternoon my husband and I decided we had to go and get something to eat and just walk around a bit. A very sweet woman and her children whose animals were next to ours offered to keep an eye on our rats while we left. The rats themselves had started to look a little peaked and were all lying down and sleeping.

When we returned (about 40 minutes later), we noticed the rats seems to be getting progressively more uncomfortable. The heat and humidity was indeed taking its toll - on the animals and humans alike. People were starting to drag and my glasses kept sliding down my nose. Next to the rats and mice were birds who were weary as well.

On closer inspection of our rats we noticed that even when picked up, they still were somewhat limp. We also noticed that Aries in particular was having a really difficult time. I picked him up but he did not move. He was panting hard and was obviously in distress. I sprayed him with water, put him back in his cage, and tried to fan all the cages.

After about an hour more of this, with people themselves becoming limp and ill, we started to think about leaving. It was already mid-day yet I had not shown any of my rats. Although check-out time for animals was not until 9:00 p.m. that night, it was obvious the conditions that existed were too extreme for the animals to endure.

Two other RMCA members decided they had to leave immediately to spare their rats more discomfort. I realized that if I were going to save Aries, I would have to do the same. At the Small Stock window I said I wanted a pass to leave the Fair. I was given a pass without question, as were the other two members. I assumed it was because they realized the danger that existed for these little animals under the extreme conditions there.

It was about that time (finally) that the Kitten Class was called. I had one little Champagne guy that I thought would do well so I decided to put him in and leave afterwards. He came in third; I was happy. (He later went on to win Best in Show when he got older.) As soon as he got his ribbon, we left.

On the way home, with the air conditioning on high, the rats all seemed to revive. All except Aries, that is. He continued to remain limp and lethargic, in spite of the cool air finally on him. At home Aries still was not his regular self and did not eat much no matter what he was offered. I watched him and held him constantly, giving him antibiotics and praying he would recover. Every morning I would run to his room, hoping I would see the old Aries: bright, energetic, and ready to kiss. Every morning I was disappointed though, for every morning he seemed more lethargic. The antibiotics were not helping and I was getting more frantic. Then one morning when I went in to see him, he was lying on the floor of the cage. I called to him, but he did not respond. Apprehensively I opened the cage door and reached in to wake him. It was then that I realized, to my horror, Aries had died How could this have happened, I kept asking myself. How could a vibrant, energetic little rat suddenly become so ill that within a few short days he was gone.

I learned later that a virus appeared at the Fair and that it had infected some of the animals there. Although I cannot say for sure what happened to Aries, he just never recovered from the incredible stress he endured at the show that Sunday. And if he had perchance been infected with the virus, it would have kept his resistance so low that it would have been nearly impossible for him to have recovered. Whatever the case, my husband and I were extremely devastated by his untimely death; and it was months before I was even able to say his name without losing my composure.

A few days after this terrible shock and loss, I received a letter from the American Family Rat & Mouse Association (AFRMA). It was the club in charge of the show and to which I had belonged for several years. The following is the letter in which I realized the health and well-being of helpless little rats and mice came only second to AFRMA's desire to maintain "good relations" with Fair personnel.

October 11, 1996

Dear Celeste,

On September 28, you attended the AFRMA rat and mouse show hosted by the L.A. County Fair. In making your entries you signed an official entry form which clearly stated, "I have read and have a full understanding of the rules and regulations governing this show and agree to be governed by them."

On page 94 of the L.A. County Fair Small Stock Premium book under rule 10 it clearly stated, "Exhibits Released: Saturday, September 28 - 10:00 p.m. for auto pickup or 9:00 p.m. for hand carry out." For whatever reason you felt it necessary to leave the fairgrounds before 9:00 p.m. Unfortunately, due to this breach of the fair regulations, great stress was placed upon AFRMA's good relations with the L.A. County Fair, the Livestock Department, and the Small Stock Department.

In order to alleviate the tensions that this unfortunate event has caused between AFRMA and the fair, the AFRMA Board has regretfully found it necessary to respectfully request your absence at all future AFRMA functions and events.

The AFRMA Board of Directors
Karen Robbins, President, Nichole Royer, Vice President,Geri Hauser, Secretary, Nancy Ferris, Mouse Representative, Larry Ferris, Rat Representative, Craig Robbins, Director, Louise Stack, Director
cc: Michael Laskowski, Agricultural Secretary, Small Stock Department, L.A. County Fair

My husband's and my response is as follows and is the last communication we have ever had with AFRMA.

October 16, 1996

To: AFRMA Board of Directors
Re: Your letter of 11 October 1996

It is true that we agreed to be governed by the rules on page 94. The alleged breech of the rules is an incorrect allegation. The fact of the matter is that a release was obtained from the Small Stock Office prior to leaving the fairgrounds. Therefore, permission was obtained. Any allegation to the contrary is hearsay and false.

The Los Angeles County Fairgrounds are not a legislative body. Their rules are consensual; that is, one who wishes to participate in an activity agrees to be bound by them, subject to specific expectations of performance. The basis is an agreement, a contract of sorts. Now, under the laws governing contracts, for there to be consideration, there must be performance. In the case of the Fair, this performance is space, order, cleanliness, and a safe environment in which to conduct the activity contracted for and paid for [consideration]. We paid for a clean, safe, orderly environment. As it happened, it was hot and muggy, the attendees were often disorderly, ignoring the signs on the cages not to "tap", etc., and our rats became stressed. Some were showing signs of heat exhaustion. For the health and safety of all concerned, ourselves included, we felt that the agreement had been breeched and decided to leave. (By the way, the rat about whom we were most concerned subsequently died - on his first birthday.) We obtained the proper release form. We mistakenly gave the wrong number for the rat count. The guard at the gate said he would not permit us to leave.

He was not a Police Officer. Beyond a citizen's arrest, which requires a breech of the peace or a threat to public health and safety (a condition from which we were trying to escape) he had no such authority. We left.

Let me make it perfectly clear that had he made any attempt at physical restraint I would have filed an assault complaint. Had he made any attempt to take out property I would have filed a theft complaint. As it happened, he knew the limits to his authority and exercised common sense. The only discrepancy in this entire incident was the number of rats on the form. If the Fair had had any evidence that rats had been taken by us which did not belong to us, they should have filed a police report. Without any such allegation there existed no cause for any action against us.

We are sorry for any repercussions against AFRMA by the Los Angeles County Fair. I suggest that if they had a problem, they should have taken it up with us. Under the circumstances, however, I find it very disturbing that AFRMA's major concern is not with the health and safety of the rats involved, but rather with its reputation with the Fair personnel. It is also interesting that in your letter you state, "...the AFRMA Board regretfully found it necessary to...request your absence at all future AFRMA functions and events." If, indeed, you were truly regretful about it, you would have used your time to ascertain what actually happened from our perspective, instead of arbitrarily defending the Fair for giving us a release and rescinding it after we had left the grounds.

You certainly have a right to ban us from all future AFRMA functions. However, I find it rather petty that no attempt was made at ascertaining the facts at issue. Once again, gossip and rumor prevail. I'm sure that we can find better use for our time.

Scot and Celeste Robinson
cc: (1) Michael Laskowski, Agricultural Secretary, Small Stock Department, L.A. County Fair (2) Rat & Mouse Gazette

Needless to say, I did not renew my membership with them and do not plan to subject my rats ever again to the stresses of the L.A. County Fair. I would not trade the life of one of my precious pets for any money, ribbon, or trophy in the world. Aries, I still miss you and love you.

We gave AFRMA and the L.A. County Fair the opportunity to respond for this article. AFRMA chose not to respond, while the Fair sent the following letter:

"First let me apologize for any inconveniences any exhibitors may have experienced at the Los Angeles County Fair. Thank you for bringing this situation to my attention. While I am certain there are differing views on what happened, and we regret that there was an exhibitor who was not satisfied with the show at the Los Angeles County Fair.

It is our intention to have the Humane Society on the grounds throughout the 1997 Fair, and we will are working in partnership to present all of our animal events in a manner which is caring and sensitive to our animals and our many animal lovers.

I have spoken with Bill Turnquist, our agricultural manager, who informs me that the Los Angeles County Fair has dropped its rat and mouse show for 1997.

We appreciate your interest in the Fair and we would be happy to answer any questions you may have about our event.

Sid Robinson, Communications Manager"

Editor's Note: Although we are happy the fair cared enough to respond, we are not happy with the action they chose to take. The reason for publishing this and bringing it to the attention of the international rat and mouse community was to try to make them better the conditions provided at functions like these, not to have them stopped. If you ever see inhumane conditions at any fair involving animal, contact the main office immediately. It is only when enough people complain about shoddy animal treatment that any action will be taken. We can only hope that by printing articles like this that it will move concerned rat and animal lovers to act.