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Life Goldfish or rabbit: don’t pay to play for live animals at carnivals

Oct. 31, 2018
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CW: The following piece contains descriptions of animal abuse.

In 27 states across the United States, it is illegal or unlawful to gives away animals as prizes. This includes giving them away by the side of the road, dying the animals artificial colors before giving them away, and offering them as prizes at fairs or carnivals. On this list of states that prohibit these kinds of behaviors is Alabama, where I currently reside, and where just last weekend I witnessed bunnies being offered as prizes for a ring-toss game at the county fair.

I almost couldn't believe it at first. I started inching closer to the pliable metal fence surrounding the tiny, fluffy animals. I wove through the crowd of young children thrusting their hands through the breaks in the metal fence to reach out towards the cold, wet, shaking animals inside. 

As I stepped up to the fence, I quickly learned the premise of the game and understood how easy it would be for someone to win one of the bunnies. It was set up like ring toss: get a ring around each of the plastic ducks’ necks and you could win a bunny. Get a ring around the red duck’s neck and you could pick out your bunny. (Otherwise, the worker picked for you.)

I looked down at the rabbits scattered around the ground, trying to escape the rings being tossed into their pen. I watched as some of the younger kids begged their parents for the $5 necessary to play and stepped up to collect their rings from the employee. With their aim shaky and balance uncoordinated, some of the stray rings flew astray, hitting some of the rabbits huddled together on the far side of the pool. The bunnies almost seemed more comfortable getting wet from the pool water than being out in the open, where people reached for them and rings flew towards their heads. 

Laws protecting animals in the United States are lenient, to say the least. States like California and Pennsylvania have stringent policies against giving away animals as prizes, with Pennsylvania having a section specifically mandating how animals are given away and who can give and receive animals like baby chickens or bunnies. 

A person may not give or offer to give away any live animal, except fish, as prizes in a game unless the animal is a domestic animal and is offered or given away in connection with an agricultural, educational, or vocational program sponsored or sanctioned by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture (PDA).

- The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture

However, many elements of the laws protecting animal rights beyond this blanket statement are elusive, even hazy. Many fairs and carnivals are able to dodge these laws by not remaining in one state for too long, or providing the animals with food and water to make it seem as if they are well cared for. Organizations can also claim to be “charitable” and state that the proceeds for these kinds of games and events are going to support some kind of positive cause. Many of these statements are outright false, but allow fairs to get away with animal cruelty for the sake of making a profit.

Many of the other issues regarding the use of animals, even goldfish, as prizes at fairs are not widely discussed. It’s rare that charges are pressed against the people who commit these crimes, and seemingly even more rare that the people attending these events step back and think before giving money to these kinds of games. I was shocked at how many people I saw in their early twenties and thirties playing the game and becoming visibly upset when they didn’t win one of the bunnies. In fact, I stood next to a group of fellow college students who begged the game operator to tell them exactly what they needed to do in order to win one of the rabbits. He was unresponsive, of course, but it didn’t stop them from opening their phones and Snapchatting the animals as they searched their wallets to find enough money to play. 

So, what can you do if you see something like this happening? Make sure that you take pictures. I happened to have my camera on me that night, and I made sure to capture photographs of the people working inside the bunny pen and of the animals inside. PETA has a phone number (757-622-7382) and an email for addressing all kinds of animal abuse cases. If the situation is urgent, call local law enforcement instead.

What’s most important is that you do not spend money playing these kinds of games. Supporting a system that allows animals to be put through countless hours of abuse and neglect isn’t okay, no matter how long it’s been done. Speak out by withholding your money, and if the situation calls for it contact someone that can help shut down these kinds of games entirely. I’m hoping I don’t see any bunnies at the fair this time next year.