Sunday, August 15, 1999

Activists protest festival game of rodent roulette

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Catholic church festivals, with their traditional fare of bozo buckets and free-throw contests, normally don't spark much controversy. But for the last few weeks, animal-rights activists have picketed the neighborhood parties, trying to stop churches from featuring one man's unusual game of rodent roulette.

        He goes by the name Mac, and he declines to give his last name, but on the weekends this retired butcher from Richmond becomes Ratman. Dozens of giddy kids and their parents crowded against his booth Friday at St. Bernadette Church in Amelia, trying to place bets before the wheel started spinning. From the overturned bowl at the center of the wheel, a fleshy tail poked out.

        With a shout, he gave the wheel a whirl, lifted the bowl, and a white rat scurried straight into the orange hole. The child with his quarter on orange let out a high-pitched scream.

        But just a few feet from the betting stood a small force of activists wearing signs on their shirts that read, “Would Jesus enslave rats just for kicks?” They told anyone who would listen that the man subjected the rats to a cruel game.

        “Usually the young girls listen to us and refuse to play the game,” said Elizabeth Farians, founder of the group Animals, People and the Earth (APE). “But it's hard to make most people see how much these animals are being exploited. And it's hard to defend rats in particular. They're universally hated.”

        For the last 20 years, Mac has been a fixture at church festivals and VFW parties. He said he has never received any complaints about his game until this year, when protesters greet him at each event he works.

        Last week eight protesters handed out leaflets at the road leading to St. John's Catholic Church in West Chester. But at St. Bernadette, the activists protested next to the booth for the first time.

        Mrs. Farians questions whether he cares for his rats properly and says that the game itself subjects the animals to abuse.

        “Everyone is yelling and screaming at the poor little rat to get in the hole. He's brainwashed to run at the sound of a bell. And they spin him and spin him over and over,” she said. “He's all dizzy and dazed and scared.”

        That's nonsense, responds Mac. “The rats can't get dizzy because they're covered up, and I take excellent care of them. As for the other complaints, they're just crazy.”

        APE protests any game or entertainment that features live animals, including other festival favorites like turtle races and lobbing balls into bowls with swimming goldfish. Two weeks ago, they picketed the UniverSoul Circus for teaching animals to do tricks.

        “What's most disturbing about the rat game, though, is that animals are being exploited on church grounds, the place where compassion toward animals should be taught,” Mrs. Farians said.

        Festival officials at St. Bernadette declined to comment about the game.

        But Mac said he will continue taking his rats on the road, and no pickets are going to stop him.

        “They don't scare me,” Mac said. “And if I see them going into my garage to set my rats free, I told police I'm going to run for my gun.”


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