Every August a small town called Killorglin in County Kerry in the south west of Ireland hosts a festival known as Puck Fair, which organisers tell us has taken place for over 400 years.
As part of this festival, a wild male goat is wrestled and snatched from it’s normally secluded and quiet, natural mountain home, where it can roam freely, to be paraded though narrow, crowded streets in noise and chaos before being imprisoned in a cage in which he can barely turn around, suspended 60 feet above the ground on metal scaffolding in the centre of a heaving central market.
The unfortunate goat is incarcerated there for the duration of the festival, regardless of the weather, while below, over 80,000 revelers party from 9am to past 3am, spurred on by pubs with special extended opening licenses and booming P.A. systems. While those attending the festival have the luxury of getting some sleep in the early morning hours, the goat must continue to endure the noise and bustle of cleanup crews who replace the revelers at that point on the streets, so it is hard to see how he gets any sleep during the entire 3 days at all. On the night before he is released, the goat must also endure a fireworks display, something that we all know distresses even pets and domesticated animals, never mind a wild one.
I don’t think it would be any exaggeration to describe the experience the goat must endure as akin to that which your cat or dog would experience were it to be suspended in a cage above Temple Bar for the entirety of Paddy’s weekend or above Bourbon Street in New Orleans for Mardi Gras.
How many of us would sanction such treatment of our own pet? Why is it acceptable to subject a wild animal to this?
The organisers insist this mistreatment of the goat is a 400 year tradition. Well, we did many things 400 years ago which happily most of us have evolved beyond doing now. We also didn’t have the Animal Health and Welfare Act 2013 for most of that time, which it appears may be being breached by the festival organisers in their treatment of the poor goat.
The organisers claim the goat IS the festival, yet all over the world, communities still manage to profit from their association with things that are socially unacceptable in this day and age without actually still practicing them, take Salem in the US, do they still burn witches for a tourist buck? Will the upcoming 1916 celebrations include real armed insurrection on the streets of Dublin to wring a couple of extra euro out of the pocket of international fans of the Michael Collins movie? The festival could well continue successfully without involving the abuse of a wild animal.
Seems to me that a decision by the organisers to throw off the blinkers of ‘tradition’, to take a more progressive approach to the festival, one that truly celebrates our noble wild mountain goats, could only bring huge positive benefits including the extra publicity and ensure that the festival remains with us for another 400 years. The alternative of course is the voices of opposition to the use of the live goat getting stronger and more determined and the festival’s reputation becoming gradually more tarnished, perceived as outdated or even barbaric, a throw back to less enlightened times, increasingly out of step with a world where animals are no longer viewed as mere objects of entertainment.
The organisers say the goat is treated “as a king” but kings don’t usually have to be wrestled, kidnapped and caged to make them attend their own ‘coronation’. They claim the goat is given dedicated animal welfare care but what kind of care could possibly nullify the trauma the animal must endure from the noise and chaos, not to mention the drastic change in his surroundings, the simple lack of mobility for 3 days and the few opportunities for peaceful sleep? With all due respect, I would suggest that if the organisers think this is an acceptable way to treat any creature, never mind a reclusive wild one, let them get up into the cage themselves for the duration of the festivities for one year and then tell us all how they enjoyed it.
It’s worth noting that the festival’s longtime goat catcher, Frank Joy, parted ways with the festival in 2014. Reading what Frank has to say about the goats, it is undeniable that he has developed a love and respect for them. He talks about their intelligence and how they can ‘become very depressed quckly’ and is also a very vocal advocate for our wild goats in general and particularly concerned at their decline in his local area. This kind of use at Puck Fair is certainly a strange way to celebrate and value such a clever and resourceful creature.
We’re told the vet is groomed, de-flead etc. The reality is, as anyone who knows goats will tell you, is that male goats are notoriously smelly and I can only imagine that the grooming is done at least as much for the sake of the handlers and the photo opportunities as it is done for the goat’s welfare. In the publicity shots, the goat always looks remarkably clean. If, as I suspect, the goat is being washed, he is being stripped of the natural oils that maintain the integrity of his coat and protect him from the wind – a particularly important consideration when you’re confined in a cage with no shelter at the sides.
We’re told that an independent vet regularly inspects the goat. How independent can this vet really feel as a local who would be perceived as risking €7m revenue for the town were they to say the goat should not be used.
The treatment of the goat isn’t the only negative animal welfare issue relating to Puck Fair, Concern has also been raised about the welfare and treatment of animals involved in the horse fair which takes place during the festival.
The organisers cite The Gathering and Tourism Ireland as supporters. Do we really want to continue having public funds spent associating Irish tourism with this kind of out-dated concept – come for the drink and a glimpse of gratuitous goat abuse and hey, you might stay for our wonderful environment, people, music, literature etc.
The organisers also seem to interpret the silence of Simon Coveney, Minister for Agriculture with responsibility for animal welfare and the protection of our wildlife, and the Department of Agriculture as support for this treatment of the goat. Is it? The Animal Health & Welfare Act 2013 seems pretty clear on it’s guarantee for the rights of animals to express their normal behaviour. How can a mountain goat express it’s normal behaviour locked in a cage in the centre of a town above 80,000 people?
Some have criticised those calling for an end to this unnecessary cruelty given all the other animal abuse out there. They say why not focus on all of that. Well, first off we do, this is not the first time I’ve written about animal welfare on this blog and it certainly isn’t the first time ARAN has spoken up on animal welfare issues. Goats are members of the same animal group as elephants and ungulates. It is evident from research that they are substantially more intelligent than other domesticated animals such as sheep and cattle and scientists believe that wild goats are even more intelligent than domesticated ones in order to meet the increased challenges from their situation.
But beyond that, it’s a question of who is sustaining this mistreatment, public bodies using public funds. It’s simply society-sanctioned animal abuse. It directly speaks to our poor public regard as a nation for our wild animals and it also serves to desensitise all of us to other forms of animal abuse. It teaches our kids that using a natural animal for entertainment is OK and spawns another generation of animal mistreatment. While over 11 county councils nationwide have outright bans on circuses which use animals as part of the entertainment, Kerry County Council stands proudly behind this 3 day wild goat circus.
On the bright side, there is currently an online petition with, as I write, over 23,000 signatures objecting to the use of the live goat at the Puck Fair. If enough sign it, perhaps the organisers will do the right thing, even if it’s just out of self interest. You can add your signature by visiting here.
Since I first published this post, the online petition against the festival stands at close to 24,000 signatures, many of which are from abroad, Puck is generating a great reputation for our country it seems.
On a more sinister note, threats have been issued to ARAN activists who have been told they would be beaten if they attended Puck Fair to protest the treatment of animals there.
Well your majesty, I’ve done what I can for you.