IAFE Addresses Dealing with Activists

IAFE launches Activist Response Kits (ARK) to help member fairs deal with protestors operationally

  • by Mary Wade Burnside
  • Published: June 14, 2017

When the Ohio State Fair, Columbus, booked the animal attraction Sea Lion Splash into the 2016 event, GM Virgil Strickler received “thousands and thousands” of emails in protest, and the fair’s Facebook page was deluged with posts from all over the world.

The year before, in 2015, the Black Lives Matter movement decided to use the Minnesota State Fair, Saint Paul, as a platform for rallies, resulting in a situation of closing and opening back up various gates to keep demonstrators out, a task that kept security busy and not focused on other tasks.

The International Association of Fairs & Expositions (IAFE) has been providing alerts to member fairs when they might be targets as well as advice on how to handle protests. Now,  IAFE is releasing a 10-point Activist Response Kit (ARK) to help members prepare for activists, especially animal activists.

“The ARK results from a series of interactions and conversations with members,” said Marla Calico, president and CEO of the IAFE since the beginning of 2016. “Before I became president and CEO, it was evident to me as a staff member of IAFE that animal rights activists— especially but not exclusively—had fairs in their sights. Members were calling asking for advice, most often in a pressure or response situation. We spent a lot of time in 2016 just listening and talking to members and helping in times of crisis.”

After communicating with several fair managers and staff members and realizing she was giving out similar advice in many of the situations, Calico decided it would be helpful to create a tool kit for members in order to prepare them for protests and to help them be more proactive. The ARK is a document with 10 sections, covering the following topics: Animals: Livestock Shows During the Fair; Animals: Petting Zoos, Educational Exhibits and Attractions; Non-Fair Rental Events; Booth Rules: Controlling Activists on Grounds; Free Speech; IT: Preparing for Robo-Emails and CyberAttacks; Screening Personnel: Hired & Volunteers; Social Media; Crisis Communications; and Legislative Advocacy.

The ARK should be available this week online, and Calico plans to email member fairs to let them know they can log in and either download a PDF or read the document online. The next step, Calico said, will be to produce a printed edition that will be about 64 pages that she hopes will be completed in the fall, in time to hand out at the annual IAFE convention, which will take place Nov. 26-29 at the Paris Las Vegas Hotel & Casino.

Most of the 10 sections are straightforward when it comes to dealing with activists. As far as Calico knows, a fair has not experienced an activist trying to get hired as a way of working from the inside. However, “we just want them to think about it,” she said. “Animal rights activists are well known for doing that, so why would they not try at a fair? It’s not beyond the scope of possibility. But we’ve heard of no instances.”

Also, in several cases, animal attractions have been targeted, as opposed to the livestock events that are the backbone of most fairs. However, Calico believes fairs should brace for that ocurrence as well. She noted an incident that took place last year when New York Mets outfielder Yoenis Cespedes purchased a 4-H pig at the Saint Lucie County Fair in Fort Pierce, Fla., as a gesture to help the kids. According to auction rules, the pig had to be slaughtered.

“People were calling for him to be thrown off the baseball team,” she said. Calico also recalled a petition that received several thousand signatures calling for an end to the “senseless abuse” perpetuated by 4-H programs at fairs. “Those are two specific examples,” she said. 

The stakes to Calico are obvious. “When a critical resource like staff time is spent dealing with an assault of robo-emails, that means something else can’t be addressed,” she said. “An assault of robo-emails may totally disrupt email service, even crash a website of a fair. In that instance, guests can’t get information, cannot make decisions, may get frustrated and develop a negative attitude about the fair.”

Alicia Shoults, the marketing and public relations director at the Ohio State Fair, Columbus, can attest to how damaging and time-consuming the issue can be. Last year, just before the fair was set to open, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) asked that the Sea Lion Splash be canceled.

Soon, GM Strickler began receiving thousands of emails, requesting the closure of the attraction. In response, Shoults said, the fair contacted the Ohio Department of Agriculture to make sure the sea lions had been inspected by a marine life veterinarian, and that the animals had adequate shade and other necessities. PETA was informed, Shoults said, however, “they were not satisfied and they continued to utilize their emailing and cyber-bullying tactics.”

Ohio State Fair officials consider animal attractions to be both a good educational and entertainment tool for fairgoers, Shoults said. “It’s something we evaluate every year, whether to continue to book animal attractions as a whole, and which ones we’re going to book.” The attractions are examined closely, not only for the value to customers, but also to make sure the acts are “in the clear” and “the right fit” for the fair, she added.

Elephant attractions at fairs also have been targeted by animal activists. The Eastern States Exposition (The Big E), West Springfield, Mass., and the Kern County Fair, Bakersfield, Calif., are two fairs that have dealt with protesters because of elephant acts. Last year, activists showed up to demonstrate at The Big E; most of them stayed outside the fairgrounds, said Donna Woolam, the fair’s director of agriculture. “They have to remain on the street, but that’s not to stop an animal activist from coming in and videoing. We try to keep it on the street.”

And in 2015, elephants from Have Trunk Will Travel were set to appear at the Kern County Fair. Activists there took a different tactic by approaching sponsors and the booked entertainers, including rock act REO Speedwagon, said CEO Michael Olcott. “That got a lot of backlash to me,” Olcott said. “Sponsors said, ‘How did they get my number? I’m not supporting cruelty to animals.’” Because of the pressure, Have Trunk Will Travel pulled out of the fair, he added

Woolam can remember animal activists back in the 1980s, she said, but social media has allowed them to organize in a way never seen before. She appreciates the IAFE’s help in the form of the ARK tool kit. “I think it’s wonderful that we’re taking a proactive response and that we’re getting to be proactive in this,” Woolam said. “I think it’s wonderful that they are reaching out to the IAFE membership that may not have the access that those of us at larger fairs may have to resources like this.”

Although most of the activism at fairs has surrounded the issue of animals, some groups select fairs for protests because they provide a platform. That is what happened in 2015 when Black Lives Matter chose the Minnesota State Fair as a rallying site. “They want to be seen so they go where all the people are, and go where you’re going to get some news coverage,” said GM Jerry Hammer.

The incident happened on one of the fair’s highest attendance days and so did not seem to negatively impact attendance, and once the fairgrounds coordinated with the Saint Paul Police Department, Hammer said, they were able to dissipate the crowd. Some of the protesters then came back as guests, he noted.

Of course, the year-round events at fairs also can be targets, and the IAFE notes that managers have to be aware that booking in a gun show—or a marijuana show—might result in attention from activists. “People are finding a lot of ways to let their voices be heard, through social media in particular,” Calico said. “It has become so simple for a single individual to launch a massive robo-cyber attack that it’s not even funny.” 

As for this year’s Kern County Fair, which will be held Sept. 20 to Oct. 1, there will be a show featuring stingrays that can be petted by customers. Does Olcott expect to experience protesters? “I’m sure we probably will, but I think it will be minor.”

  • by Mary Wade Burnside
  • Published: June 14, 2017