Wednesday, July 17, 2024

What the Puck? An attempt to unpack the Puck Fair and public response

Held in the idyllic town of Killorglin in County Kerry, Puck Fair is Ireland’s oldest festival with roots that trace back to the Gaelic calendar. Every year from August 10th – 12th, Killorglin transforms from a sleepy village to a bustling festival filled with parades, events, and stalls selling food and crafts. At the centre of the Fair is a ritual in which a wild goat is caught, crowned “King Puck” and married to a local girl. The Fair is promoted by tourism agencies and companies across Ireland as “three days of non-stop partying” and a unique glimpse into Irish culture.

This year the Fair ignited a debate across Ireland as a wild goat was captured, forced into a small metal cage, foisted high into the air, and left there for hours on end in record breaking heat. Occasionally his cage was lowered and his head was forced by two to three men into water buckets for photo opportunities, a vet checked to see if he was still alive, and then after being hoisted back up into the air, deafening music blared from the speakers just a few metres from his cage.

A timely issue

The Fair’s abuse of Puck highlights a number of different issues which have been swirling around the Irish news cycle over the last few months. One of them is climate change as this summer broke all of the highest temperature records and there will never be another summer this cool – every subsequent summer will only get hotter. The cruelty of suspending a wild animal all day and night during the hottest month of the year will only worsen as the temperatures rise.

Another issue is live export. During the time that Puck was left suspended in the air for hours at a time with limited access to food and water, thousands of cows, sheep and pigs were languishing in similar conditions across Ireland as they began a journey across Europe and the Middle East. A number of different NGOs and charities have worked to highlight the suffering of animals in live transport and to push for welfare reforms, yet live transport continues unabated and is even increasing in Ireland.

The final issue is the collaboration of veterinary professionals in a public spectacle of animal abuse. There is a growing movement in the veterinary community to protect animal welfare and fight for animal rights, but many veterinarians, especially those practising large animal medicine, play an active role in the animal agriculture industry. In fact, an academic review from Faunalytics found that veterinarians who work primarily with large animals (this would include goats) hold different attitudes towards animals’ cognitive abilities and ability to feel pain than their counterparts who work with small animals.

The issue of veterinarians collaborating in animal cruelty recently hit headlines in the United States when it was found that American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) depopulation guidelines support Ventilation Shutdown (VSD). VSD involves the suffocation of thousands of animals when farm ventilation is turned off, airways are closed, and the building’s steamers and heaters are turned on. The suffocation process can take hours (up to 16 hours for pigs and 3.75 hours for chickens) and is an immensely cruel practice which was initially designed as a “depopulation” method to manage zoonotic disease outbreaks yet is increasingly being used as a cost-effective form of mass slaughter.

Perhaps an international conversation needs to be had over how veterinarians are taught about animal sentience, welfare, and suffering.

The appeal to tradition

In defending the practice of suspending a wild goat in the air, the Fair organisers and supporters repeatedly appealed to tradition. Relying on such a flimsy logical fallacy suggests that the Fair’s supporters may be aware that Puck’s treatment was inherently cruel and logically indefensible.

Defenders of the Fair’s abuse of Puck also argued that, as a wild goat, Puck is accustomed to heights and hot weather and therefore could not have suffered during the Fair. It must be assumed that these arguments are not made in good faith. It is clearly a very different experience for a wild animal to wander through hills and mountains and seek out shade with his companions than it is for him to be suspended in a metal cage, overwhelmed by blaring music and crowds, and exposed in the heat.

In truth, there is no logical, honest argument that can be made in defence of the abuse of Puck. Many of us would perhaps respect the organisers more if they acknowledged that animal welfare is a secondary concern and that the millions of euros which the Fair generates annually are the primary concern.

The Yulin effect

There are some animal rights and welfare issues that interest only a small subset of dedicated campaigners and there are issues which upset broad swathes of the population. The issues which tend to upset the public typically involve charismatic species and egregious abuse in the name of entertainment – sometimes the issues also expose racism and xenophobia. The marked hypocrisy of public interest in some animal issues and not others is a constant source of aggravation for animal rights campaigners.

Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the intense public outcry generated by the Yulin dog meat festival in China every year. This festival attracts a level of international condemnation which is never faced by any other aspect of the animal agriculture industry; hence, ‘the Yulin effect’. Puck Fair is an example of the Yulin effect in action because it quickly became a topic of public debate and outcry while live transport and farrowing crates are accepted as necessary practices in the animal agriculture industry.

What can vegans and animal rights campaigners learn from the emotionally driven impulses of the public? If we can take conversations about Puck and acknowledge the truth and authenticity of the public response and then draw connections to other instances of animal suffering, then we may be able to effectively influence the way people think about animals without alienating them. There is so little empathy for animals in our society, a society which constantly commodifies, objectifies, exploits, and dismembers animals of all species, that we should leap at any opportunity to foster that empathy.

Most of us did not start our lives as vegetarians or vegans, this was a transformative process that we underwent. We had to unlearn everything we are actively taught and passively socialised to believe about ourselves and animals. Let’s help other future-vegans on their journey by discussing their relationship with these issues earnestly and with compassion.


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