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L.A. Fair's 'Maternity Ward' Delivers Awe and Education

September 19, 2004|Stephanie Chavez | Times Staff Writer

Sky Shiver -- cowboy hat shading his face, handkerchief tied around his neck -- got the call on his cellphone shortly before 11 a.m. Saturday: For Angus No. 041, it's time.

Shiver runs over to the cow pen and visually confirms No. 041's condition. The 1,300-pound black cow is calm, but her water just broke. She's shifting from hoof to hoof -- another sign.

Shiver intuitively slips on his microphone headset and begins performing his most important duty as barn coordinator for the Los Angeles County Fair in Pomona.

"Folks, come gather 'round the cow pen," he says in his Oklahoma draaaa-wwwl. "This morning y'all have the opportunity to witness the birth of a baby calf."

In seconds, hundreds of spectators are pressing against the chain-link fence vying for front-of-the-pen positions for what is among the most popular shows at the fair: the birth of a farm animal.

They seem drawn by the chance to see an uncensored version of calf birth au naturel, in all its gooey glory. But whether it's a cow, goat or pig, Shiver's announcement of an impending birth always attracts a throng of transfixed spectators to the barn. Many become so engrossed that they snap pictures and stay until the little animal stands.

"It's awesome," says Lisa Honda, 12, hardly believing her eyes. "I mean, I've only seen something like this on Animal Planet. But this is, like, real life."

She can't take her eyes off No. 041. "This," she says, "is better than the mall."

The cow is standing in the center of the pen with her water bag exposed, a sight that warns spectators that there will be no modest cut-away scenes at this public event. The crush of spectators -- parents with children, young, old, even teenagers -- begins to push against the fence.

How long is it going to take? Are you going to help her? Shouldn't someone be doing something?

Shiver tries to answer. The cow stares down the spectators with her big, black eyes. She's not mooing. She's not groaning. She simply continues to shift around on her hoofs.

"Now folks, keep your voices quiet," Shiver instructs. "Move slowly. Don't clap or hoot or cheer when the calf comes out. It's going to be OK. I'm going to talk you through this. But you have to remember: She's in pain, she's got 300 people watching her and has an extremely bad attitude at this moment."

In the course of two weeks, ending next Sunday, 1.3 million people from throughout the region will trek to the Pomona Fairplex for horse races, Monster Truck Madness, the Ferris wheel, jam and cake competitions, deep-fried Twinkies and Willie Nelson.

But the heart of the county fair, Shiver says, are the farm animals, creatures he describes as "like an alien world to all the city people." Shiver, 54, was raised in Oklahoma, the son of a country preacher.

He spends part of his time traveling around the country as a professional story-teller performing at cowboy artisan gatherings. Back home, he tends to 200 head of goats at his ranch in Prague, Okla., and has coordinated the barn exhibits at the Los Angeles County Fair for four years.

From the crowds he sees pen-side, Shiver estimates that about 20,000 fairgoers will leave with the memory of watching one of 40 goats, 20 ewes, nine cows and two sows give birth in the fair's "maternity ward" exhibit.

Even though several complaints were registered last year after one woman fainted and two spectators threw up during a calf's birth, Shiver said fair officials still decided to expand the maternity ward because of its educational value.

Shiver knows enough about farm birthing to talk for hours. Sometimes he has to; it takes that long. But Saturday morning Angus No. 041 proved to be the super mother that she was bred to be at Cal Poly Pomona.

Within 15 minutes, she had lain down and two tiny hoofs were showing. A collective, respectful gasp rose from the crowd and many began to whisper among themselves.

"Oh my God, I feel bad for her; she's got all these people watching her," said Amanda Brewer, 23. "Shouldn't someone be petting her?"

Petting a cow in labor, Shiver says, takes place only in the movies. If he gets near No. 041 now, he explains, "this animal will hurt me." And as for her labor position, it's up to her.

It turns out the only thing natural about this birth is the birth itself. The calf was implanted as an embryo in No. 041, who is owned by Cal Poly Pomona as part of its educational programs.

Technically, she's known as a recept cow, for demonstrating a strong ability to give birth to a healthy calf, then nurse and nurture it.

The calf's biological mother is called a donor cow, selected from an elite herd for her strong genetic traits that will lead to good milk production. The father -- well, he was actually a frozen vial of semen purchased by Cal Poly from a catalog for his recorded genetic traits.

Angus No. 041 doesn't even have a real name, like Daisy.

"She's not a pet," Shiver says. "She's production livestock."

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