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At Pennsylvania Farm Show, animals with names, jobs, and sometimes a lucky pass

The 102nd agricultural exposition runs through Saturday in Harrisburg with 12,000 competitive exhibits.

Dakota Hammaker of Mechanicsburg, Pa., rests on dairy cow Waffle at the 102nd Pennsylvania Farm Show in Harrisburg on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018. TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Dakota Hammaker of Mechanicsburg, Pa., rests on dairy cow Waffle at the 102nd Pennsylvania Farm Show in Harrisburg on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018. TIM TAI / Staff PhotographerRead moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

The word pet isn't tossed around too much at the Pennsylvania Farm Show, which kicked off for the 102nd time Saturday in Harrisburg.

Thousands of animals will pass through the doors here all week — horses, goats, chickens, alpacas — and when the exposition closes Saturday, many of them won't be going back to the barns they came from. That's part of life on many of Pennsylvania's 58,000 farms, but that doesn't mean their owners and caretakers don't form bonds with their livestock before they're auctioned off in arenas. Most animals have names, and others have jobs, like giving up their coats for sweaters, and while some might be bacon by next week, others will be combed and coddled like prizewinners, living out their days pampered on a bed of hay.

The Inquirer and Daily News talked to five people at the show about their animals.

Mike Kraft, decked out in a cowboy hat and leather gloves, didn't know the donkey that nudged his knee too well, so he said only good things about him.

"Donkeys remember," Kraft, 66, said.

Jethro the donkey is 14, Kraft said, and his job this week is to stand quietly for an hour while little kids climb up stairs to rub their hands across his rough coat, which they did by the dozens every minute. Jethro belongs to a 7-year-old girl who loves him, Kraft said, and he was part of the Pennsylvania Equine Council's display. Horses in nearby pens would relieve Jethro, but Kraft said the sturdy donkey with the sad face would have been fine.

"Pound for pound, they're stronger than a horse," Kraft said.

Donkeys suffer no fools. They do what they want, on their time, and are sometimes used by farmers as the old-school nuns of the barn.

"Sometimes, they'll hitch a calf to a donkey. A donkey will teach it manners. The donkey will teach it to follow," Kraft said. "If the calf sits down and the donkey wants to go, it drags it."

Kraft and Jethro heard a familiar joke about donkeys Monday, one they're likely to hear all week.

"Watch your ass," one man said as he passed by.

No one knows if donkeys cringe.

Nellie the goat was gone by noon Tuesday, auctioned for market, and Kenzie Mowry vaulted a metal pen to rouse Ned, her 242-pound pig, from his slumber.

Ned didn't budge, but who could blame him? He's destined for slaughter, too.

"I usually do get attached to them because I'm out there in the barn with them, every day," Mowry, 14, said.

Mowry and her dad, Larry Mowry, raise a few animals each year at their home in Mill Run, Fayette County. They raise them — Ned was about 80 pounds when they got him in September — take them to shows, and sell them off.

Ned is a barrow, which means he's been castrated. That makes him less aggressive and gives his meat a better taste than that of a boar.

Pigs go from 80 pounds to 242 pounds in four months because, well, they're pigs. Ned eats "lots of feed," Kenzie said, and that's about it for his day-to-day.

"He's lazy."

A shiny belt buckle the size of a tea saucer held up Randy Ridgely's jeans, a badge of honor for a man who has ridden bulls "just about everywhere."

Square-jawed with a Southern accent he swears is from Maryland, Ridgely has a heart that melts like a setting prairie sun every time he thinks about Rodney, a Brahma bull he bottle-raised at his farm in Wyoming, Del.

Ridgely runs an agro-tourism farm at his home for school trips and youth groups, and for 15 years, he took Rodney to the farm show, charging spectators a fee to sit on his back. Time wore on Rodney, though, and made him arthritic and unable to stand.

"The guy who works for me, I made him be there when the vet came to euthanize him," Ridgely said."'I couldn't be there."

Ridgely paid a taxidermist from North Carolina $12,000 to turn Rodney into a rodeo bull, complete with a steel frame beneath his hide, and he now brings in $15 if children want to pose on his back for a photo.

In death, Rodney became the bucking bull, full of hellfire, that he never was at home in the barn.

"No, that would have scared him to death," Ridgely said. "He actually lived with the goats and the ponies. The other bulls would have beat him up."

When asked if he'd ever rode bulls at Cowtown, a famous rodeo in South Jersey, of all places, Ridgely looked as if he'd been waiting all day for someone to ask him that.

"Hell, I won Cowtown," he said, flashing his prized belt buckle.

Sprawled out in the hay between two Holsteins, Dakota Hammaker gazed into his phone Monday afternoon while other owners shaved, dried, and seemed to wrestle with their cows.

Hammaker's back was propped up against Waffle, a red Holstein whose milking days are over.

"She's dry," Hammaker said, still glancing at his phone. "Retired."

Hammaker's boots were propped up on Baby Girl, a black-and-white Holstein who's still a working girl, producing 75 pounds of milk per day. Neither minds the contact, he said.

"If you have a calf and you keep it in the barn all day and just feed it and don't visit it or play with it, they're not going to be as easy to deal with," he said. "When you raise them, they don't mind the human contact. They're very docile. And warm."

Hammaker, 21, said he raised Waffle, who's 13, and now she lives out her life as a couch-of-sorts, all 1,200 pounds of her, at his "not very big" farm in Mechanicsburg, Cumberland County.

"She eats hay. She drinks water. She goes out to pasture."

Gray Squirrel is a prince, a 13-pound prizewinning rabbit from Snyder County, and he was rewarded for his perfect fluffiness and most floppy ears Monday afternoon with the thing he craves most.

"They love being petted, and he'll sit there all day and just let people pet him," said owner Emily Kuhn, 17.

That's just what people did, too, crowding around Gray Squirrel, taking pictures and running their fingers through his fur. When he went still, it was hard to tell which end was Gray Squirel's head, but it didn't matter. Even grown men blurted out "awws" when they saw him.

Gray Squirrel won best of his breed in the French Lop competition, and that's been Kuhn's plan since she raised him from birth. She combs his fur often, wiping him down with wet hands to remove loose hairs.

'He's so calm. I trust him around anyone," said Kuhn, of Mount Pleasant Mills, Snyder County.

This is the farm show, however, and Kuhn does sell meat rabbits.

"Not him, though," she said.

Gray Squirrel will live on, seeking attention and gentle strokes, eating his pellets, and sharing his prizewinning genes with female rabbits, proof that not every animal at the farm show winds up on a plate.