Beginning the circle of life

Miracle of Life tent gives glimpse of live animal births

CENTREVILLE — Tuesday was Education Day at the St. Joseph County Grange Fair, and one of the biggest educational draws the fair has during the week comes from a tent that offers a sight not a lot of ordinary people get to see on a regular basis: animals who are due and giving birth to baby animals.
One of the more popular attractions at the fair outside of the midway for the last 15 years, the Miracle of Life Birthing Tent is located next to the Henningsen Show Arena on the east side of the grounds. Last year, according to Birthing Tent Superintendent Selma Comstock, an estimated 40,000 people passed through the tent throughout the week.
“A lot of people meet here, and the fair considers it the go-to place, because of all the activity constantly happening,” Comstock said. “Some of the 40,000 people are coming back and forth, but it’s so important to a lot of them.”
The original inspiration behind starting the tent, Comstock said, was to help show people where their food comes from.
“In that process of teaching people where their food comes from, we try to show animals that people can watch being born,” Comstock said.
Birthing Tent Head Veterinarian Dr. Dick Benne said the tent tries to get local animals to show giving birth throughout the week, which include cows, pigs, goats, sheep, quails, ducks and chickens. Benne said the tent partners with different farms in the area to procure the animals, such as Sturgis Dairy for the cows that they show off.
“[Sturgis Dairy] had a number of cows that were freshening at different intervals, so they know when they’re going to have their calves. They allow us to have access to that animal that is due during this period of fair week,” Benne said.
Benne said the sheep and goats are theirs, and because they don’t normally give birth during this time of the year, he said the few goats they do show off are artificially inseminated so they would give birth during fair week. Comstock said that Bill Keough from Mendon provided most of the eggs and live chicks for the feathered friends in the tent.
The pigs, Benne said, come from large herds and are donated or bought by the birthing tent. One of the pigs they showed off Tuesday had given birth to 25 piglets the previous night, with only 17 surviving after the first night, and people could see the piglets feeding from the sow in the tent. Benne said having that big of a litter was “unusual” and “unheard of.”
Comstock said the most common question she and Benne get from people when they visit the tent is when the animals will be giving birth. Benne said that births “happen on Mother Nature’s cycle.” Comstock said the animals’ birthing cycles can get delayed a bit while they’re at the fair, because of the stress they’re put under being shown in the tent.
“When the animals get in here, they’re put into a stress situation where they wouldn’t have otherwise,” Comstock said. “Sometimes, their due date may be today, but it might not be until a day or two later because of the stress of the people and it being a situation they’re not used to.”
After the animals give birth, Benne said, what happens next depends on the animal and where they came from.
“In the case of the cow, because she has to be milked regularly, they take her home right away, and they bring another cow,” Benne said. “The sheep will stay here and nurse their babies until the fair is over. Same with the goats. The sows are for sale, because they can’t go back to the original home because of the possibility of bringing disease back. Pretty specifically, they go to where there’s no other pigs, or no big commercial swine operation that would endanger bringing some kind of a bug in.”
Benne said he hopes people take away from the tent a better understanding of how animals give birth and what goes on, as well as a better understanding of animal husbandry, which he says today’s generation has been losing.
“Two generations ago, almost everybody in this area was familiar with farms, either their folks or grandparents or something knew about this,” Benne said. “The present generation are losing that, because farms are getting bigger and there’s not a lot of farms, so people don’t have any connection at all to basic animal husbandry. So, hopefully, they’re learning what goes on when the animals give birth.”
The Miracle of Life Birthing Tent is available throughout fair week.
“We invite everyone to come and see us,” Comstock said. “It’s the place to be.”
Robert Tomlinson can be reached at 279-7488 ext. 23 or

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