Strolling of the Heifers staff defends annual parade

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BRATTLEBORO — Strolling of the Heifers senior staff members defended the parade that sees cows, farmers and other community members marching up Main Street.

"We're celebrating animals in the parades just as we celebrate people," Orly Munzing, founder of the Stroll, said Tuesday during the Select Board meeting, where her group was getting permits for events occurring in June include one for having the parade. This year's parade is scheduled for Saturday, June 8.

Rikki Risatti of Brattleboro asked whether the Strolling of the Heifers endorses the use of animals as public entertainment.

"It depends how you define entertainment," said Munzing.

Risatti boycotted the parade last year. Some animal rights protestors attended.

"I saw the photos afterwards and I thought it was very unethical," said Risatti, who previously suggested banning such an event. "People were pushing the animals forward and pulling them too, and the animals did not seem comfortable being surrounded in an urban development outside of the farm and that was unnatural for them."

Anne Latchis, general manager of the Stroll, said hundreds of photos show people cuddling with the cows after the parade.

"They're quite content and they have a good time," she said. "Occasionally, there may be a cow that needs to stop and do its business, who knows."

The animals, Latchis said, are handled in "a very respectful and safe way."

"This is not about putting animals on display for entertainment — I mean, we are not making tigers jump through hoops," Latchis said. "We are celebrating farmers and farms in town. It's not entertainment by my definition."

An animal might not resist being touched, Risatti said, but that does not mean consent has been given.

"Forcing them to be surrounded by a lot of people, strangers, is just unethical," said Risatti.

"We can agree to disagree respectfully," said Munzing. "I'm around many farm animals and they love to be touched, from my experience, and really enjoy people. These animals are very socialized and used to people ... They're really happy."

Munzing told the board veterinarians check all the animals and review their health records before they can participate in the parade. She said youth volunteers practice walking with them beforehand, and a staging area on Flat Street has troughs filled with water and food is made available.

If there is an issue, Munzing told the board, an animal is "lovingly" put in an ambulance to get medical attention.

"It's not a very big route from start to finish — I don't know how far Flat Street to the Common is — it's probably something like a half a mile," she said. "It's not just something that's thrown together. It's extremely thought out."

"It's always been an impressive endeavor but it seems to get better every year," said David Hiler, co-owner of the Whetstone Station Restaurant and Brewery, whose group received a catering permit Tuesday to set up its food truck in the parking lot of the law offices of Corum, Mabie, Cook, Prodan, Angell, Secrest and Darrow at 45 Linden St.

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At one point, Select Board members questioned whether to allow liquor to be served starting at 9 a.m. Board member Elizabeth McLoughlin suggested starting at 11 a.m. but Hiler said he wanted to test the taps earlier. He does not anticipate serving until later in the day.

"Most people are probably not going to buy beer at 10," Select Board Chairwoman Brandie Starr said. "I'm not sure we want to legislate that."

McLoughlin noted that it would be the first time alcohol will be served at the event.

"I hope it doesn't get too sloppy," board member Daniel Quipp said, "but far be it from me to say you can't have your beer."

The Whetstone Station takes its responsibilities seriously, Hiler said, adding that the beverages are not meant for intoxication but they do contain alcohol. Recalling past events, board member Tim Wessel had no concerns.

"They're very good at what they do in controlling crowds and serving responsibly," he said.

A festival happening the night before the parade from 5 to 9:30 p.m. will see vendors serving specialty food and drinks at the River Garden. The board approved special event permits to allow vendors to participate. The list includes Wild Hart Distillery of Shelburne, Vermont Distillers of Marlboro, Saxtons River Distillery of Brattleboro, J and J Farm of St. Albans, White Mountain Distillery of St. Johnsbury, Putney Mountain Winery of Putney, Caledonia Spirirts of Hardwick and the Whetstone Station.

At the same time, exhibitors and a band will be set up at the Common. Agencies, businesses and nonprofits have been invited. A bus will bring people back and forth from downtown until 9 p.m.

Previously, the festival Friday was held downtown and Saturday's expo was at the Brattleboro Retreat. But 10 feet of space between food trucks, newly required for fire safety, made logistics for keeping the festival on Main Street difficult.

Downtown retailers will not be blocked now, Latchis said, and vendors can set up Friday and stay until Saturday.

"We're testing it this year," Munzing said. "This is a community event and we're always looking for more volunteers to be part of our team. Anyone is welcome."

Munzing called the parade a "big celebration of the farmers" and "the most heartwarming thing," something people come from far away to see.

"There are farmers literally with tears in their eyes," she said.

This year's theme is "farmers are heroes."

"We welcome anyone to come as a superhero," said Munzing, who plans to wear a black and white cape herself. "The parade people are already thinking and have planned, I'm hearing, wonderful surprises with that theme."

That Sunday will continue the Tour de Heifer tradition, where bicyclists can choose between 15-, 30- and 60-mile routes while others go on farm tours. The Marina will again offer a "farmer's breakfast."

Munzing said the parade and festival serve as fundraisers to help "run all of the wonderful programs we do year round" such as the Farm-to-Table Culinary Apprenticeship Program to train unemployed and underemployed people, and Windham Grows, which seeks to expand businesses and create new jobs. Her group also hosts activities at the River Garden downtown Monday through Friday.

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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