A few minutes before 4:30 p.m., the contestants are lined up on fold-out tables topped with a soft fabric. They are all dressed in a variety of outfits and ready to be judged based on three criteria: cutest, most creative and best representation of the fair theme, Imagine the Fun. Most of the contestants sit patiently with their owners, but a few flounder on the table and one even tries to jump off and escape.
Kate Smith, the fair worker who is calling the contest, advises the small crowd situated on the bleachers and hanging over the fence, phones thrust outward, about the rules.
“We do not want to frighten the birds. They’re in costume, so please don’t touch them.”
The chickens are quiet and still as the crowd funnels in through a chest high gate and into the square dirt arena. Smith hands each judge a tiny green slip of paper with the three criteria on it and a space to write their choice for first, second, and third place.
The children showing off their birds are very pleased with their respective wardrobe decisions. They smile for the cameras and adjust their pet’s costumes. The cheer chicken needs the leg pom-pom straightened out. The wheelchair chicken, looking confused but content, huddles under a blanket while the doctor shifts him around. Super Chicken, swaddled in a cape emblazoned with an S, threatens to show off his powers. They are all vastly different from each other: softball chicken with a gloved owner, Toto chicken in a basket held by a pigtailed Dorothy, one in a bush, one dressed as a dragon, and to round out the field, the morbid sight of a chicken as a giant pot pie.
A mother on the sidelines hollers to the gawkers standing by, “We need your votes!”
After the judges drop their papers in a cardboard box, they are counted while the kids wait patiently.
As the votes are tallied, one woman recalls a chicken from a previous contest who had caught her attention. The owner was dressed as Colonel Sanders, and the “fried” chicken sat in a large KFC bucket.
About five minutes later, the winners are announced. Most creative goes to the dragon chicken, best representation of the fair theme goes to the bush chicken, and cutest is Toto and Dorothy.
Super Chicken didn’t place, but Malachi Burnett from Empire isn’t disappointed. He loves his chicken’s costume and had a great time dressing him up. He is proud of Big Jeff. He’s different from the others because he has special powers.
“He can fly and his talons are super sharp,” he says, cradling him in his arms.
The contestants and owners quickly disperse, and Smith invites the departing crowd to come back at 5:30 to be judges for the rabbit dress-up.
When the rabbits arrive, they are on average much calmer than the chickens, and they wrinkle their noses and seem to enjoy their respective costumes. As did the children before them, these kids are having a blast, and the winner’s ribbons are merely an accessory to the fun.
With these bunnies come some inventive and elaborate costumes. There’s Harry Potter, whose glasses can never seem to sit straight on his face, a cowboy with a saddle, an Ewok (showed by Princess Leia), a football, a Starbucks mug with a lid for a cap, a tutu clad rabbit, and keeping with the tradition of edible pets, rabbit stew.
Perhaps knowing the fate of others less fortunate, Marshmallow, owned by a bright-eyed girl named Lexi, tries to hop out of the pot as she stirs a wooden stick around him.
Again, the crowd files in, grabs their vote cards, tours the tables, and waits for the winners.
Princess Leia and her Ewok take first place for cutest, most creative goes to the barista and her Starbucks bunny, and taking the fair theme is the cowboy and cowgirl.
Lynsey McPhee, the rabbit barista from Oakdale, holds her first place ribbon while her family cheers and takes pictures.
She was excited that her bunny, Charlie, took home the top prize.
“My friend had the apron, and then I got the idea for the coffee mug,” she says. “I’ve had him about a year, and I loved dressing him up.”
Two guinea pigs even got in on the action, though they were a part of a separate category: Bunny Bob dressed up in fatigues, and Flora, a pirate.
All the kids were elated just to get a chance to show off their pets to an audience, as evidenced by the sea of permanent grins. Those that didn’t win simply picked up their costumed friends, strolled out of the arena, and went off with their families.
There are many events and rides at the fair tailored to children, but this one celebrated their wild imaginations. It allowed them to be themselves, infuse a bit of their own personality into their pets, and have a great time in the process.